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United Nations Policy and Activism

United Nations Policy and Activism


The United Nations (UN) is an international organization that works toward promoting democracy, preserving world peace, and tackling pressing socioeconomic issues globally. Representatives from 51 countries officially established the UN on October 24, 1945. In 1972, the first ever UN Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden. The issues focused on during the conference included depletion of the ozone layer and global warming. What resulted from the conference was a declaration that contained 26 principles. One of the key recommendations during the meeting was to set up a global environmental organization. This led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) by the UN General Assembly in the same year. In the twenty-first century, UNEP is at the forefront of environmental activism, policy making, and recognition of commendable environmental initiatives. UNEP has its footprints across the world through its offices and centers. It is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundation

When UNEP was established, climate change was yet to receive the worldwide attention it receives in the twenty-first century. In 1980, the UNEP Governing Council brought forth the issue of the depleting ozone layer and suggested measures to combat it. In 1985, the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer focused on the impact of human activities on the ozone layer. A multilateral agreement was created during the convention. The convention laid out the responsibilities of states in protecting human health and the environment from the consequences of ozone depletion. This convention was thrown open for signatures in 1985 and was formally adopted in 1988.

In 1987, the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer was created. This treaty was intended to phase out the use of substances that could severely impact the ozone layer. The treaty was formally adopted in 1989. In 1987, the UN General Assembly also took up a framework—Environmental Perspective to the Year 2000 and Beyond—to direct the policies and programs to attain sustainable development.

In 1988, a forum called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established. It was the outcome of the joint effort of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It serves as an information repository for anyone interested in learning about climate change. It has a global network of authors, scientists, and decision makers who collaborate to sensitize the world toward climate change. In 1989, the Helsinki Declaration on the Protection of the Ozone Layer encouraged states to adopt the phasing out of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), as outlined in the earlier Montreal Protocol.

At the second World Climate Conference (October 29-November 7, 1990), it was realized that climate change is a global problem and requires global response. Soon the importance of a more potent international action on the environment was realized. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as The Earth Summit, was held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This summit came up with a new framework for protecting global environments—the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. This conference created the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a major step in dealing with global warming. The most prominent climate change action taken so far is the Kyoto Protocol on December 11, 1997, in Japan. Its target is to decrease the emanation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, by the industrialized countries, by at least 5% below the 1990 levels in the period from 2008 to 2012. However, it was in 2005 that the Kyoto Protocol on climate change came into force.

The year 2000 saw the Malmo Declaration come into force. Over 100 environment ministers from across the world brainstormed to come up with this declaration. The issues discussed include the environmental challenges in the twenty-first century, the role of the industrial sector, and the responsibility of citizens in general. The following year saw the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Also, in 2005, UNEP adopted the Bali Strategic Plan for Technology Support and Capacity Building. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was held in the same year, which focused on the degradation of the environmental ecosystems globally.

In December 2007, the United Nations Climate Change Conference was hosted by the government of Indonesia in Bali. During this conference, participants agreed on setting up an Adaptation Fund to help high-risk developing countries alleviate the threat of climate change. This fund is reported to be worth up to $500 million annually by 2012.

Impacts and Issues

The IPCC predicts that if the emission of harmful gases is not checked, global temperature will rise from 3.2°F to 7.1°F (1.8°C to 4°C) throught the world by the end of the twenty-first century, thus impacting the environment, economy, and society. Similarly, sea levels could rise by as much as 7 to 19.6 in (18 to 59 cm) by 2100. Besides being an environmental challenge, climate change is also an economic and political challenge.

UNEP has led several initiatives in spreading awareness about the impact of climate change and in taking corrective measures. Failing to control climate change would result in food scarcity, natural disasters, and the threat of epidemics.

In order to cater to the information needs about climate change, the Division of Environmental Law and Conventions (DELC) of UNEP has created an outreach program. The aim of this outreach program is to support governments, NGOs, and the general public in understanding the issue better. The program reaches out to people through visual aids, brochures, radio programs, and television.

However, controversy has dogged the assessment of climate change impact by the IPCC. In its third report, the IPCC had created a graph of the Northern Hemisphere temperature. The graph, shaped like a hockey stick, came to be known as the Hockey Stick representation. However, this method was widely disputed


CHLOROFLUOROCARBONS (CFCS): A family of chemical compounds consisting of carbon, fluorine, and chlorine that were once used widely as propellants in commercial sprays but regulated in the United States since 1987 because of their harmful environmental effects.

CLIMATE NEUTRAL: The process of reducing greenhouse emissions so as to create a neutral impact on climate change.

OZONE LAYER: The layer of ozone that begins approximately 15 km above Earth and thins to an almost negligible amount at about 50 km, and which shields Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The highest natural concentration of ozone (approximately 10 parts per million by volume) occurs in the stratosphere at approximately 25 km above Earth. The stratospheric ozone concentration changes throughout the year as stratospheric circulation changes with the seasons. Natural events such as volcano eruptions and solar flares can produce changes in ozone concentration, but manmade changes are of the greatest concern.

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.

by scientists. The primary argument against this method was that it did not consider documented evidence of the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. This was followed by a reexamination of the statistical methods employed in creating the Hockey Stick representation. As a result, the IPCC used more than one technique in creating its temperature graphs for its fourth Assessment Report.

Another criticism of the climate change movement has been that human industrialization is not the only factor leading to global warming. It was argued that other planets such as Neptune and Mars have also experienced global warming even without the presence of any proven life forms.

There was also a controversy surrounding the IPCC Working Group I report in 1990. Some of the participating scientists complained about being pressured to highlight the results that were supportive of the prevailing global warming theory and to downplay results that suggested otherwise. Many of the participants disagreed with the contents of the final report, and the UN’s claims of having a consensus among scientists were disputed.

Even before the IPCC had released its three-volume report on climate in 2007, there was a debate regarding the relevance of the findings. Some of the scientists working with the IPCC reportedly criticized the gap of five to six years between the IPCC’s climate change review. Additionally, the report did not consider several important phenomena such as the melting of glaciers in Greenland, melting Arctic ice cap, and an increase in the carbon dioxide levels on Earth.

See Also United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (1972); United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)


Web Sites Africa: Bali Break Through in Climate Change Talks” (accessed April 1, 2008).

Our Planet. “Spirit of Optimism” (accessed March 12, 2008).

United Nations Environment Programme. “About DELC.” (accessed April 1, 2008).

United Nations Environment Programme. “About UNEP: The Organization.” (accessed March 12, 2008).

United Nations Environment Programme. “Identifying and Responding to Emerging Issues.” (accessed March 12, 2008).

United Nations Publication. “The United Nations: An Introduction for Students.” (accessed March 12, 2008).

U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works. “U.S. Senate Report: Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007.” (accessed April 1, 2008).

Amit Gupta

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