Turning Back the Clock: EU Climate Policy in the 1970s and 1980s

By Olivia Draycott

During the 1970s and 1980s, there was growing awareness of the need to introduce global climate policy, to tackle what we know today as the climate crisis. This twenty-year period marked the start of new policy enactment and reformation of ideas towards the planet. The article will initially focus on the key summit of the 1970s; the October 1972 Paris Summit, followed by the 1973 July Environmental Action Programme [1,2]. The focus will then gradually shift to shed light on developments made in the 1980s, notably the creation of the IPCC in 1988 [3].

The catalyst for Environmental Action

Climate Policy began to take the stage during the 1970s with a focus placed on the impact of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the consequences of their increased usage on rising global temperatures [4].  Yet despite such revelations, it took until 1977 for ‘The Greenhouse Effect’  – a review, delivered initially to Exxon Corporation by James Black – to be released [5]. The paper shed light on how ‘man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical’ [5]. 

The 1972 Summit marked a monumental policy adaptation towards an action programme for environmental protection. The policy prioritised the need to increase environmental strategies surrounding growing economic expansion with how environmental pollution did not stop at national borders and had to be addressed by cross-border measures instead [6,7]. Despite the focus on attempting to reduce the impacts of global economic expansion, the focus on environmental policy was neither broad nor specific. 

Environmental action throughout the 1970s

The 1973 Environmental Action Programme marked its focus on implementing proactive change, rather than offering recommendations to do so. It placed limitations on vehicle emissions for the content of lead within petrol, however, without a common economic policy it threatened the free trade within the Economic Community of Europe [8]. This led to the creation of the Directorate-General for the Environment 1974 (DG Environment). The DG was created to improve and preserve Europe’s environment for current and future generations, with the establishment of lobby groups placed across member states that called for action to be taken regarding sanctions on air quality and carbon emissions [9]. Furthermore, the DG Environment aimed to resolve the issue of environmental policy cross-border trade relations with ‘the elimination of technical trade barriers’ [2].

Climate Policy in the 1980s, a turn for the better?

The environmental policies in the 1980s were focused on protecting and sustaining the environment. This led to the development of the Environmental Defense Fund, and the further establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 1988 [10, 11]. 

The main priority of the IPCC was ‘to provide policymakers with regular assessments of climate change, its impacts and future risks’ [11]. The first assessment set the framework for the negotiations that led to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and it became ‘the authoritative source of information on the science and impacts of climate change’ [10,12]. With this increased sense of immediacy, the focus of climate policy remained largely around greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions and rising global temperatures. The IPCC Task Forces for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories’ main focus is to ‘develop and refine a methodology for the calculation and reporting of national greenhouse gas emissions and removals’ [11].


The 1970s marked the beginning of Environmental Policy across Europe, the 1972 Paris summit acting as the catalyst for a broader focus and attention on the environment. Although physical positive action did not occur until the late 1970s, the foundations had been established. As a result, the policies and summits placed greater emphasis on the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. The policy began to evolve into an action plan through the creation of the specialised task force of the IPCC that attempts to mitigate against the climate crisis and provide solutions towards the problems we still face. 


[1] Report of The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, Stockholm, 5-16 June 1972, United Nations, https://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/CONF.48/14/REV.1, accessed 8th June 2021.
[2]’Le Treut, H., R. Somerville, U. Cubasch, Y. Ding, C. Mauritzen, A. Mokssit, T. Peterson and M. Prather, 2007: Historical Overview of Climate Change. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
[3]History of the IPCC, IPCC,  https://www.ipcc.ch/about/history/, accessed 8th June 2021.
[4] Ulrich Cubasch et al.,  2007, Historical Overview of Climate Change Science, https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/03/ar4-wg1-chapter1.pdf, accessed 8th June 2021.
[5] James Black, 1977, The Greenhouse Effect, https://mk0insideclimats3pe4.kinstacdn.com, accessed 8th June 2021.
[6] Environment policy: general principles and basic framework, European Parliament, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/en/sheet/71/environment-policy, accessed 8th June 2021. 
[7] Andrew Jordan, Camilla Adelle, 2012, Environmental Policy in the EU: Actors, institutions and processes, Routledge Third Edition, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203109823, accessed 8th June 2021.
[8] Andrew Tickle, 2001, Environmental policy in the European, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. issue 4,  https://doi.org/10.1002/eet.283, accessed 8th June 2021.
[9] DG Environment, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/environment/pubs/pdf/factsheets/dg_environment.pdf, accessed 8th June 2021.
[10] Michael Oppenheimer, How the IPCC Got Started, Environmental Defence Fund, https://blogs.edf.org/climate411/2007/11/01/ipcc_beginnings/, accessed 10th June 2021.
[11]About the IPCC, IPCC, https://www.ipcc.ch/about/, accessed 10th June 2021.
[12] David Hirst, 2020, The history of global climate change negotiations, UK Parliament, https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/the-history-of-global-climate-change-negotiations/, accessed 10th June 2021.
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