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close this bookEnvironmental Change and International Law: New Challenges and Dimensions (UNU, 1992, 493 pages)
close this folderIntroduction
close this folder1. Global environmental change and international law: the introductory framework
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentI. Trends in global environmental change
View the documentII. The development of international environmental law
View the documentIII. Themes
View the documentIV. Important future themes
View the documentV. Organization of the book
View the documentNotes

I. Trends in global environmental change

Concern among primarily industrialized countries about the serious risk of environmental harm to countries around the world motivated states to convene the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment, the first world conference on the environment.

The author thanks Steven Porter for his assistance, particularly with the chapter summaries.

By 1970 the world population had more than doubled since the beginning of the century (from 1.6 to 3.4 billion), industrial processes were generating unprecedented amounts of pollutants, and in some countries popular concern for the environment had sky-rocketed.)1 The United States, for example, had passed its first piece of national environmental legislation, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

At the time of the Stockholm Conference countries were deeply divided over the issue of whether environmental protection and economic development were compatible. The conceptual breakthrough that provided the paradigm for joining these two important goals emerged from a meeting of experts held in Founex, Switzerland, just prior to the Stockholm Conference. Today countries recognize that sound economic development must be environmentally sustainable and are concerned about how to do this. They realize that we need to substantially increase the living standards of the poor in a manner that is environmentally sustainable. The issue in 1992 that divides countries is an equity one: how to finance environmentally sustainable economic development for present and future generations.

Today, 20 years after the Stockholm Conference, countries are concerned with global environmental problems that were either not yet identified or barely addressed. These include acid precipitation, ozone depletion, climate change, hazardous waste disposal, loss of biological diversity, and forest degradation and loss and land-based sources of marine pollution.

The trends in population, resource consumption, and environmental degradation that caused such concern in the early 1970s have continued, or accelerated, while our capacity to address them has increased at a slower rate, albeit arguably more rapidly than for some other problems.

Population growth, resource consumption, and technological development continue to be primary catalysts for global environmental change. By 1990, world population had reached 5.3 billion, more than triple that in 1900 and almost 2 billion more than in 1970. Current estimates are that world population will reach at least 8.5 billion by the year 2025.2 The bulk of population growth is projected to be in the developing world.3

The link between population growth and environmental degradation is complex and not well understood, as reflected in the several competing schools of thought on the issues. However, a larger population generally translates into greater demands on the Earth's resources. As has been demonstrated, population size that exceeds local carrying capacity of the ecosystems can cause soil depletion, deforestation, and desertification. If we multiply projected population increases by the substantially higher standard of living that equity requires for impoverished communities today and for future populations, the potential demands on the environment in the decades ahead are dramatic.

Since 1968, the world's consumption of energy has grown. Overall, the total energy requirements of industrialized countries have increased almost 30 per cent from 1970 to 1988, although this masks two periods of decline after the oil-price shocks.4 The rate of increase in energy consumption in the developing countries has declined, but remains high. Most of the world's energy continues to come from burning fossil fuels, whose general by-products are a primary contributor to global warming. Annual emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels more than doubled from 1960 to 1988.5

In addition, the release of ozone-depleting chloro-fluorocarbons (e.g. CFC-11 and CFC-12), which were virtually non-existent prior to World War II, has risen from 35 million kilograms in 1950, to 506 million kilograms in 1970, and to 707 million kilograms by 1988.6 Fortunately, countries have now agreed to phase out their production and consumption by the year 2000, and likely sooner. Human-caused emissions of trace metals have followed a similar growth pattern.

Agriculture demands and practices have also raised important environmental concerns. Irrigated crop land, which accounts for about 17 per cent of the world's crop land and one-third of the global harvest,7 is being eroded by waterlogging and made less productive by salinization (the cumulative build-up of salts left by evaporation of irrigation water). Deforestation, loss of biological diversity, and soil erosion have significantly increased.8

Fresh water continues to be a critical resource. In addition to the well-documented water-quality problems of surface waters, new concern has emerged over groundwater resources. Contamination results from the disposal of wastes, both hazardous and non-hazardous, and from the seepage of chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers into the aquifers. Pesticides, whose use has doubled in the US since 1961, have created groundwater contamination problems in 40 of the 50 US states.9 Pesticides are used worldwide, with an over-$18-billion market in 1987, and their use is frequently unregulated or not well monitored. The agricultural use of chemicals has also grown dramatically, leading to increased run-off and contamination of lakes, streams, and groundwater.10 While the open oceans remain relatively undisturbed by humankind's activities, the oceans' coastal zones, the most biologically productive areas, are under severe pressure from population growth and development activities. In addition, there is evidence that we may be reaching the limits of the seas' natural productive capacity. The average annual catch of marine fisheries (79 million metric tons for 1987) are at or near estimates of their sustainable yield (between 62 and 96 million metric tons per year).11

In the past, pollution and environmental degradation have operated largely on the local level and hence their effects have been isolated in impact. Given the increasingly global scale of environmental degradation and the ever-increasing volume of pollutants entering the environment, however, their effects are now being felt on regional and global levels. In addition, the scope and irreversible nature of some global changes reach through time to affect the well-being of future generations.