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Other achievements

In terms of demonstrable action, Stockholm apparently achieved much. While many of its 109 recommendations remain unfulfilled, they serve - now as then - as important targets. Equally important, however, were the Conference's achievements in repairing rifts, and in narrowing the gap between the views of the developed and the developing nations. The first attempt at this had been made at a conference in Founex, Switzerland, in 1969, and the Founex Report of June 1971 identified development and environment as 'two sides of the same coin' (UNEP 1981). The Drafting and Planning Committee for the Stockholm conference noted in its report in April 1972 that 'environmental protection must not be an excuse for slowing down the economic progress of emerging countries'.

Further progress had to wait until 1974 when asymposium of experts chaired by the late Barbara Ward, was held in Cocoyoc, Mexico. Organized by UNEP and the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the symposium identified the economic and social factors which lead to environmental deterioration (UNEP/UNCTAD 1974). The Cocoyoc Declaration - the formal statement issued by the symposium - was influential in changing the attitudes of leading environmental thinkers. What was said at Cocoyoc foreshadowed the first paragraph of the World Conservation Strategy published in 1980 (see page 9) and was re-stated in GEO-2000 in 1999: 'The combined destructive impacts of a poor majority struggling to stay alive and an affluent minority consuming most of the world's resources are undermining the very means by which all people can survive and flourish' (UNEP/UNCTAD 1974).

Other statements in the Cocoyoc Declaration illustrate awareness of the difficulty of meeting human needs sustainably from an environment under pressure:

  • 'The problem today is not one primarily of absolute physical shortage but of economic and
    social maldistribution and usage.'
  • 'The task of statesmanship is to guide the nations towards a new system more capable of meeting
    the inner limits of basic human needs for all the world's people and of doing so without violating
    the outer limits of the planet's resources and environment.'
  • 'Human beings have basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, health, education. Any process of growth
    that does not lead to their fulfilment - or, even worse, disrupts them - is a travesty of the idea of
  • 'We are all in need of a redefinition of our goals, or new development strategies, or new lifestyles,
    including more modest patterns of consumption among the rich.'

Landsat images of the Saloum River, Senegal, on 5 November 1972 (top) and 31 October 1992 show how much of the mangrove forest (dark red areas) has disappeared in 20 years, even in a protected area

Source: Landsat 2001

The Cocoyoc Declaration ends:

'The road forward does not lie through the despair of doomwatching or through the easy optimism of successive technological fixes. It lies through a careful and dispassionate assessment of the 'outer limits', through cooperative search for ways to achieve the 'inner limits' of fundamental human rights, through the building of social structures to express those rights, and through all the patient work of devising techniques and styles of development which enhance and preserve our planetary inheritance.'

This vision of the way forward was reflected in the detailed new images of the planet that appeared in the 1970s as a result of the launch by the United States in July 1972 of the Landsat satellite. Such images were undoubtedly instrumental in changing human attitudes to the state of the planet's environment. Sadly, the 30- year record that Landsat has provided also shows that attitudes have not yet changed enough (see photos).

In terms of climate change, growing concern about global warming (the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius had in 1896 warned the world about the 'greenhouse effect') led to the first World Climate Conference in Geneva in February 1979 (Centre for Science and Environment 1999). It concluded that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions could have a long-term effect on climate. The World Climate Programme (WCP) was established the following year, providing the framework for international cooperation in research and the platform for identifying the important climate issues of the 1980s and 1990s, including ozone depletion and global warming.