International Pacts Don’t Work: The World Is Still On Track For Environmental Disaster

Sorry to ruin the buzz before the Rio+20 conference, but a new report (from the UN itself) says that all these international agreements about fixing the environment are basically useless, because no one follows them.

International Pacts Don’t Work: The World Is Still On Track For Environmental Disaster
Roger Rosentreter/Shutterstock

Amidst the never ending stream of bad news about the state of the world’s environment, there once in awhile emerges a small bit of hope: an international agreement to, say, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions or stop using ozone-depleting substances. Getting a mess of countries on the planet to agree on anything is difficult; asking for environmental austerity is especially so. A new Global Environmental Outlook report from the UN confirms that these agreements, while exciting, have done little to get the world on a sustainable track.


The fifth edition of the report says that progress has been made on just 40 of 90 internationally agreed-upon environmental goals. And 24 of the most important ones, including those related to desertification and climate change, have made little to no progress.

Some highlights from the report:

  • Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, the planet has succeeded in removing most–but not all–ozone depleting substances from the atmosphere.
  • Air pollution is still a problem; however, indoor air pollution from particulate matter triggers nearly 2 million premature deaths each year.
  • The world didn’t meet the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of significantly reducing rates of biodiversity loss by 2010, and now 20% of all vertebrate species are threatened.
  • The Aichi biodiversity targets called for protected areas to cover 17% of the world’s land surface and 10% of its marine area by 2020. But as of right now, protected areas cover almost 13% of land surface and just 1.6% of marine area.
  • Water quality in parts of most major river systems don’t meet World Health Organization (WHO) standards.
  • While ratification of the MARPOL convention by 150 countries has reduced pollution from ships worldwide, the number of coastal dead zones have risen. Overall, there has been little to no progress in preserving the marine environment–and disasters like the Gulf oil spill and Fukushima nuclear incident haven’t helped.

None of this bodes well for the upcoming Rio+20 environmental summit. The BBC sums up the problem: “It seems that it is single, high-profile events–occurring in the right place at the right time–trigger [sic] long and lasting change. Many credit the original 1992 Earth Summit in Rio as bring such an occasion [sic]. The 2002 gathering in South Africa was less successful, and it seems as if the 2012 conference has its work cut out if it is to leave an indelible mark on the global green agenda.”

The GEO report lists all sorts of fairly obvious recommendations to increase adherence to international goals, like stronger accountability (tried that with COP15 and failed), more reliable data about environmental resources, and international cooperation.

If we can’t cooperate as a planet, there’s little hope for our survival. But in the absence of adherence to international agreements, it’s always a good idea to focus more locally. It’s a lot easier for a mayor of a town or city to make a difference than for a country or series of countries to ratify an agreement.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more