From Stockholm to Scotland: How Environmental Issues Entered the International Domain

As the COP 26 summit in Glasgow rapidly approaches, it may appear to the casual observer that environmental issues have always been addressed at the international level, by gatherings of state leaders. Environmental issues such as climate change are, after all, often inherently transnational, unconstrained by state borders. However, in truth, for decades after the Second World War, even as monetary and political issues entered the international domain, states continued to maintain that environmental issues were a matter of domestic policymaking. How, then, did environmental issues slip out of the realm of state sovereignty and into the international domain?

The first UN environmental conference, held in Stockholm, did not take place until 1972. This innovation grew out of the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s. Books such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1972, and the famous ‘Blue Marble’ image released by the 1972 Apollo 17 mission, are considered especially critical to the popular realisation that human-made borders are irrelevant to natural forces. This, of course, implied that large-scale environmental challenges could never be solved without comprehensive international action, thus creating momentum for the Stockholm Conference.

However, the 1972 Stockholm Conference was only a first step towards the internationalisation of environmental policy. The states in attendance did accept that protecting the environment was “the duty of all governments”, as opposed to a purely domestic concern. However, developing countries remained, understandably, concerned that international environmental agreements could impose limitations on their economic growth and thus preserve a fundamental economic divide between the Global North and South. Consequently, despite the positive steps made at the 1972 Stockholm Conference, environmental issues remained primarily a matter of domestic policy. States designed laws and established institutions to address environmental issues at the domestic level, rather than coordinating with each other for that purpose.

The Brundtland Commission report of 1987 represented a key moment in the transition of environmental issues from the domestic to the international arena. The Brundtland Report, which was entitled ‘Our Common Future’, weakened developing countries’ resistance to an international environmental agenda by promoting the grand bargain of ‘sustainable development'. According to this paradigm, environmental issues could only be addressed in tandem with, rather than at the expense of, the legitimate developmental objectives of the Global South. Due to its ability to bridge the gap between the Global North and South, sustainable development was made the key underlying principle of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. There, for the first time, states were finally able to unambiguously acknowledge that common environmental challenges could not be resolved without interstate cooperation.

Consequently, from 1987 onwards, an international approach to addressing common environmental issues became the accepted norm. The Montreal Protocol of 1987, which remains the gold standard of international environmental agreements, proved immensely successful as a framework for phasing out chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) worldwide. Then, in the 1990s, international organisations such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation began to mainstream environmental concerns in their internal governance structures. Moreover, in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, states internationalised their response to climate change for the first time, through the decision to partition signatories into Annex I countries that would be bound by mandatory restrictions and Annex II countries. It was only at the Paris Conference, in 2015, that states were able to develop a truly universal international response to climate change.

All of this is to say that even though it is now increasingly taken for granted that states should respond to climate change collectively rather than individually, the road to get to this point was long and winding. For decades, states determinedly clung to the notion that environmental issues were a matter of domestic policy, not international statecraft. It took so long for states to accept the truism that environmental challenges transcend human-made frontiers is a sobering call to action. States have left themselves no more time for delay, obfuscation, and inaction. From Stockholm to Scotland, states have progressively come to internationalise their response to environmental challenges. Now, it is time for action.


Joss Harrison