From Stockholm to Glasgow: 50 Years of UN environment conventions

| October 4, 2021

The Climate Change Summit in Glasgow (COP26) will take place in November. The past 50 years of environmental agreements have seen stronger engagement from civil-society actors, more science-based climate change assessments, and a stronger voice of vulnerable island countries.

Stockholm, Montreal, Rio, Kyoto, Paris – these cities represent stepping stones for global environmental policies. The 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm was the first global meeting to focus on the environment. Its main achievement was the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to coordinate global environmental action.

The 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was one of the most successful environment treaties. Its aim was to phase out dangerous, ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, focused on balancing environmental protection, economic growth, and social equality.

Its major achievement was the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases. Other climate-related conventions include the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The UNFCCC established the yearly meetings of the United Nations Climate Change Conferences to assess climate change progress.

During the third Conference of the Parties (COP) in Kyoto in 1997, 150 countries adopted the Kyoto Protocol. It set emission reduction targets and paved the way for the 2015 Paris Agreement which was the first ever globally binding climate deal. The upcoming COP26 in Glasgow will be important because, for the first time, member countries will have to submit their “nationally determined contributions” to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Science, summits, and island voices

Over the past 50 years, new institutions, regional lobby groups, and global platforms have become influential. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created in 1988 by the UNEP and World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) as the UNFCC’s “scientific organ.”

Thousands of experts have contributed to its ongoing work. They provide and assess scientific information on climate change and its impact on nature and the risks involved. They also make recommendations to political decisionmakers. It’s sixth Assessment Report is due in 2022. One of the three IPCC working groups, which had examined “the physical science underpinning past, present and future climate change,” presented its sobering scientific findings on 9 August 2021.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), established in 1990, has lobbied within the UN for its 37 (+7) member countries and for the Small Island Developing Countries (SIDS). For all of them, the threat of climate change is existential and very immediate. Despite its original lack of political and economic clout, AOSIS has become a change factor. Last year, it called for more ambitious climate goals, and in June 2021, it passed a strong resolution on plastic ocean pollution.

The Pacific Island countries (all AOSIS members) share similar challenges, such as a high vulnerability to rising sea levels, droughts and increased cyclone intensity which threaten lives and affect the livelihoods of its people. The regional governing body for the Island countries, the Pacific Island Forum (PIF), has become a strong advocate for climate change action. Fiji’s presidency of COP23 in 2017 was a highlight of a Pacific country’s global climate engagement.

The PIF’s focus on preserving the “Blue Pacific” and its “New Pacific Diplomacy” and pragmatic partnerships with bigger UN members have raised its profile. The PIF has demanded simplified access to climate financing. In their virtual meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on September 23, the Pacific Island countries urged developed countries to set more ambitious emissions targets for COP26.

The G7 and G20 meetings became new platforms to gather support for climate goals. The G7 meeting in June 2021, however, only “reaffirmed” a previous $100 billion per year target to finance adaptation efforts of poorer nations, a 2009 pledge which G7 failed to implement. The G20 environment ministers in July 2021 unsuccessfully tried to commit to more ambitious climate commitments and to the phasing out of coal power plants. A Leaders Summit in April 2021, convened by US President Joe Biden, was unsuccessful in committing more countries to “Net Zero” emissions.  

Climate change and security

The scholarly debate on the nexus between climate change and security has recently entered the political sphere. The UN Security Council recently characterised climate change as one of the greatest challenges to international peace and security. In its January 2019 debate, it focused on security implications of climate related disasters. Improved early warning systems, climate risk management, and mitigation measures were discussed.

In June 2021, NATO published an updated Climate Change and Security Action Plan. The US Department of Defense first identified climate change as a “critical military security threat” in 2019. Last month in his Singapore Fullerton Lecture, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin signalled support for Asian partners in mitigating their climate security risks.

From climate advocacy to climate activism

Since Stockholm, local and global NGOs have played a key role in climate action due to their strengthened global information network. The number of observer organisations to the COPs has substantially increased, and the consultative process with the NGOs was enhanced. NGOs have increasingly been able to lobby negotiators and provide input to the negotiating agendas.

After the 2015 Paris Agreement, mounting public impatience and anger surged because of alleged insufficient action by national governments and lack of enforcement mechanisms. Decentralised global climate activism networks arose in 2018. Among them was Extinction Rebellion with its non-violent civil disobedience campaigns and #FridaysForFuture. Both criticised the lack of ambitious climate targets and immediate actions.

Some developments, including increased climate advocacy, are encouraging. The number of NGO-backed climate litigation cases against fossil fuel companies are increasing. Some global finance and insurance institutions have begun to decarbonise their portfolios. And seven countries have so far pledged to stop building coal power plants.

Global environment policy: quo vadis?

Since Rio, there has been a bifurcation of environmental conventions (CBD, UNCCD) and climate conferences (UNFCCC, COPs). We’ve witnessed stronger NGO and activist engagement, more involvement of affected small island countries, and a recognition of climate change as a threat to national security.

Global environment agreements have been vital to focus world attention on climate change. COP26 in Glasgow will test whether the international community is ready for the challenge that NGOs, climate activists, vulnerable island countries, and climate scientists have presented.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.

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