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United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972)

United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972)


In response to the growing environmental movement of the 1960s, many nations began to take actions to protect the environment within their borders. By the early 1970s, however, governments began to realize that pollution did not stop at their borders. International consensus and cooperation were required to tackle environmental issues, which affected the entire world.

In 1972, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) was convened to address issues concerning the environment and sustainable development. UNCHE, also known as the Stockholm Conference, linked environmental protection with sustainable development. The Stockholm Conference also produced concrete ideas on how governments could work together to preserve the environment. The concepts and plans developed by the Stockholm Conference have shaped every international conference and treaty on the environment over the last 35 years.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE), held in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972, was the first major international conference on the environment. The United Nations General Assembly convened the UNCHE at the request of the Swedish government. Representatives from 113 nations and over 400 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attended the Stockholm Conference.

The gathering produced the Declaration of the Conference on the Human Environment and an action plan. The declaration noted that many factors harm the environment, including population growth, developing economies, and technological and industrial advancements. Despite the pressure placed on the environment, the declaration proffered 26 principles “to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment.”

The Declaration of the Conference stated that every human has the right to enjoy a clean and healthy environment. With this right, however, comes the responsibility to preserve the environment for future generations. The document noted that humans must properly manage wildlife and their ecosystems to ensure their continued survival, and it sought an end to the discharge of pollution into the environment. The declaration also called on industrialized nations to provide financial and technological assistance to developing nations to enable them to develop their economies in an environmentally responsible manner.

The declaration was the first major international document to recognize that both developing and industrialized economies contribute to environmental problems, and it noted that most environmental problems in developing economies occur because of underdevelopment. Poverty in developing nations leads to poor health, poor sanitation, and release of toxic chemicals. These conditions release harmful human, animal, and chemical products into the environment. Developing economies also often seek advancement of the economy with little regard for environmental regulation. Industrialized nations contribute to environmental problems through technological advancements and industrialization. Energy production, automobile emissions, and factory production release greenhouse gases and other chemicals into the environment.

Whereas the Declaration of the Convention contained many lofty ideals, the action plan of the Stockholm Conference contained 109 specific recommendations for achieving these goals. The action plan presented 69 recommendations on how governments, intergovernmental agencies, and NGOs could work together to implement environmental protection strategies. The action plan also contained 16 proposals for dealing with pollution in general. Recommendation 70 contains one of the first references to global climate change contained in an international document. It recommends that governments be “mindful of activities in which there is an appreciable risk of effects on the climate.”

The action plan also called for establishing international standards for pollutants after scientific research into the effect of certain pollutants on the environment. The action plan then recommended the creation of a network of national and international pollution monitoring agencies. The United Nations founded the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972 to coordinate its environmental initiatives and to provide support to developing nations on environmental issues.

Impacts and Issues

The objectives and action plans produced by the Stockholm Conference have inspired every subsequent international conference on the environment. In 1983, the United Nations convened the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), also called the Brundtland Commission. The Brundtland Commission discussed and devised international and national strategies for protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development. The Brundtland Commission published its final report, Our Common Future, in 1987. Our Common Future states that governments could not address environmental protection separately from the related crises of economic development and energy production. Our Common Future outlined a plan for dealing with these interlocking crises.

The Stockholm Conference also laid the foundation for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), commonly called the Earth Summit. In June 1992, representatives from 172 nations convened in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the unprecedented Earth Summit, which included 108 heads of state, 2,400 representatives from various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and nearly 10,000 journalists. An additional 17,000 NGO representatives attended a parallel NGO forum that provided recommendations to the Earth Summit.

The massive interest and participation in the Earth Summit indicated a shift in global attitudes toward the environment. Scientific evidence gathered in the second half of the twentieth century indicated that human activity affected the environment and climate. The scientific evidence also revealed that pollution and depletion of natural resources that occurred in one country could have a profound effect on the environment of other nations or even the entire planet. At the Earth Summit,


ECOSYSTEM: The community of individuals and the physical components of the environment in a certain area.

GREENHOUSE GASES: A gas whose accumulation in the atmosphere increases heat retention.

NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANIZATION (NGO): A voluntary organization that is not part of any government; often organized to address a specific issue or perform a humanitarian function.

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: Development (i.e., increased or intensified economic activity; sometimes used as a synonym for industrialization) that meets the cultural and physical needs of the present generation of persons without damaging the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

world leaders devised plans and policies to protect the environment by involving national and local governments and NGOs in the process. Earth Summit 1992 produced two key documents: Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Earth Summit 1992 also produced the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which seeks to combat global climate change by reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions.

Earth Summit 2002, a ten-year follow-up to Earth Summit 1992, produced the Johannesburg Declaration, which reiterated many of the points contained in the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. The Johannesburg Declaration, however, contains a more general statement about the environment and sustainable development. It calls for an end to all conditions that threaten sustainable development, including drug use, corruption, terrorism, ethnic intolerance, and natural disasters. However, the declaration does not contain many specific proposals for addressing many of these issues.

The Stockholm Conference also inspired the Kyoto Protocol, one of the best known and far-reaching plans undertaken by the UNFCCC. The Kyoto Protocol is an international treaty that seeks to stabilize greenhouse-gas emissions by committing countries to specific greenhouse-gas emissions goals. The Kyoto Protocol, which went into effect in February 2005, requires developed signatory countries to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to 5% below 1990 levels by 2012.

See Also Earth Summit (1992); Earth Summit (2002); Sustainable Development; United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) Our Common Future Report (1987)


Web Sites

Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Essential Background: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.” (accessed April 21, 2008).

Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “Kyoto Protocol.” (accessed April 21, 2008).

United Nations. “Documents: Agenda 21.” December 15, 2004. (accessed April 21, 2008).

United Nations. “U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (1992).” May 23, 1997. (accessed April 21, 2008).

United Nations Environment Programme. “Stockholm 1972: Report of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.” (accessed April 21, 2008)

Joseph P. Hyder

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