Villach Conference (Global Warming)

The conference held in Villach, Austria, from October 9 to 15, 1985, was the result of the continuing work of several international entities. In some views, the background to the conference and the starting point for internationally cohesive attempts to understand the issues related to the stratospheric ozone layer depletion and climate change have been traced to the UN Conference on Human Development in Stockholm in 1972. The technical, scientific understanding of the possibility of human-induced effects on the ozone layer and of climate change developed in the diplomatic context as complementary efforts linked through a reliance on common research initiatives.

A World Climate Conference held in Geneva in 1979 continued the efforts of the 1972 UN Conference on Human Development and led to the World Climate Programme. The World Meteorological Organization, the UN Environment Programme, and the International Council of Scientific Unions collaborated to hold a series of workshops that have come to be known as the Villach Conference.

The UN Environment Programme Ad Hoc Working Group of Legal and Technical Experts for the Elaboration of a Global Framework Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was established by decision of the UN Environment Programme Governing Council decision 12/14, part I. The first part of the fourth session of the working group was held at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, from October 22 to 26, 1984.

The Working Group was also informed of the collaborative effort of the UN Environment Programme, the World Meteorological Organization, and the International Council of Scientific Unions to hold a major scientific conference to assess the carbon dioxide/ozone and climate question in October 1985 at Villach, Austria, with the support of the government of Austria.

Located at the intersection of the ozone and climate change issues, the Villach Conference became immediately significant to the Working Groups of both UN endeavors and to the overall development of international initiatives to address atmospheric environmental issues. A workshop on chlorofluorocarbons at Villach initiated the processes that led to a protocol to the Vienna Convention, which had been signed earlier that year in March 1985. The same conference augmented the UN Environment Programme’s role in determining the assessment of the greenhouse gas/ climate issue. In this regard, the October 1985 Villach Conference was significant.

The participants at the Villach Conference were a small group of environmental scientists and research managers in nongovernmental organizations. The dominant contribution of these participants was their expertise in climate modeling. With accreditation from recognized scientific institutions such as the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and from Harvard University, the results of this series of workshops carried considerable weight internationally. Even before the conference, a majority of the scientists who attended had publicly advocated what they considered an imperative to respond to a perceived threat to planetary climate stability within a strategy that was consistent with sustainable development, which was eventually incorporated in the Brundtland Report. Through affiliations with nongovernmental institutions, the scientists had improved modeling techniques that they relied on and that led them to generally agree with the conclusions and recommendations of the conference.

It was at the Villach Conference that the scientific community present arrived at an initial consensus as to the technical features of greenhouse gases, the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, and the chemical reactions that were relevant.

The general conclusion of the scientists and participants at the conference was that they could anticipate an unprecedented rise of global mean temperature in the first half of the 21st century. The scale and actual increase in global mean temperature was expected to be higher than any rise in the record of the planet’s history. To mitigate the perceived events, the participants recommended a strategy that relied on technical and science-based research to establish target emission or concentration limits. In doing so, they sought to regulate the rate of change of global mean temperature within specific parameters.

Another result of the work by the participants at Villach was the establishment of the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases in 1986. This group was established to ensure continued academic and public interest in the effect of rising levels of greenhouse gases on the ozone layer and on climate change. The Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases was jointly sponsored by the World Meteorological Organization, the UN Environment Programme, and the International Council of Science Unions.

The Brundtland Report, published in 1987, popularized sustainable development and advocated the development of a low-energy economy. This publication included a section on energy authored by Professor Gordon Goodman, who was by then a prominent member of the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases.

Work by the Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases subsequently led to the 1988 Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security in Toronto, Canada, which called for 20 percent reductions in CO2 emissions. The Advisory Group followed that up by preparing the Meeting of Legal and Policy Experts in February 1989 in Ottawa, which recommended an umbrella consortium to protect the atmosphere. The 1988 Toronto Conference then led to the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with the mandate for continuing international research on climate change phenomena.

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