This week, politicians, scientists and activists will celebrate a landmark anniversary. 50 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 care of the world’s oceans, lands and forests, and led directly to the creation of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). In 1992, the Rio de Janeiro Conference on the Environment—now the Rio Earth Summit—committed nations to adopt an environmentally responsible approach to economic growth. This was followed by agreements on climate change, biodiversity and forestry.
These astonishing events marked a shift in political thinking. It has led world leaders to realize that Earth’s resources are finite and that environmental problems are not local problems to be ignored, but part of a global predicament made worse by increasing human numbers. But how much has already been achieved? How have our forests evolved over the decades? How far have we gone in reducing global warming? What about Earth’s biodiversity today?
In any case, we performed poorly, despite the strong warnings issued at these summits. On every continent, species still face the threat of extinction. The ice caps continue to melt; Coastal areas face catastrophic flooding; The Earth’s population is expected to reach 8 billion within a year.
Global warming occurs because concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas emitted when fossil fuels are burned, continue to rise relentlessly. In 1972, there were 325 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; 1992 360 ppm; Today 412 ppm. This 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 slim. Many scientists fear that this level will be exceeded in the next few years, raising the risk of catastrophic consequences in the form of rising sea levels, heat waves and droughts.
Then there is the issue of wildlife on our planet. The latest United Nations biodiversity projections indicate that wild animal numbers 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 bleak scenarios suggest that the summits failed despite all the best intentions. Such a ruling would be unfair. Both events had positive consequences. The same United Nations Biodiversity Outlook that outlined threats to the world’s wildlife population suggests that the number of extinct birds and mammals would have been up to four times as many had it not been for conservation programs that could trace their origins to Stockholm and Rio.
In other words, it could have been worse. However, the international environmental commitment must be revived. Hopes were raised that this could happen after the Glasgow Cop 26 meeting. However, Omicron, the fuel crisis and the war in Ukraine put an end to these notions.
It is an ongoing problem. Every year, the world is distracted by economic meltdowns, wars, and epidemics, while one drop after another continues in irreversible environmental damage. Few species are disappearing, ice caps are melting a little more, and sea levels continue to rise. Rio and Stockholm have raised the alarm about the deepening crisis we face. By remembering this warning, even at this late stage, we can avoid the worst effects of the looming global catastrophe.