Two notable anniversaries will be marked by politicians, scientists and activists this week. Fifty years ago, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment opened in Stockholm. It was the first world forum to focus on the issues involved in the care of the Earth’s oceans, land and forests and directly led to the creation of the UN Environment Program (UNEP). In 1992, the Rio de Janeiro Environment Conference – the Rio Earth Summit as it is known today – forced nations to take an environmentally responsible approach to economic growth. Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and forestry have resulted.
These characteristic events marked a transition in political thinking. World leaders have been made to realize that the Earth’s resources are finite and that environmental problems are not local issues to be ignored but are part of a worsening global problem caused by rising human numbers. But how much was actually achieved? How have our forests been over the decades? How far have we gone to stop global warming? And what is the state of the Earth’s biodiversity today?
We did badly in each case, despite the clear warnings expressed at these summits. Species continue to be on the verge of extinction on all continents; ice caps continue to melt; coastal regions are facing catastrophic floods; number of people on Earth is expected to reach 8 billion within a year.
Global warming is happening because atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas emitted when fossil fuels are being burned, continue to rise steadily. In 1972, there were 325 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere; in 1992, 360ppm; today 412 ppm. Such growth rate, unprecedented in the past million years of our planet’s history, suggests, sharply, that our chances of keeping global temperatures rising below 1.5C are very low. Many scientists fear that this level will be broken within the next few years, bringing increased risks of catastrophic consequences in the face of rising sea levels, global warming and droughts.
Then there is the issue of the wild life of our planet. The UN most recent biodiversity perspective wildlife populations have declined by more than two-thirds since 1970. Today, 50 years after Stockholm and 30 after Rio, about one million species face the threat of extinction.
These sad scenarios suggest that, despite all their good intentions, the peaks were failures. Such a judgment would be unfair. Both events had favorable consequences. The same UN biodiversity outlook that outlined the threats to Earth’s wildlife populations underscores that numbers of birds and mammal extinctions would be up to four times higher if it were not for conservation programs that can trace their origins to Stockholm and Rio.
Things could be worse, in other words. However, international environmental action clearly needs revitalization. Hopes that this could happen were raised after Glasgow Cop26 meeting. Omicron, the fuel crisis and the Ukrainian war put paid attention to those notions, however.
It’s always a problem. Every year, the world’s attention is diverted by economic crashes, wars and pandemics, while irreversible environmental damage continues to drip. Some species are disappearing, ice caps are melting a little more, sea levels continue to rise. Rio and Stockholm have raised the alarm about the escalating crisis we are facing. By remembering that warning, we can, even at this late stage, avoid the worst effects of the global catastrophe looming before us.