Two remarkable anniversaries will be celebrated this week by politicians, scientists and activists. Fifty years ago, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment opened in Stockholm. It was the first global forum to focus on issues related to the protection of the Earth’s oceans, lands and forests and led directly to the creation of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). In 1992, the Rio de Janeiro environmental conference – the Rio Earth Summit as it is known today – committed nations to adopting an environmentally responsible approach to economic growth. Conventions on climate change, biodiversity and forestry followed.
These landmark events marked a transition in political thought. World leaders have been made to realize that the Earth’s resources are limited and that environmental problems are not local problems to be ignored, but part of a worsening global situation caused by the increase in the number of humans. But how much has actually been achieved? How have our forests fared over the decades? How far have we gone in stopping global warming? And what is the state of the Earth’s biodiversity today?
We have fared badly in all cases, despite the clear warnings expressed at these summits. Species continue to head towards extinction on all continents; the ice caps continue to melt; coastal regions face catastrophic flooding; The number of humans 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 during the burning of fossil fuels, continue to rise unabated. In 1972, there were 325 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere; in 1992, 360ppm; today 412ppm. Such a rate of increase, unprecedented in the last million years of our planet’s history, strongly suggests that our chances of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5°C are very small. Many scientists fear that this level will be exceeded in the next few years, leading to increased risks of catastrophic consequences in terms of sea level rise, heat waves and droughts.
Then there is the matter of our planet’s wildlife. The latest UN Biodiversity Outlook report says wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds since 1970. Today, 50 years after Stockholm and 30 after Rio, an estimated one million species are threatened with extinction.
These grim scenarios suggest that, despite all their good intentions, the summits were failures. Such a judgment would be unfair. Both events had auspicious consequences. This same UN Biodiversity Outlook that described threats to Earth’s wild animal populations points out that the number of bird and mammal extinctions would have been up to four times higher without the programs. conservation that can trace their origins to Stockholm and Rio.
Things could have been worse, in other words. Nevertheless, international environmental action clearly needs to be reinvigorated. Hopes it could happen were raised after the Glasgow Cop26 meeting. Omicron, the fuel crisis and the war in Ukraine, however, put an end to these notions.
It is a permanent problem. Every year, the world’s attention is diverted by economic crashes, wars and pandemics, while irreversible ecological damage trickles down. A few species are disappearing, the ice caps are melting a little more, the sea level continues to rise. Rio and Stockholm have sounded the alarm on the growing crisis we are facing. By remembering this warning, we can, even at this late stage, avoid the worst impacts of the global catastrophe looming before us.