The 1980’s kicked off with the bold World Conservation Strategy, released by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and WWF. Using the term ‘sustainable development’ for the first time in an international document, the report called for “global coordinated efforts” to achieve it. In 1981, US clinical studies led to the discovery of AIDS, which would go on to spread throughout the world, and clearly remains a significant issue today. The subject of climate change was again raised, with the USA releasing reports linking rising CO2 levels with global warming. The issue of energy resources are put under the spotlight when an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 spreads radioactive material throughout the northern hemisphere, still considered to be the worst nuclear accident in history. The 1987 Montreal Protocol set limits on the production and consumption of CFC’s to reduce depletion of the ozone layer, claimed by UNEP to be the “first truly global treaty that offers protection to every single human being on this planet”.
Moving into the 1990’s, efforts to increase global human well-being and putting an end to the destruction of Earth’s resources continue, with the IUCN, UNEP and WWF issuing Caring for the Earth: A Strategy for Sustainable Living as a sequel to the World Conservation Strategy. A series of important conferences throughout the 90’s in Rio (1992) and Kyoto (1997) cover issues such as global climate change and biodiversity. The Kyoto Protocol set out guidelines and targets to reduce CO2 emissions for UN members.
A revised Red List of endangered species was published in 1994 by the IUCN, documenting the worlds endangered and threatened wildlife. Over-population was on the agenda of a Population and Development conference of over 183 countries in Cairo, Egypt in 1995, putting in place a long-term plan to reduce population growth. In addition to the Kyoto conference, 1997 also saw the first successfully marketed hybrid car in the Toyota Prius, which uses a combination of electricity and petrol to provide a more environmentally friendly vehicle.
The turn of the century saw continued attention to climate change with the release of a statement from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claiming that there was “new and stronger evidence that most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” The study projects that at current rates, temperatures will increase by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.
A UN report in 2001 claimed that tropical countries lose more than 15million hectares of forests per year due to agriculture and logging. Energy resources were once again considered in 2002 when Germany declared that it would aim to meet a quarter of its domestic electrical requirements through wind power by 2025. A survey in 2002 uncovered coral bleaching to be a major problem, claiming that the evidence seen at the Great Barrier Reef is the worst on record, but may affect up to 60 percent of reefs. Having been discovered in 1880, a 2003 study into the effects of Malaria concluded that the death toll from the disease remains “outrageously high”, with more than 3,000 African children losing their life everyday.
Whilst this list illustrates a vast number of issues to have received attention over the last 50 years, it is by no means exhaustive, with many other topics having been detailed and exposed. Additionally, the themes appearing in this historical overview have frequently appeared at numerous other times, as new research or related aspects have become relevant. Looking to the future, it is fairly easy to predict that issues such as climate change will continue to dominate environmental efforts and scientific news.
By Alex Prior