Have climate conferences truly delivered?

By Rachel Teng

On the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer, Singapore Ambassador Tommy Koh gives a behind-the-scenes view of the negotiations that took place at the 1992 Rio Declaration, and shares his thoughts on how far humanity has come since then.

The Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was the first time in UN conference history that NGOs were allowed to contribute their voices – a change kickstarted by Professor Tommy Koh. Image: The United Nations.

Since the 1987 Montreal Protocol, 16 September had been christened as the International Day for the Preservation of the Ozone Layer. This date marks the first and only UN environmental agreement to be ratified by every country in the world.

This time last year, the World Meteorological Organization called the ozone layer recovery “an environmental success story”. The UN Environment Programme Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion confirmed that the ozone will fully recover by 2070 – well within the lifetimes of many alive today.

When the ozone hole was discovered in 1985, humanity was faced with an immediate public health crisis that was directly related to anthropogenic environmental damage. World leaders proved to be able to put their differences aside to agree on a complete global ban against the use of ozone-damaging halons and chlorofluorocarbons within two short years.
The Montreal Protocol alone has averted more than 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions across a sustained span of two decades, according to the UN Environment Programme. Graph: Our World in Data.

Today, our world is plagued by extreme weather events, plastic-polluted oceans, unprecedented rates of wildlife extinction, and the seemingly impossible task of keeping the Earth’s fever below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Will humanity, once again, come together to avert the climate crisis?

On the 30-year anniversary of the 1992 Rio Declaration, Singaporean Ambassador Tommy Koh, gives a behind-the-scenes, retrospective sharing of his experience leading the negotiations at the Earth Summit, and how far we have progressed since then.

Revelations and revolutions from the past

The 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro Brazil, otherwise known as the Earth Summit, produced some of the most influential instruments that guided states on environmental matters in the years that followed.

These include the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, and, most famously known, the Rio Declaration with its 27 principles. Ambassador Tommy Koh drafted the Rio Declaration of Principles, and successfully led the negotiations between 179 countries, which kickstarted the international protection of land, water, and air resources, as well as wildlife conservation.

“When I look at what happened in COP26, when all the major countries that host rainforests signed a pledge that they would stop deforestation by 2030, that was like a miracle to me,” Koh said during a webinar hosted by the National University of Singapore’s Centre for International Law.

He shared that during his time, there was a “complete absence of trust” between the countries of the Global North and Global South. “Brazil, for example, played a very negative role in the outcome. There was a conspiracy that the developed countries were out to retard the development of the developing countries [by capping their use of natural resources],” he said.

Today, this narrative has thankfully taken a backseat – and Koh believes this to be an “important victory”. “There’s nobody in the South who would say, ‘let’s get rich first, and then we’ll clean up the environment later’, or believe that environmental protection is a conspiracy by the North,” said Koh.

As opposed to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol where most of the burden to avert the climate crisis was put on developed countries due to their historical emissions, the 2016 Paris Agreement took a tone of urgency that no longer focused on the past, Koh observed.

“I salute France for having broken through what was an impossible problem, and persuaded everybody that we are all in this together. And whether you’re a rich country or not-so-rich country, we can all make a contribution,” he said.

Evidence of hope in youth and corporates

Fast forward to today, the UN General Assembly voted almost unanimously in July 2022 that the ability to live in a clean, healthy, sustainable environment is a “universal human right”.

“I think this is a very important step and will put pressure on all the governments in the world. It is their responsibility to fulfil the aspiration of their people to live in a clean environment,” said Koh.

But world leaders are not the only stakeholders that Koh is encouraged by. “When we look at public opinion polls, [citizens in] almost every country all over the world have recognised the importance of protecting nature, and the state of the environment has become a matter of public concern,” he said.

This level of citizen engagement has translated into very real outcomes, such as consumer activism. A 2021 report conducted by media consultancies Dentsu International and Microsoft Advertising has shown that almost half (45 per cent) of consumers are willing to consider alternatives to products that are not environmentally friendly.

Almost three in five (59 per cent) are prepared to lobby for change by boycotting environmentally-unfriendly business practices, the report found. In fact, the UK’s largest supermarket announced in February 2022 the closure of its meat and fish sections across 317 of its stores due to an overwhelming demand for plant-based products among the younger generation.

“I see a tremendous increase in involvement by young people. Look at Singapore – there are so many youth groups that are lobbying for change. The next generation is much more green and concerned about protecting the environment than we are,” said Koh.

Koh added that another encouraging stakeholder trend lies in the private sector. In 1970, American economist Milton Friedman theorised that a company has no social responsibility to the public or society, and that its only responsibility is to its shareholders. “We’ve come such a long way from Friedman,” said Koh.

Indeed, companies are no longer solely motivated by profit, and behind faceless, greed-driven brands may lie very real people that are equally motivated by the urgency of the climate crisis. Just yesterday, Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, gave away his US$3 billion company to fight climate change. “Earth is now our only shareholder,” wrote Chouinard in an open letter.

A long way to go

While Koh had found COP26 to be an encouraging step forward, the one most urgent area he would like to see addressed at the COP27 held in Egypt would be the question of financing. “I’d like to see whether we can come to some agreement on the need for rich countries to help poor countries make the transition to a low-carbon economy,” said Koh.

While there have been hopeful strides on some fronts, Koh worries about other climate impacts. “On biodiversity, we’ve done disastrously. On climate change, the window is closing,” he said during a recent talk.

“I don’t know how to change course, because biodiversity doesn’t have the same emotional impact on existence as climate change. The problem is that people don’t see the importance of protecting species, ecosystems, and life. They don’t see the connection to their own health and wellbeing,” he said.

“I continue to worry that we’re doing a very bad job in conserving biodiversity. I worry that we may miss the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius. I think it hangs in the balance, but the battle is not lost. And when I think of the next generation, I’m optimistic,” he added.