The number and range of international agreements on environmental practices and policies have grown tremendously since the 1970s. Some estimates suggest that there were around 900 agreements in force in 1992, including regional and bilateral treaties. Major accords reached on issues related to global environmental change include the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (1987), the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), and the various agreements forged as part of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.
The United States, like many other countries, came to the realization that solutions to shared environmental problems would occur only through cooperation among states. Successful cooperation, in turn, would require effective international institutions to guide international behavior toward sustainable development. Treaties and agreements are among the more important of these institutions. Environmental scientists identified seven major international environmental problems: oil pollution from tankers, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, pollution of the North and Baltic seas, mismanagement of fisheries, overpopulation, and misuse of agricultural chemicals.
Responding to concerns that human activities were increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere, most nations of the world joined together in 1992 to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and was the world's most comprehensive organized response to international environmental degradation. UNCED delegates sought to adopt conventions on greenhouse gases and biodiversity; to enunciate in an Earth Charter the principles by which humans should conduct themselves in relation to the environment; to adopt a program of action, called Agenda 21, to implement the Earth Charter; and to develop a set of institutional and financial arrangements to support such measures.
The Framework Convention on Climate Change was one of two binding treaties opened for signature at UNCED in 1992. The treaty, also known as the Climate Convention, addressed potential human-induced global warming by pledging countries to seek "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system." Although stated only in general terms, the Climate Convention parties agreed to attempt to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide and methane.
Although signed at UNCED, the Climate Convention was negotiated through a separate process under the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The text was adopted at New York on 9 May 1992 and opened for signature at Rio de Janeiro from 4 to 14 June 1992 and thereafter at United Nations Headquarters from 20 June 1992 to 19 June 1993. By that date the convention had received 166 signatures.
The United States was one of the first nations to ratify this treaty. It included a legally nonbinding, voluntary pledge that the major industrialized, developed nations would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. However, as it became apparent that major nations such as the United States and Japan would not meet the voluntary stabilization target by 2000, parties to the treaty decided in 1995 to enter into negotiations on a protocol to establish legally binding limitations or reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. These negotiations were completed at a meeting held in Kyoto, Japan, 1–10 December 1997. There was wide disparity among key players especially on three items: (1) the amounts of binding reductions in greenhouse gases to be required, and the gases to be included in these requirements; (2) whether developing countries should be part of the requirements for greenhouse gas limitations; and (3) whether to allow emissions trading and joint implementation, which allow credit to be given for emissions reductions to a country that provides funding or investments in other countries that bring about the actual reductions in those other countries or locations where they may be cheaper to attain.
The Kyoto Protocol committed the industrialized nations to specified, legally binding reductions in emissions of six greenhouse gases. The treaty was opened for signature on 16 March 1998 through 16 March 1999, and the United States signed the protocol on 12 November 1998. The treaty committed the United States to a target of reducing greenhouse gases by 7 percent below 1990 levels during a "commitment period" between 2008 and 2012. By February 2000, eighty-four countries had signed the treaty, including the European Union and most of its members, along with Canada, Japan, China, and a range of developing countries. Some twenty-two countries were reported by the UNFCCC Secretariat to have ratified the treaty. Following completion of the protocol in December of 1997, details of a number of the more difficult issues remained to be negotiated and resolved. At a fourth Conference of the Parties (COP-4) held 2–13 November 1998 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, it became apparent that these issues could not be resolved as had been expected during this meeting. Instead, parties established a two-year "Buenos Aires action plan" to deal with these issues, with a deadline for completion by the sixth Conference of the Parties (COP-6) held in The Hague, Netherlands, 13–24 November 2000.
More than 7,000 participants from 182 governments, 323 intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, and 443 media outlets attended the COP-6 meeting. COP-6 sought to reduce differences among member countries over the following issues: the transfer of technology to assist developing countries and countries with economies in transition; the adverse effects of climate change and the impact of implementation of response measures; best practices in domestic policies and measures to address greenhouse gas emissions; the mechanisms outlined under the Kyoto Protocol; a compliance system for the protocol; and issues relating to the land use, land-use change, and forestry (LULUCF) sector. Despite the best efforts of COP-6 president Jan Pronk (of the Netherlands), by 23 November negotiations had stalled. Two days later, Pronk announced that delegates had failed to reach agreement. Delegates agreed to suspend COP-6 and expressed a willingness to resume their work in 2001.
President Clinton voiced strong support for the Kyoto Protocol but criticized it for not including commitments for developing countries. The United States signature was criticized by several members of Congress who opposed the treaty on a number of grounds, including questions about the scientific justification for it and about the likely economic impacts that might occur if the United States were to attempt to meet its emission reduction commitments. In recognition of the opposition to the protocol expressed in the Senate by Resolution 98 (which passed 95–0), President Clinton indicated that he would not submit the treaty to the Senate for advice and consent until meaningful developing-country participation had been achieved, thereby delaying indefinitely any possibility of ratification.
House and Senate delegations served as observers on the U.S. delegation to the Kyoto meeting, as well as to other COP meetings, including Buenos Aires. Supporters and opponents of the protocol were included in these delegations. A number of committees held hearings on the implications of the protocol for the United States—its economy, energy prices, impacts on climate change, and other related issues. While the Clinton administration stated that the treaty could be implemented without harm to the United States economy and without imposing additional taxes, a number of questions related to how its goals could be achieved, and at what cost, continued to be of interest to Congress.
In a major setback for the environmental movement, in April 2001, President George W. Bush, responding to pressure from domestic business interests, announced that the United States no longer regarded itself bound by the Kyoto Protocol. This decision represented the triumph of U.S. economic interests over the realistic preservation of the natural global environment, and reflected the force of economic motives in the United States regardless of any detrimental impact on the world.