Environmental problems like climate change transcend political borders, making environmental protection a foreign policy issue.

The Amu Darja, one of two feeders of the Aral Sea© Jungius/WWF

Man-made environmental problems such as forest dieback, the ozone hole, climate change and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have made environmental protection a foreign policy issue. International environmental policy is shaped largely within the framework of the United Nations. Germany takes an active role in UN environmental activities.

Milestones for global environmental policy

The basis for international environmental policy was laid in 1972 at the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, where the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was founded. UNEP is headquartered in Nairobi. In 1983 the Brundtland Commission (World Commission on Environment and Development) coined the “sustainable development” concept that still defines the terms of the international debate.

The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 was another important milestone in the formation of international environmental policy. The Summit, officially called the UN Conference on Environment and Development, was at the time the largest-ever gathering of world leaders. With attendees representing 116 of the world’s 172 countries, the conference brought a breakthrough for the concept of sustainable development, a development model which joins together ecological, social and economic concerns. The Summit’s impact continues to be felt today in the documents that emerged from it – the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 – as well as the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), which was established there. The World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 reached agreement on a number of important documents which lent further momentum to sustainable development.

2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro
2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro© picture-alliance/dpa

Twenty years after the Earth Summit, the international community gathered again in Rio from 20 to 22 June 2012 for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The conference, known as Rio+20, focused on “green economy” issues in the context of sustainable development and combating poverty as well as reforming UN institutions related to sustainable development.

The outcomes of Rio+20 failed to meet either the public’s high expectations or the EU’s goals. The fact that the more than 100 heads of state and government in attendance for the first time recognized the concept of the green economy as “one of the most important tools available for achieving sustainable development” was nonetheless significant. The more concrete green economy roadmap which the EU is seeking could not, however, be put through.

The future we want: final document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio de Janeiro, 20-22 June 2012 PDF / 534 KB

United Nations Environmental Policy

Global environmental policy is conducted under United Nations auspices. While environmental policy was not yet on the political radar at the time of the United Nations’ founding in 1945, many key UN organs and bodies have since come to engage with environmental policy: the most significant of these are the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, CSD, UNEP, the UN Forum on Forests and the UN Development Programme.

The large number of UN institutions dealing with environmental issues gives rise to the question of how to avoid overlapping duties and streamline international cooperation. The final document of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro declares that UNEP is to be strengthened and a new high-level political forum established in place of the relatively weak CSD. The Rio conference did not, however, reach agreement on elevating UNEP to the status of a specialized agency.

Bilateral and European environmental policy

Germany is part of a dense network of bilateral environmental cooperation linking it with many countries. One third of total German development aid goes towards projects in the field of nature and resource conservation. Since the creation of a separate Federal Environment Ministry in 1986, Germany has signed a range of bilateral agreements with numerous partner countries in Europe and elsewhere.

Because of the very considerable importance attached to environmental issues in the European Union, Germany cooperates particularly closely with its European neighbours in the field of environmental policy. EU Environment Ministers meet regularly, both within the EU framework and on a bilateral basis.

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Environmental protection: a multi-level commitment

Germany is part of a dense network of bilateral environmental cooperation linking it with many countries all over the world. One third of all German development aid goes towards projects in the field of nature and resource conservation. more

Global environmental policy

Today global environmental policy is conducted under United Nations (UN) auspices. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, however, environmental protection was not an issue and there is no mention of it in the UN Charter. This is still the case of course, but there is now considerable public awareness of the importance of this issue. more

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