The 10 most important environmental and climate change conferences
The list below comprises the ten most important international environmental and climate change conferences. Climate change discussion has evolved over time to be directed more by foreign policy and international relations – climate diplomacy. These conferences represent negotiations between developing and developed countries, permanent and non-permanent members of the UN General Assembly. They include debate and discussion on carbon emissions, credits, climate finance, technology, research and practice. The list contains information about the aims and outcomes of these conferences.
When creating this list, we intended to display here international conferences which represented progress on climate change. The list does not reflect any political opinion of the authors.
- The United Nations Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development – 1972
The first major environmental conference was held in Stockholm in 1972 – the UN Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development. Since then, the 5th of June, also known as World Environment Day (WED), has been celebrated to mark the first day of this Conference. The Stockholm Declaration agreed upon 26 principles on development and the environment. This was the first time at a global convention that countries acknowledged their responsibility to the environment. This Convention was the starting point for the Rio Summit and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), Johannesburg, and began the talks that led to the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. It also influenced the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and brought environmental issues such as whaling to the forefront for the Global South and the European Community. The UNEP would also become the first UN agency to be based in a developing country, Kenya. This meeting also marked the raising of several other ecological issues in future global discussions, from the ozone layer to the global commons.
- The 1st World Climate Conference – 1979
The First World Climate Conference (WCC-1) was convened in 1979 by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), with several other major organisations as “a world conference of experts on climate and mankind”. The Conference organised groups to look at information on climate, important topics and research climate change. Scientists and experts on climate change met to discuss issues at the meeting, as it was held to work with scientific organisations as well. This programme helped assess the prevailing knowledge of climate change and the man-made and natural factors that lead to climate change. It also analysed the effects of climate change on the future of human society and planned to use technology and organisation of resources to meet climate goals. The WCC-1 resulted in the formation of the World Climate Programme, the World Climate Research Programme, the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and later the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The IPCC provides scientific research to the UNFCCC and the world’s governments for decision-making and policies on climate change, making it a major international authority on the subject. The WCC-1 was held in Geneva, Switzerland.
- The Conference on the Protection of the Ozone Layer, Vienna – 1985
In 1985, scientists discovered a growing hole in the Ozone Layer over Antarctica. The depletion of the Layer can have adverse effects on the environment and cause skin cancer in humans. The issue became widely discussed and culminated in the Vienna Convention. The Conference on the Protection of the Ozone Layer adopted the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer which was signed in both Vienna, Austria, and the UN Headquarters in New York, USA, in 1985-86. This was the first convention to be ratified by all its members at the time, later becoming universally validated in 2009. The Agreement was framed to reduce chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) production worldwide, and is viewed as one of the most successful treaties because of approval from 197 countries. The meeting encouraged international cooperation and set the stage for the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty, adopted in 1987 in Montreal, Canada. The Protocol has resulted in the phasing-out of 99% of chemicals that deplete the Ozone Shield in products globally. Research also shows that the Layer is repairing slowly. To mark the validation of the Protocol, the UN set apart the 16th of September as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer.
- The Rio Summit – 1992
The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was also called the Earth Summit or the Rio Summit. It was the largest gathering of world leaders at the time. The event took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the year 1992, 20 years after the Stockholm Conference. It was set up for cooperation between Member States on issues of sustainable development, and was based on the notion that a radical transformation in behaviour and more environmental-consciousness was a necessity to deal with climate change. Developed nations, including the US began to show more interest in climate diplomacy, and also agreed to reduce emissions by the year 2000. The Summit called on governments worldwide to reconsider the environmental impact of economic decisions, policies and projects. It led to many important documents, ‘The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development’, ‘Agenda 21’ and ‘Forest Principles’. It also produced the Rio Convention which included the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). The UNFCCC is currently an important treaty, with its own secretariat that functions with research support from the IPCC. Importantly, the Summit also brought about the earliest form of finance for climate change, through the Global Environment Facility (GEF), that facilitates grants from developed economies to developing ones.
- COP 1 – 1995
The first Conference of the Parties was held in Berlin in 1995. It focused on the abilities of countries to develop climate change-related policies. The meeting involved negotiations with leaders of developed countries to make legally-binding obligations to lower carbon emissions. COP 1 assembled the UNFCCC to review progress on climate change for the first time, creating a tradition of assessment that would be followed in future COPs. Based on the evaluation, it was decided that the commitments by developed countries needed strengthening. Hence, the Group of 77 (G77) pushed for the Berlin Mandate to reinvigorate those commitments. This Directive recognised that developed countries were more responsible for the high amounts of Greenhouse Gas emissions than developing nations. It also began conversations that would lead to the Kyoto Protocol, a more legally binding and accepted Agreement. It led to adjustments in mechanisms, such as the Clean Development Mechanism, to limit emissions in such a way that developing countries would not bear the costs.
- COP 3 – 1997
In December 1997, the third Conference of the Parties was held to discuss sustainable development. COP 3 stood out as a climate change conference that revolutionised political relations and gave developing nations more of a say in decisions. It took place in Kyoto, Japan, leading to the official adoption of the Kyoto Protocol. This was in spite of the fact that the United States of America tried to weaken the Protocol by discouraging a clean development fund and demanding greater flexibility in the carbon market. The Protocol specified the national emission targets for the members of the Conference. It placed a commitment on developed countries to drop carbon emissions by 5.2% lower than the levels in 1990, for the 2008-2012 period. At the same time, the Kyoto Protocol was set up to protect developing economies from the costs of emission reduction. The Protocol’s main goal was to make the concentration of Greenhouse Gases stable in the global atmosphere, both in an economic and efficient manner. It applies specifically to six gases: Carbon dioxide, Methane, Nitrous oxide, Hydrofluorocarbons, Perfluorocarbons and Sulphur hexafluoride. The running theme behind the Agreement was common yet differentiated responsibilities. It finally came into force in 2005.
- The Millennium Summit – 2000
In the 21st Century, environmental talks were no longer led by scientists and research experts. Instead, national developmental interests drove prime ministers, presidents, heads of state and ministries of foreign affairs to take more of a lead alongside other stakeholders. The Millennium Summit was held in the year 2000, and aimed to explore the UN’s changing role at the beginning of the 21st Century. It was one of the largest gatherings of world leaders and led to the establishment of 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Millennium Declaration. The Declaration was a document containing the values, objectives and agenda for the new century. The seventh goal was to ensure environmental sustainability. Around this time, the United States and the European Union had a falling out that would stall the conclusion of the Kyoto Protocol, and would lead to the US withdrawing from it. However, this did not hinder the finalisation of the Protocol in 2001 due to deliberations between the remaining Member States. The Summit’s participants agreed to encourage conversation and stewardship in the future, on matters of preserving the environment. Several aims were listed including protecting the ecosystem, reducing losses of biodiversity, reversing the losses of natural resources, and halving the population without access to water and sanitation by 2015.
- The World Summit on Sustainable Development – 2002
The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) 2002, was held in Johannesburg, South Africa, a decade after the Rio Summit. The Conference focused on issues like preserving resources, improving living standards, meeting demand for food and water, and satisfying the economic and energy needs of the time. The summit also continued previous debates that had been raised in the UN Conferences on Environment and Development in Stockholm and Rio, but there was more diversity in the meetings and greater partnership between the world’s nations. The members at the Conference also pledged to use modern technology, human development and education to promote sustainable development worldwide. During the WSSD, the then Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, set up the WEHAB (Water, Energy, Health, Agriculture and Biodiversity) Initiative of priority issues, with special attention given to global health. One of the most vital outcomes of the Conference was the Johannesburg Declaration, which affirmed sustainable development in a more inclusive and unified manner. The Declaration also mentioned the challenges that needed attention: globalisation and its promotion of inequality in economies.
- COP 15 – 2009
The Copenhagen Summit or Conference of the Parties 15 (COP 15) was convened in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2009. It was a culmination of the two-year long debates to improve international cooperation on climate variability that began in Bali (COP 13). The Copenhagen Accord was drafted acknowledging that global temperature rise must be below 2°C, but this was done without any serious commitments to reduce emissions and any basic targets to aim for. A large number of countries were against the Agreement, but in 2010 many went on to sign the Agreement or hint at approval. The Accord’s provisions were seen as a step back from the success of the Kyoto Protocol and showed more coordinated work was required. The Agreement failed at becoming legally-binding and enforceable. Several developing and developed nations blamed each other for the “failure” of the Conference. While it aimed for an extension of the Kyoto Protocol and resolution for negotiations, none of this happened. Instead, the negotiations had to be stretched into 2010 when they started addressing emission-related problems. Many nations pledged to take action on the Agreement but there was no formal acceptance of the Copenhagen Accord. In spite of a deadlock in many of the negotiations, this Summit was a success because it influenced better teamwork between Members and talks before COP 16, Cancun, Mexico and future conventions. The UNFCCC web page describes COP 15 perfectly: “the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference raised climate change policy to the highest political level.”
- COP 21 – 2015
2015 was an eventful year for climate change in international politics. The UN announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Goal 13 dealt with climate change. The G7 Summit in Germany focused on climate change as a key theme and France hosted the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris. COP 21 dealt primarily with the Paris Agreement, a ground-breaking document in the world of climate diplomacy. For the first time in two decades, a universal Agreement on climate, that was legally binding, was finally reached. A total of 174 nations signed the Agreement and initiated adoption of the provisions on Earth Day, 22 April 2016. Several meetings were set up before the Convention in preparation, to create a draft of the Accord. The Paris Agreement aimed to limit temperature rises in the 21st Century to below 2°C, and if possible, even lower than 1.5°C. Furthermore, it was meant to empower countries to mitigate the impact of climate change, with updated technology, an improved more transparent framework of response, more public awareness on environmental issues and greater financial support for developing nations. The Accord came into force on 4 November 2016.