Opinion: In early June 1972, the United Nations gathered 113 countries in Stockholm for their first-ever environment summit. Sweden had pushed for the meeting because human-induced damage was escalating around the planet. To name just three causes, acid rain was killing trees, DDT was killing birds and air pollution was killing people.
We didn’t know then what Earth System science discovered later. We humans had just breached one of the planet’s critical bio-physical boundaries. For the first time, we were consuming more resources each year than the Earth could replenish.
Thus, the summit devised and adopted a very human-centric Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment. Its 26 principles and 109 recommendations were largely all about us. They focused on assessing and managing our single-source environmental impacts around the world. They didn’t grapple with how those compounded to create Earth system crises such as climate change and biodiversity loss.
Still, the summit’s outcomes did help progress specific issues, and got us going on the systemic ones. Further work by the United Nations and its members gave us the Bruntland Commission and its final report in 1987, Our Common Future. That included the first common definition of sustainability: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In 1992 the UN established its Framework Convention on Climate Change and held the Rio Earth Summit, which brought together environment and development for the first time in a United Nations all-nations summit.
Negotiations under the Framework Convention gave us the Kyoto Protocol in 2005, our first attempt to reduce emissions. But it was a failure, so further Framework Convention labours led to the Paris Agreement replacing it in 2015. But the rule book for the Paris pact was only agreed last year at the Glasgow climate negotiations.
Meanwhile over the past half-century between the first and now second Stockholm summit, we humans have more than doubled from 3.8 billion to 8 billion. Our activities have “modified” 77 percent of land (excluding Antarctica) and 87 percent of the oceans. More than two billion hectares of land is degraded due to overuse or mismanagement; wild animal populations have fallen by more than two-thirds; and one million species face extinction.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide, the key driver of the climate crisis, has risen 30 percent to 421 parts per million. Each year, air pollution causes an estimated 7 million premature human deaths; we tip some 11 million tonnes of plastic waste into our oceans; and produce 50 m tonnes of toxic electronics waste – to name just three impacts.
But we can also make some good decisions. We have largely stopped causing acid rain or using DDT, to name two.
In 1972, when the first Stockholm summit was hosted, Earth Overshoot Day, the date by which we’ve used up a year’s worth of sustainable resources, was December 10, later analysis showed. Last year it was July 29. This year’s, to be announced on Sunday, will no doubt fall much earlier in July. But those dates are for all countries, with poor developing countries with low footprints heavily subsidising wealthy developed ones.
Last year, New Zealand’s overshoot day was April 19. But even that ranked us only 17th in the world. The worst six were Qatar, Luxembourg, Canada, United Arab Emirates, the US and Australia with their dates ranging from February 10 to March 23. The latter day represents the sustainable resources of five Earths. We Kiwis use 3.3 planets-worth a year.
Quite simply, the first Stockholm conference began our journey to sustainability; we’ve achieved some solutions; and we have developed a lot of local, national and international structures and goals to drive more.
But we continue to create a deep, dangerous and widening chasm between the damage we inflict on the Earth, our life-support system, and the actions we take towards achieving true human sustainability in all meanings of that word – ecological, environmental, social, cultural and economic.
The Stockholm Environment Institute recently published an insightful report reflecting on the legacy of the first conference and the tasks ahead. A large chunk of its summary deserves quoting directly:
“We live amid entwined crises, both planetary and human. Humans are causing unprecedented change to our climate and ecosystems, and those who contributed the least to the planetary crisis are suffering its worst impacts.
“We do not have a gap in policies and aspirations, rather in actions. Since 1972, only around one‑tenth of the hundreds of global environment and sustainable development targets agreed by countries have been achieved or seen significant progress; it is not enough. The knowledge and the means of solving our problems are known and available; implementation is missing.
“We are better equipped for change than ever. By harnessing momentum for change – the growing public support, faster uptake of clean technology, inclusive and innovative finance, and the robust scientific evidence on positive co-benefits of acting now – 2022 can be a new watershed moment for pursuit of our sustainable future on Earth.
“Bold and science-based decision-making is needed to accelerate the pace of change. Decision makers at every level will need to simultaneously compress timescales for decision‑making in this decade to be transformative, and extend time horizons to avoid lock-in, accommodate time lags and reduce intergenerational discrimination.
“We have keys to unlock a better future. Our synthesis of scientific research and new ideas points to three broad shifts that require immediate actions now, to redefine our relationship with nature, ensure prosperity that lasts for all and invest in a sustainable future. If these actions are initiated now, they can seed transformative change.
“Our relationship with nature needs redefining, from one of extraction to one of care. Human-nature connectedness should be strengthened in our social norms and value systems, and in how we live our everyday lives, by integrating nature in our cities; protecting animal welfare and shifting to more plant‑based diets; increasing nature-based education for children and youth; and recognising and drawing on indigenous local knowledge.
“It is only possible to ensure prosperity that lasts for all by completely rethinking our way of living, and by creating the enabling infrastructures and inspiring new supportive social norms. Transformative change can be unlocked by making sustainable lifestyles the overwhelmingly preferred choice; scaling business models that focus on services delivered, not on products made; making supply chains better for both humans and the environment; aligning national statistics with sustainability goals; and shaping our innovation system after sustainability criteria.”
The contrast is sobering between the first Stockholm summit 50 years ago and the Stockholm+50 summit this past week. The scale, speed and complexity of our tasks are far greater today, and the time to achieve them far shorter. Details of the summit are here and you can watch recordings of many sessions here.
But the words of welcome by Sweden’s Prime Minister Olof Palme to the 1972 delegates are just as forceful and encouraging for the 2022 delegates:
“I am certain that solutions can be found. But it is absolutely necessary that concerted, international action is undertaken. It is indeed very, very urgent. At the same time, the feeling of urgency should not overshadow the fact that solutions will require far-reaching changes in attitudes and social structures.”