50 yrs of Stockholm summit: Tracking sustainability discussions and actions

Updated on Jun 04, 2022 08:34 PM IST

Massive deforestation due to extreme weather events, oil spills, countries struggling with water and crop contamination, a food and power crisis as the fallout of a war have dominated news headlines so far this year. But similar stories were common in 1972, when some 122 countries met for the UN Conference on Human Environment, in Stockholm, Sweden, between June 5 and 16.

ByTannu Jain

New Delhi: Massive deforestation due to extreme weather events, oil spills, countries struggling with water and crop contamination, a food and power crisis as the fallout of a war have dominated news headlines so far this year. But similar stories were common in 1972, when some 122 countries met for the UN Conference on Human Environment, in Stockholm, Sweden, between June 5 and 16.

It was at this conference that world leaders recognised an inescapable ecological reality for the first time: progress cannot be unconditional, development needs to be sustainable. Exactly 50 years since sustainable development was first discussed globally, world leaders are meeting again between June 2 and 3 in Stockholm, for the Stockholm+50 summit, to discuss the progress made since the 1972 conference.

Ahead of the 1972 conference, 2,200 scientists signed a letter to then UN secretary general U Thant and to their “three and a half billion neighbours on planet earth” warning of the “unprecedented common danger” facing mankind. The scientists warned that the world was moving towards multiple crises, and urged “massive research into the problems that threaten the survival of mankind”.

Thant’s response highlighted the “delicate equilibrium of physical and biological phenomena on earth”, which, he said cannot be disturbed along the road of technological development.

It was the birth of sustainability.

The summit, organised upon Sweden’s urging, marked the first global effort to treat the environment as a worldwide policy issue and define the core principles for its management.

The participating countries adopted 26 principles, including the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment. The principles called for asserting human rights, safeguarding natural resources and wildlife, maintaining Earth’s capacity to produce renewable resources, and assistance to developing countries.

The event was a “realisation that man has come to one of those seminal points in history where his own activities are the principle determinants of his own future,” Maurice Strong, the Secretary General of the 1972 event said.

The conference also put global inequality in the spotlight, with then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi questioning the prioritization of environmental protection in the face of extreme poverty — a view shared by other developing countries.

As a result of the conference, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) was established. Based in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP went on to facilitate the 1987 Montreal Protocol — the only UN environmental agreement to be ratified by every country — to phase out ozone-depleting substances, and co-founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The Montreal Protocol has also been the most successful, with parties to the agreement having phased out almost 98% of their ozone depleting substances. Showing the first signs of recovery, the ozone layer is expected to return to the pre-1980 levels by the middle of the century and the Antarctic ozone hole by around 2060s, Stephanie Haysmith, the communications officer for the Ozone Secretariat said at the thirty-first, and last, meeting of the parties in 2019.

However, a failure to fully implement the 1972 action plan prompted the UN to convene follow-up conferences.

Twenty years later, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro embraced sustainable development to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. By the time of the summit, it had become apparent that human activities were altering the planet. The participating nations also agreed that economic development, environmental protection and social development were interdependent. It was also acknowledged that developed countries had more capacity to pursue sustainable development and that their societies placed greater pressures on the environment.

The Earth Summit produced the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), laying the foundation for global climate negotiations.

The succeeding UN Conference on Environment and Development — the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) — all flow from the declaration of the Stockholm Conference.

In 2015, 193 world leaders adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals “to end extreme poverty, inequality and climate change by 2030”, with measurable targets.

The Sustainable Development Goals Progress Chart, published last year, presented a snapshot of the progress towards the 17 goals for Agenda 2030. While the assessment was based on latest data, it highlighted that the Covid-19 pandemic hampered data collection.

The progress chart showed that the world was already off track in realizing the ambitions and fulfilling the commitments of the 2030 Agenda, even before Covid-19. The pandemic only magnified deeply rooted problems like “insufficient social protection, weak public health systems and inadequate health coverage, structural inequalities, environmental degradation and climate change”, the report said.

According to the progress chart, while there was substantial progress on some of the goals, like reducing under-5 mortality rates and access to sustainable energy, most goals and targets saw limited progress, and some even deterioration.

Development goals, including alleviation of poverty and ending malaria saw limited or no progress, the report stated. However, most environmental goals, including building sustainable cities, combating climate change and its effect, and preventing extinction of threatened species, witnessed a deterioration in efforts. There was also limited progress on conservation and sustainable use of oceans.

The results are reflective of what the Stockholm Environment Institute and Council on Energy, Environment and Water said in their recent report, Stockholm+50: Unlocking a Better Future.

“Our development pathways have not aligned with the principles established in 1972. While making positive change at the margins, outcomes have not been fair and equitable, and we have lost sight of protecting the planet,” the report said.

The Paris Agreement, also signed in 2015, set a goal to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. The legally binding international treaty was adopted by 196 parties at COP21 in Paris on December 12, 2015.

However, an IPCC report published in August last year, said that under all emissions scenarios considered by scientists, both targets will be broken this century unless huge cuts in carbon take place.

The report was published months before COP26 was held in Glasgow, where participating countries agreed to a phase down of coal.

Fifty years since the first conference, the world faces a triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and waste, nature and biodiversity loss, which the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described as “our number one existential threat” that needs and urgent, all-out effort to turn things around.

“We must rise higher to rescue the SDGs – and stay true to our promise of a world of peace, dignity and prosperity on a healthy planet,” he underscored at the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meeting on Operational Activities for Development between May 17 and 19, 2022.

“The world is on fire and so far, international cooperation has not delivered for those who need it most,” he said.

While experts hailed the Stockholm Conference for bringing multilateral governance of planetary concerns into the mainstream, they called for greater corporation between countries.

“Most of today’s conventions related to planetary crises like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the whole environmental regime trace their origin to the Stockholm Declaration. But, how far have we acted upon this? Environmental crisis, particularly the existential climate emergency, shows that we are still not a unified world. Rich countries don’t acknowledge the crisis or are willing to take up more responsibility, being the historically biggest emitters of GHGs (green house gases). The poor countries are the victims and continue to suffer,” said Richard Mahapatra, senior director, Centre for Science and Environment.

“The pandemic and now the food crisis triggered by Russian invasion of Ukraine have further aggravated the situation. We are not at all on track to meet the SDGs, the foremost being the goal to eradicate extreme poverty,” he added.

Ulka Kelkar, director, climate program, at World Resources Institute India, said that while progress on sustainable development may seem inadequate, the world has come a long way since the first conference in 1972.

“Before the 2015 conference, when SDGs were agreed upon, projections suggested that the world was on track for a 4 degrees Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century. That number has come down to 2.1 degrees. However, as the world evolves and technology advances, countries must stick the announcements and agreements at the climate summits,” Kelkar said.

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