It is often hard to assess whether international cooperation efforts have had any real effect on society’s wellbeing, the quality of our environment, or even the construction of long-term relationships between states. One form of evaluation takes place through the study of environmentally focused ‘megaconferences’. These large-scale events bring together representatives of national governments, intergovernmental secretariats, non-governmental organisations, academics and industry actors to engage in conversations about the state of the environment. They usually focus on a particular issue at hand. What makes these megaconferences interesting is that their goal is to engage in productive collaborative efforts to reach agreement and consensus on specific strategies to protect the environment and solve global challenges.
Historically, the two environmental issues that have gained the most attention have been climate change and biodiversity. Both of these issues came up at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 – formally called the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. Nevertheless, most scholars will recall the 1972 United Nations Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment as the first large-scale environmentally focused megaconference. The Stockholm Conference was also the starting point for the first global coordination mechanism for environmental protection, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This conference was also the first one where participants explicitly linked human health with environmental and ecosystem health in their discourses.
The second milestone in global environmental governance is the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. This report outlined the need for a new model for development that brought into play the notion that we cannot simply use (and misuse) the resources we have at our disposal. The new model, coined sustainable development, became an enduring part of the global conversation about environmental protection. The Brundtland Report defines sustainable development as having three main components: economic, environmental and social – an idea that was then put forward for implementation at the Earth Summit.
The third milestone was the 1992 Earth Summit. A major outcome of this meeting was the recognition of two of the most important environmental issues – the loss of biodiversity and rapid climatic change – and the need for intergovernmental secretariats and agreements to respond to these twin challenges. The bulk of the world’s states, 161, signed a declaration on the need for a model of global development that enabled future generations to live within their means but also facilitated current generations’ livelihoods. The fact that so many states reached an agreement on the concept of sustainable development, and the need to operationalise it, became the key contribution of the Earth Summit. Activist involvement became the norm in international conferences on environmental issues starting with the Rio Summit. Nongovernmental organisations were considered part of the negotiations from the very beginning and over 2,000 non-governmental representatives attended.
The fourth milestone was the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development. The goal was to establish collaborative intergovernmental, cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral partnerships. In theory, this would strengthen the way in which environmental activists interact and partner with national governments. Different types of partnerships were elucidated and non-state actors were considered from the design stage up to implementation. However, following the summit there was a widespread perception that there had been very little progress on the implementation side, leading to a feeling of megaconference fatigue. To remedy this, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as Rio+20) created mechanisms for follow-up of commitments to sustainable development. It also highlighted the relevance of specific targets for development and the need for transition towards broader-reaching sustainable development goals. Moreover, the outcome document of this conference defines specific regional initiatives towards the implementation of sustainable development.
The 2015 Paris Agreement represented consensus among a number of countries that something needed to be done to maintain the level of global warming below two degrees centigrade. The fact that an agreement was reached was groundbreaking for the global climate negotiations community. Prior negotiations were marked by disagreements and lack of consensus on a strategy to compel nations to reach internationally agreed targets in their carbon emissions. This is important as carbon dioxide, released primarily by burning fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal for energy, is the main cause of global warming. Nevertheless, Paris showed that many countries were able to agree on specific goals, targets and policies needed to combat rapid and impactful global environmental change. The process it established is yet to be fully realised, but in the years to come the expectation is that states will comply.
Climate change isn’t the only ecological issue facing our planet. But its role in catalysing global action to protect the environment cannot be overstated. One of the most neglected issues is water. While the earth is two-thirds covered by water, the proportion that is fresh (drinkable and useable for agriculture) is sometimes highly contested by neighbouring states and in short supply for growing populations. When added to the effects of climate change, access to water is an issue of real concern. While many other challenges remain in the areas of climate and environment, it is likely that a framework for global water governance will be a major issue on the agenda in the near future.