Toronto Conference (Global Warming)

Scientists from various international organizations, such as the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva, met with their peers in groups at various locations for three years. Following the signing of the United Nations Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985) and the Villach Conference (1985), these meetings helped to develop the basis for further action. From the discussions at these meetings, a scientific accord on the main aspects of how much climate warming can be expected emerged. The confluence of this emerging consensus and other events led to the Toronto Conference in 1988.

The scientists’ efforts gained the support of the United Nations, the World Meteorological Organization, the Canadian government, and other international organizations. The scientists then came together in Toronto, Canada, from June 27 to 30, 1988. In attracting national policymakers as well as 300 scientists from 46 countries and organizations, this conference became the first such international conference to combine science and policy.

Entitled the International Conference of the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security, the meeting highlighted atmospheric issues in a comprehensive way. The concern for the potential damage to the planet was compared with the consequences of nuclear war, and the scientific consensus at the conference astonished its chair, Stephen Lewis, who was then Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. Lewis also brokered the strongly worded final declaration. Identifying the existing situation as "an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment," the Conference Statement claimed that the consequences of this experiment would be second only those of a global nuclear war.

Recognizing that attempts to address issues affecting the atmosphere as a whole had been fragmentary to date, the Toronto Conference took a more global approach. The initiative was to integrate the existing Vienna Convention (1985) and the 1979 Geneva Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution and to provide a basis for including issues that had not yet been addressed or recognized. Such an integrated approach to considering the atmosphere as a whole would conceivably permit a more complex approach to interrelated issues and solutions. As such, this initiative raised the possibility of a comprehensive Law of the Air.


The comprehensive approach and wide representation enabled attention to be paid to the scientific, economic, and social concerns. The attendees generated specific calls for action to governments, industry, and nongovernmental organizations. Working groups within the conference made specific recommendations to address a wide range of issues that were related and relevant to the health of the global atmosphere.

Issues that were recognized were those that arose both directly out of usage of the atmosphere and indirectly, through human effects on land and water. The atmospheric effects of the manner and form of human settlement—including the increasing urbanization of populations and acid rain— were directly relevant. Indirect atmospheric effects resulted from the full range of human activities including food production, industry, energy usage, trade, and investment.

Changing climate and human effects on coastal and marine resources were also pertinent. Human decision making involving forecasting, uncertainty, futures, and geopolitical issues—higher-order considerations resulting from the integration of programs and legal issues—were also addressed.

The precise form of a global pact was debated, with the Canadian government favoring the concept of an International Law of the Air. Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney pointed out that the groundwork for such an approach exists in the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer and in the impending international protocol on nitrogen oxide control. Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland recommended a global convention on protection of the climate.

The meeting recommended a global pact to protect the atmosphere and a world atmosphere fund to facilitate global solutions, which recognized differential issues in usage and effects. For instance, the different historical consumption of and contribution to the atmosphere of already industrialized nations and those in the process of industrializing would be balanced by having the fund financed in part by taxes on fossil fuels consumed in industrialized nations. The proposed atmosphere fund would then be used partly to provide economic assistance to developing countries pursuing environmentally friendly strategies such as reducing deforestation.

The delegates concluded that immediate action is imperative to address ozone depletion, global warming and sea-level rise, and acidification by atmospheric pollutants. The potential role of nuclear power as a clean energy source was debated, but no official recommendations emerged. Reduction of other greenhouse gases, substances that deplete the ozone layer, and acidifying emissions were recommended.

Specifically on the issue of global warming from greenhouse gases and climate change, the conference reached a consensus on the likelihood of a rise in the global mean temperature of between 2.7-8 degrees F (1.5-4.5 degrees C) by about 2050, but not on whether such warming has begun. The conference statement called for a 20 percent cut in present (1988) levels of global carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2005, about half of which could be achieved through conservation, leading to an eventual cut of 50 percent. This statement was possible as a result of the participation of governments that voluntarily committed to cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by the year 2005. This became the so-called "Toronto target" for greenhouse gas emissions and went beyond the emissions targets recommended by most later international conferences, as well as the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the core goal of Kyoto.

The Toronto Conference was also influential in other developments. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international grouping of over 300 of the world’s best climate scientists, charged with peer reviewing and reporting on the latest international science, effects, and responses to climate change, had been formed just before the conference. The conference was instrumental in promoting the IPCC and in the eventual appointment of Swedish scientist Bert Bolin to head it.


Discussions at the conference also led to the allocation of resources to the World Climate Programme and other global research institutions, to the support for technology transfer solutions, to the advocacy of reduction of deforestation, and to raising public awareness of issues related to the atmosphere.

As a follow-up to June’s Toronto Conference, a smaller meeting of legal and policy experts was held in Ottawa, Canada, from February 20 to 22, 1989, to begin developing an international accord for the protection of the atmosphere. The 80 participants, acting in a personal capacity, constituted a broad spectrum of experts and officials from developed and developing countries, nongovernmental organizations, and academic institutions and discussed the legal and institutional framework for dealing with emerging atmospheric problems, agreed where possible on the basis of an umbrella convention framework, and identified areas of possible disagreement.

With the 1982 Law of the Sea as a precedent, the meeting recommended that one or more international conventions such as a Law of the Atmosphere and a narrower Climate Change Convention with appropriate protocols were urgently needed, especially to limit greenhouse warming. The statement from this meeting presented early drafts of the proposed documents.

The Law of the Atmosphere approach was criticized as being more unrealistic than the narrower Climate Change Convention and did not receive much attention from subsequent negotiators. In carrying the ideas from the Toronto Conference forward, the Ottawa meeting proposed broad terminology for atmosphere and atmospheric interference; discussed the obligation of nations to protect the atmosphere, recognizing the relationship between the atmosphere and other aspects of the environment; recognized the need to balancing of development internationally; and proposed an international notification process for harmful activities, liability, compensation, and dispute resolution mechanisms, as well as details of the Atmospheric Trust Fund.

Features that were eventually included in the 1992 Climate Convention included the approach of a framework treaty that deals with the central issues with protocols for particular details. This would be similar to the Vienna Convention with the Montreal Protocol. Two years after the Toronto Conference, the IPCC issued assessments that provided the basis for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, followed by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.

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