Although different environments in the past and distant past were not affected by the severe types of environmental problems affecting our present-day world, they would have still attracted the attention of people who had a desire to protect or sustain the environment.
Outside of Athens, the Greeks developed the first refuse dumps around the year 500 B.C. Because the Greeks understood how solid waste and human waste could spread diseases in the environment, they invented sewers, toilets, and placed waste yards or refuse dumps outside the city.
Within the boundaries of other ancient cities such as Rome, poor disposal of human waste increased the already-existing displeasing level of air pollution due to burning of solid waste, wood, and odors from garbage and runoff from household and industrial sewage.
Pollution of rivers is nothing new. To prevent the river Thames from being polluted, King Edward III of England passed a law in 1357 prohibiting pollution of the river. Nine years later (1366) in Paris, slaughterers were forced to discard animal waste outside the city.
And after about a further two decades more, in 1388, laws were passed in England to forbid/disallow disposal of garbage and refuse into trenches, rivers, and bodies of water.
By responding to numerous outbreaks of diseases and environmental problems, and creating laws to protect the environment, the foundations of environmental sustainability were further strengthened and many improvements were being increasingly made in the centuries that followed.
Even now (in modern times), governments, organizations, and people from across the world still show consistent concern for the environment and environmental sustainability. The need to sustain the environment exists globally, and the United Nations has been a major vehicle driving and promoting environmental sustainability.
In preparation for the Stockholm Conference (The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment), which was held in 1972 in Stockholm (Sweden), a meeting was held in 1971: the developed nations expressed more concern about environmental consequences of global development, while the less developed nations, on the other hand, expressed more concern about economic development.
Sustainable development ensued as a compromise between two major conflicting choices: environmental concerns and economic concerns. The Stockholm Conference led to the birth of the United Nations Environmental Programme with a mandate to handle issues tied to both sound development practices and environmental practices.
The International Environmental Education Programme took off in 1975 and was followed by the World Conservation Strategy in 1980.
Then in 1983, the Secretary-General of the United Nations asked the Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, to constitute and lead a special independent World Commission on Environment and Development.
The purpose was to enhance global cooperation on environmental and developmental matters, review and suggest how to handle critical global environmental and developmental problems, and raise different citizens’, governments’, businesses’, and industries’ understanding of and commitment to environmental sustainability and sustainable development.
After many meetings took place, the independent World Commission on Environment and Development produced a report which led to the establishment of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, and Agenda 21 instituted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and was accepted by more than 178 governments.
Agenda 21 report was created with different sections that targeted different aspects of environmental sustainability. Section I of Agenda 21 report contained discourses on eating/consumption patterns, poverty, demographic dynamics, sustainable development in developing countries, how to encourage sustainable human settlements, how to protect and promote human health, how to protect and integrate the environment into development decisions, and how to take care of needs while developing land and resources.
Section II re-examined the methods of protecting air, water, land, vulnerable or destroyed ecosystems, and sustainable agriculture, and discussed environmentally sound management of toxic chemicals, illegal international trading of hazardous wastes, toxic and dangerous products, solid wastes, and radioactive wastes.
Section III discussed the role of different native peoples, women, children, youths, workers, non-governmental organizations, trade unions, businesses, industries, and the scientific and technological community in sustainable development.
While Section IV discussed implementation of Agenda 21 which is the design pattern or blueprint for environmental sustainability and sustainable development in the 21st century.
Since global climate change started becoming an issue, all countries saw an immediate need to take necessary actions to tackle the major environmental problems affecting the world as a community.
The original “Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer” was signed by 197 countries on September 16, 1987, and became effective on January 1, 1989. Its provisions seek to protect the stratosphere ozone layer which is important and contributes to the sustenance of biodiversity and life on Earth.
Based on new scientific information at the time, adjustments were effected on March 7, 1991, September 23, 1993, August 5, 1996, June 4, 1998, July 28, 2000, and May 14, 2008.
Meanwhile, in December 1997, more than 150 countries established the Kyoto Protocol to sustain and protect the atmosphere and the climate, and support research on climate change.
To propel actions that can increase the availability of clean air, clean energy, and safe water, and protect people and the environment from diseases and injuries, various nations, NGOs, financial institutions, UN agencies, and groups from around the world convened at the World Summit on Sustainable Development between August 26 and September 4, 2002, and discussed major issues of biodiversity, water, agriculture, energy, and health.
Once again, the countries of the world convened at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development between June 20 and 22, 2012, and reaffirmed their commitment to take necessary actions to achieve a sustainable future for present and future generations.
The most important concerns discussed were about how to eradicate hunger, poverty, and diseases, and develop natural resources in ways that are environmentally friendly.
The conference re-emphasized that people were the focal point of sustainable development, while governments, industries, businesses, and organizations were partners, and decisions on sustainable development should be based on scientific research.