Since then, environmental discussions have been increasingly covered by the major media, providing new concepts for public opinion as the science has evolved. And the challenges have become more complex. While the scenario was focused on specific threats in the past, the discussions today emphasize the seriousness of a problem that involves almost all aspects of human life on earth. From the worldwide fear of acid rain to proposals for a Green Economy – this year’s theme for World Environment Day, and one of the main issues being discussed at Rio+20 –, there has been significant progress.
Forty years ago, the greatest environmental concerns were related to air pollution and the dangers of acid rain. In the more industrialized nations, this precipitation of chemical elements – caused by toxic gases resulting from the burning of coal and oil by industry and automotive vehicles – was becoming extremely harmful to human health, the forests and the oceans. In Brazil, it was the city of Paulo that suffered most from acid rain in the 1970s. Today, the problem is relatively under control, having been mitigated by the installation of filters in factory smoke stacks and catalytic converters in vehicle exhausts.
Another danger that kept scientists awake during the 1970s and 1980s was the formation of a hole in the ozone layer over the skies of Antarctica. Without this chemical element in the stratosphere, living beings are at the mercy of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, which can cause skin and eye diseases, in addition to changes in plant cells. Chlorofluorocarbon gases, or simply CFCs, commonly used in motors for refrigerators and air conditioners, were discovered to be ozone's big villain – and many countries banned their use in household appliances as the only possible solution to the problem. Fortunately, good sense and scientific investments combined to find an alternative to CFCs, which were gradually replaced by industry.
Advances in understanding the damage that human activity is causing the planet reached another milestone in 1983 when the World Commission on the Environment and Development was created by the U.N. General Assembly. The commission’s mission was to review all the environmental problems known by scientists at that time, propose new approaches and discuss realistic solutions. Greater cooperation between nations, in addition to the creation of international policies and strategies to be put into practice, were necessary. Thus was born, in 1987, the “Our Common Future” report, which coined the concept of “sustainable development” for the first time.
A plan must be drafted in order to achieve this objective. And it was with this intention of effectively putting the concepts formed during the 1980s into practice, that new global meetings took place, such as Rio-92 – which in addition to solidifying the term “sustainability” in the vocabulary of the common man, resulted in concrete actions, agreements and commitments, such as the signing of Agenda 21 by all the authorities in charge.
Five years later, in 1997, the U.N. signed another international agreement with 59 countries in a new conference held in the Japanese city of Kyoto. Known as the Kyoto Protocol, the commitment this time was to reduce emissions of the so-called greenhouse gases (GHG) by 5% in the main industrialized nations, in relation to 1990, in addition to promoting sustainable development in the emerging countries. The Kyoto Protocol took effect in February 2005, after Russia joined it, and is supported by more than 180 countries. The United States and China refused to sign it.
Recently, global preparation for the Rio+20 event has been accompanied by a new term which has appeared in the major media: Green Economy. According to an economist specialized in the environment, Carlos Eduardo Frickmann Young, a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), the term provides a more practical character to the idea of sustainable development. “Basically, sustainability does not say what to do, but how to do it. The Green Economy is a more specific concept that lays out ‘what to do’: the production and consumption activities compatible with sustainable development,” says Young.
In this sense, the Green Economy is one more step the planet is taking in a discussion that has only grown in complexity over the last four decades.