Premium Conversations | Stockholm50+ was a missed opportunity, says Sharad Lele

Published on Jul 04, 2022 08:53 PM IST

Fifty years ago, in 1972, a global environmental movement began in Stockholm. Fifty years later, “Stockholm+50” disappointed. Leading interdisciplinary environmental researcher Sharachchandra Lele talks to HT about its failings. 

Sharachchandra Lele is co-chair of the Expert Writing Group and distinguished fellow in Environmental Policy and Governance at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.  PREMIUM
Sharachchandra Lele is co-chair of the Expert Writing Group and distinguished fellow in Environmental Policy and Governance at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. 
ByJayashree Nandi

Last month, the world commemorated 50 years of the Stockholm Conference, a landmark environmental meeting held in the Swedish capital in 1972, when the world initially confronted the idea that development must be environmentally sustainable.

The United Nations General Assembly called for a meeting on these lines on June 2 and 3, called “Stockholm+50” to reflect on the achievements and failures of the movement in the past 50 years. In recent decades, the impacts of the climate crisis have wreaked havoc in most parts of the world, with a new normal of deadly heat extremes, floods, and forest fires setting in. With that in mind, one would expect Stockholm+50 to be far more powerful in its resolution, given the crises facing humanity today. But this year’s conference ended on a weak note, with the final text largely missing urgency and resolution.

On June 1, several climate experts, environmentalists, and social scientists wrote a letter, published in the science journal Nature, “to fellow citizens of Earth” ahead of Stockholm+50. The International Science Council, Future Earth, and the Stockholm Environment Institute convened an Expert Writing Group of natural scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars to modernise and extend the historical call on the eve of Stockholm+50 which resulted in the letter.

Sharachchandra Lele, co-chair of the Expert Writing Group and distinguished fellow in Environmental Policy and Governance at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) said that Stockholm+50 was a moment to bring about radical ideas on international cooperation, but that did not happen.

Excerpts from the interview:

What do you think of the outcome of the Stockholm+50 meeting? Did it provide a similar momentum as the Stockholm meeting in 1972 did?

The 1972 conference was momentous, as it brought environmental issues to the United Nations (UN) forum for the first time, and led to the setting up of the UN Environment Programme, and nations committing to taking domestic action on environmental issues. Two heads of state (Olaf Palme and Indira Gandhi) actually addressed the gathering.

The 2022 Stockholm+50 comes at a time when several intergovernmental platforms and conferences (COPs) have already been set up, so one might think that “there is nothing more to be done”. But in fact, S+50 would have been an opportune moment to step back, take stock of the limited progress that has been achieved in comparison to the deepening multiple environmental crises, and come up with some radical ideas for international cooperation — pushing developed countries to do more to reduce their own impact on the global environment. But that did not happen. S+50 was reduced to platitudes. No substantive new commitments have been made.

Why and how did you come to write this letter to fellow citizens?

In the lead-up to the 1972 conference, a group of scientists drafted a letter that was then endorsed by 2,200 environmental scientists and submitted to the UN Secretary-General. The letter (known as the Menton Message) drew attention to the environmental crises and the arms race and the threat of nuclear war, and called for urgent action. The idea for our letter came from the International Science Council, and was supported by Future Earth and Stockholm Environment Institute. They felt a follow-up to the Menton Message was required on the occasion of S+50, and convened an Expert Group of 14 scholars from natural science, social science, engineering, and the humanities to write such a letter.

Stop thinking about environmental issues as only technical/scientific issues, and give substantive support to social science and interdisciplinary research.

Our group has tried to broaden and deepen the message, in light of both the events of the last 50 years and the evolution of knowledge regarding the socio-environmental crises confronting us. One remarkable element in the evolution of knowledge has been the recognition of interdisciplinary thinking bridging natural and social sciences. The merger of all disciplinary international science bodies, including social science ones, into the International Science Council, exemplifies this new thinking.

Now, individual countries, including India, need to internalise this perspective: Stop thinking about environmental issues as only technical/scientific issues, and give substantive support to social science and interdisciplinary research.

Since the Menton message in 1972, what progress have we made in environmental movements and conservation? Is there any progress at all?

There certainly has been progress on environmental issues since 1972. Obvious examples are the pulling back of tigers and pandas from the brink of extinction, the elimination of lead from petrol, successful river clean-up in some countries, and slowing down of deforestation rates in others. Perhaps the most spectacular example of science-led international cooperation on the environment is the Montreal Protocol, which has led to a substantial elimination of ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons across countries. Solar PV, which was just a glimmer in 1972, has become a major source of electricity today, and organic farming has regained prominence.

Since 1972, a new challenge that is now threatening the existence of several species is climate change. How do you think that can be addressed?

First, we have to remember that the environmental crisis is far more than just the loss of animal species. The crisis threatens the livelihoods and well-being of 3/4th or more of the human population in various ways — air pollution, water scarcity, water pollution, forest and soil degradation, and displacement.

The climate crisis poses major additional challenges or exacerbates current ones — heat waves, droughts, floods, coastal flooding, declines in fisheries and agriculture, to name a few, in addition to threatening the survival of many species. Second, these threats will hit the weakest among us the hardest, as they cannot migrate out of flood zones or air-condition their houses or abandon traditional livelihoods. They will of course also disrupt plant and animal life in many ways. Therefore, third, we have to urgently address the major cause of climate change — fossil fuel burning.

Protesters take part in the Fridays For Future climate demonstration in connection with the Stockholm +50 UN meeting, in Stockholm, Sweden. (Reuters)
Protesters take part in the Fridays For Future climate demonstration in connection with the Stockholm +50 UN meeting, in Stockholm, Sweden. (Reuters)

Your letter mentions "A focus on economic growth is distracting from achieving human well-being and destroying our shared resources." What kind of economic development should we aspire to then?

Our goal has to be “development” in its true sense, and not “economic development”. It must include the ideas of material and spiritual well-being or happiness, ecological sustainability and eco-social justice, within a deeply democratic framework where people feel empowered for collective engagement and action. The Stiglitz Commission (set up by the French President and including Amartya Sen) captured this idea and it is high time all countries adopted this as a goal.

Achieving such a goal requires us to adopt a set of strategies that focus on livelihoods (not economic growth per se, and not even just jobs), on environmental assets that provide sustainable livelihoods (not just resources to use and throw), on spiritual well-being (not consumption), and on social well-being (rebuilding a new sense of diverse communities and civic engagement in social issues).

In India and other developing countries, millions of people do not have access to basic services like energy for cooling and heating, nutrition, healthcare etc. If we do not prioritise economic growth, how will those be addressed?

Improvement in the material well-being of the poorest quartile is absolutely essential. But then we should focus explicitly on that, and stop believing that economic growth will somehow trickle down and make it happen automatically. Economic growth is neither sufficient nor necessary for (as in the driver of) meaningful development — it may be an irrelevant fallout of development in some situations. Addressing the farming sector crisis, regenerating supporting resources such as forests and water, ensuring decentralized and people-friendly industrialization, and focusing on highly context-specific and eco-friendly solutions to problems of nutrition, health care, and even energy are some of the measures we require to undertake.

Improvement in the material well-being of the poorest quartile is absolutely essential. But then we should focus explicitly on that, and stop believing that economic growth will somehow trickle down and make it happen automatically.

Environmental problems today are also a result of inequity between rich and poor countries. Rich countries have depleted a large share of the global carbon budget giving their citizens access to important services while poor nations do not have basics. How do you think this inequity can be addressed?

Indeed, climate change is inequitable both in its origins and its impacts: the luxury emissions of a minority of people threaten the well-being of the weaker and silent majority. Addressing this requires drastic reductions in emissions by the Global North, including the North within the Global South, starting now. If this means that they have to sacrifice many superficial elements of their notion of well-being, such as skiing vacations in the Alps or scuba-diving vacations in the Bahamas, or even all-year-round air conditioning, consumption of imported foods, and use of disposable everything, so be it.

Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav at the Stockholm +50 conference. ((Twitter/Bhupender Yadav))
Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav at the Stockholm +50 conference. ((Twitter/Bhupender Yadav))

But making this happen in the face of the resistance shown by the developed countries will require tremendous collective action among countries in the Global South, and of marginalised communities within all nations. Our letter ends by urging all of us to act, not just by changing individual consumption choices, but by embracing a wider set of values — spiritual well-being, sustainability, justice, and democracy, and by acting collectively to bring about the dramatic transformations required in our economic, political, social and technological systems or institutions. At Stockholm 1972, India provided leadership to the Global South by our then Prime Minister attending and speaking forthrightly at the conference and following through with a number of changes at home.

A vibrant environmental movement emerged, which challenged conventional notions of development as economic growth and environment as simply a dilettante-ish concern of the well-fed North. The movement is grounded in interdisciplinary, publicly accessible and engaged knowledge and broad ethics. It is time we mainstreamed this thinking.

Our letter ends by urging all of us to act, not just by changing individual consumption choices, but by embracing a wider set of values — spiritual well-being, sustainability, justice, and democracy.

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