Stockholm 2022: Chart a new future
There can be no trade-offs, as the world attempts to transition to a cleaner, sustainable and resilient future
Fifty years ago, 113 countries assembled in Stockholm (June 5-16) for the United Nations Human Environment Conference. Coming in the backdrop of the first stirring of environmental activism and concern over unchecked development — The Limits to Growth had been published just two months before, signalling for the first time that exploiting the Earth’s resources could have catastrophic consequences — it was a seminal moment of environmental diplomacy and established the environment as an issue of international politics.
A large number of countries from the global South (developing nations) attended the conference, despite their suspicion over the agenda of the so-called North (developed countries). The former felt that the latter was trying to curb their economic growth. The participation of India and China, two developing countries with a combined population of 1.4 billion at the time, was critical to the proceedings and, eventually, the Stockholm Declaration.
Interestingly, the text — which today is considered the starting point of the sustainability movement — didn’t use the word in its declaration, but Principle 3 (The capacity of the earth to produce vital renewable resources must be maintained and, wherever practicable restored or improved) defined its value. In an influential speech, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi welcomed global cooperation on environmental issues but underscored that India’s economic development could not be undermined. “We do not wish to impoverish the environment any further and yet we cannot for a moment forget the grim poverty of large numbers of people. Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters? she asked. This question continues to haunt the world. Development rights and responsibilities and whether rich countries that contributed to the environmental damage should provide the necessary technical and financial assistance to the developing world are issues that remain unresolved.
In the last five decades, several environmental regimes have been established. Irrespective, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to increase. Sustainability and its three pillars of economic and social development and environmental protection are critical for bringing the world back on track. However, that does not mean an end to the process of production and consumption demand. Levels of sustainability can still be improved, for example, by recycling or reusing billions of tonnes of waste materials disposed every year.
Eliminating waste and recycling/reusing can help mitigate the climate crisis and restore the natural system. The world generates 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal solid waste annually, with at least one-third managed in an environmentally hazardous way. This is expected to grow to an estimated 3.50 billion tonnes by 2050. Interestingly, high-income countries, which account for 16% of the world population, generate about 34% of solid waste. Therefore, the focus on waste management will not only require technological interventions, but more importantly locally appropriate solutions, including bolstering local public responsibilities.
Since 1972, the global population has increased by over four billion and has driven up the demand for food. But extreme weather events, water shortage, and soil degradation impact food production. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (2020), 690 million people or 8.9% of the global population remained hungry in 2020. The food security challenge will only increase, as the world will need to produce about 70% more food by 2050 to feed an estimated 9 billion people. At the same time, governments will also have to find out ways to reduce agricultural emissions, which is 20-30% of total greenhouse gas emissions.
At the Glasgow climate conference in 2021, countries defined their net-zero emissions target. Impressive as they might seem, it is difficult, especially for low-income countries, which emit less but have fewer resources to deal with the impacts. Such countries will have to focus on climate adaptation. Future climate governance will require cooperation to create a fair and equal trading system for countries at all income levels. Economic growth, social justice and environmental sustainability are interconnected. There can be no trade-offs, as the world attempts to transition to a cleaner, sustainable and resilient future.
Uttam Sinha works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
The views expressed are personal