During the past half century, we learned we share a fragile biosphere. Our view of life on Earth, whether through a microscope or from a space station, is colored by the knowledge that everyday human activities can threaten our future.
This list of key environmental treaties shows how nations are working together, politically and scientifically, to safeguard our planet and respond to a global threat. The United States, whose pollution control laws serve as models for other nations, remains a leader in identifying, mitigating and remediating environmental hazards. It is a party to nearly all these international pacts.
Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1962
Seeking to prevent ocean pollution by oil discharged from ships, this pact limits discharges of oil-contaminated wastes. It allows exceptions for discharges with low levels of oil contamination; and for tankers that discharged only a small percentage of their total cargo-carrying capacity or released oil-contaminated ballast more than 80 kilometers from the nearest land.
Although later pacts would be more stringent, in the context of its time, this agreement represents a significant international commitment to reduce oil pollution from oceangoing vessels.
The Ramsar Convention, 1971
The Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.
Eventually, there will be 158 contracting parties to the convention and 1,743 protected wetland sites -- totaling 161 million hectares -- designated for inclusion in the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance.
The MARPOL Convention is a major international pact to prevent pollution of the marine environment, from operational or accidental causes, by ships.
The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), signed at the International Maritime Organization, addresses oil pollution, but also covers pollution from chemicals, packaged harmful substances, sewage and garbage. The pact will be updated substantively by a 1978 protocol at a conference held in response to a series of tanker accidents in 1976 and 1977. In the 21st century, MARPOL will remain a dynamic agreement, regularly updated by documents called “annexes.”
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), one of the earliest international agreements addressing the plight of endangered species, is adopted in Washington, with the United States one of the 21 original signatories. More than 170 nations will become parties to CITES.
The convention protects at-risk species through restrictions on commerce. Its control of international trade in species in danger of extinction relies on signatory nations adopting and enforcing export and import restrictions. CITES allows for trade in listed species if such trade is not detrimental to a species’ survival.
Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, 1979
This agreement encourages scientific collaboration and policy negotiation to target air pollution that spreads from its source into the atmosphere. It will be extended by eight protocols that identify specific measures to cut emissions of air pollutants.
The aim of the convention, which in 2008 will have 51 parties, is to limit and gradually reduce and prevent air pollution, especially long-range air pollution that crosses national borders. Parties to the convention commit to developing policies and strategies on information exchange, consultation, research and monitoring to combat the discharge of air pollutants.
Montreal Protocol, 1987
The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer calls for phasing out production and consumption of compounds that deplete ozone in the stratosphere -- chlorofluorocarbons, halons, carbon tetrachloride and methyl chloroform. This will be accomplished in 2000 for most of the listed substances and in 2004 for methyl chloroform.
The agreement, eventually ratified by 191 countries, will help cut production of ozone-depleting chemicals from more than 1.8 million metric tons in 1987 to 83,000 metric tons at the end of 2005.
Basel Convention, 1989
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal is the world’s most comprehensive pact on hazardous wastes. Its 170 signatories aim to protect human health and the environment from adverse effects of generation, management, shipment and disposal of hazardous wastes.
In the late 1980s, when regulations in industrialized countries increased the cost of hazardous waste disposal, so-called “toxic traders” began shipping hazardous waste to developing countries and to Eastern Europe. International outrage about this practice led to the drafting and adoption of this convention.
Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992
This agreement, adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is part of a comprehensive strategy for sustainable development -- meeting the needs of the current generation of human beings while ensuring a healthy and viable world for future generations.
In this pact, most of the world's governments commit to maintaining the world's ecological underpinnings while pursuing economic development. The convention sets three main goals: conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of plant and animal species, and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources.
U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992
This convention, another initiative from the 1992 Earth Summit, sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to meet the challenge of climate change. It recognizes the climate system is a shared resource whose stability can be affected by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. The convention enjoys near universal membership: 192 signatories.
Countries agree to collect and share data on greenhouse gas emissions, national policies and best practices; launch national strategies for addressing emissions; and cooperate in preparing for adaptation to the effects of climate change.
Convention on Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents, 1992
The 1992 Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents aims to protect human health and the environment from industrial accidents by preventing them to the extent possible, reducing their frequency and severity and mitigating their effects.
Its parties pledge cooperation to prevent, prepare for and respond to industrial accidents that can have international effects. The pact also encourages international cooperation on emergency responses, research and development and sharing of information and technology.
U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, 1994
Desertification was a major concern at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The U.N. Environment Programme concluded in 1991 that land degradation in arid, semiarid and dry subhumid areas had intensified, although there were "local examples of success."
The conference recommended an integrated approach that promoted sustainable development at the community level and called for a U.N. committee to draft an international agreement to advance that goal. The result is the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, Particularly in Africa.
Kyoto Protocol, 1997
Parties to the Kyoto Protocol (an amendment to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) commit to reducing their emissions of six greenhouse gases, or engage in emissions trading if they maintain or increase emissions of these gases, which are linked to global warming.
The United States is not a party to this protocol, but continues to pursue reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, fund research on climate change and promote alternative energy sources in developed and developing nations. It also leads several international partnerships, including the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, to address global warming.