Climate Change

50 years since Stockholm conference: The summer lingers

That we still seek the Stockholm declaration’s ideals only shows how we need to up our game to prevent the planet’s environmental crisis

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Tuesday 31 May 2022

From June 5 to June 16, 1972, countries across the world shed a bit of their sovereignty. The aim was to create a common governance structure for the planet’s environment and natural resources.

The occasion was the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the first such worldwide convergence on planetary environment, with the theme ‘Only One Earth’.

When the participating 122 countries — 70 of them developing and poor countries — adopted the Stockholm Declaration on June 16, they essentially committed to 26 principles and an action plan that set in a multilateral environmental regime.

One of the overarching principles was that sovereignty should be subject to not causing harm to the environment of other countries as well.

This was the first globally subscribed document that recognised the “interconnections between development, poverty and the environment.”

These principles were celebrated as a harbinger of “new behaviour and responsibility which must govern their relationship in the environmental era”.

To put it in another way, the planet’s environment and natural resources became a common resource with countries resetting their relationship with nature — from sovereignty over resources to shared responsibility for their sustainable uses.

The three dimensions of this conference were: Countries agreeing not to “harm each other’s environment or the areas beyond national jurisdiction”; an action plan to study the threat to Earth’s environment; and establishment of an international body called the UN Environment programme (UNEP) to bring in cooperation among countries.

Historic beginnings 

The Stockholm conference was historic, not just for being the first one on planetary environment.

Until 1972, no country had an environment ministry. Norwegian delegates returned from the conference to set up a ministry for environment; the host Sweden took a few more weeks to do so.

India set up its ministry of environment and forest in 1985. The UN charter never had the environment as a domain to deal with. So, the first global conference on the environment happened when environment was not a subject of importance for any country or a global concern.

In 1968, when Sweden first proposed the idea of the Stockholm conference (this is why it was referred to as the Swedish Initiative), cases of environmental degradation and hints of a meltdown of the planet’s atmospheric system had started making news.

Acid rains were being reported; Rachel Carson’s now famous book Silent Spring was just six-years-old but attained biblical status in terms of readership and impact on public consciousness. Species extinction made headlines, like that of the humpback whales and Bengal tigers; the mercury poisoning caused by methylmercury release into the Minamata Bay in Japan entered public discourse.

In the UN General Assembly in 1968, for the first time climate change was discussed using emerging scientific evidence. Though it was still not believable, in 1965, the then US president Lyndon B Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee came out with the report, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment, which was definitive on the role of human-emitted carbon dioxode (CO2) to atmospheric warming.

In 1967, Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald of Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the American scientific and regulatory agency, and Princeton University published a study that actually estimated the global temperature based on CO2 levels at that point in time.

They said “in the absence of unknown feedback such as changes in clouds, a doubling of CO2 from the current level would result in approximately 2°C increase in global temperature”.

Four years of preparation preceded the Stockholm Declaration. Hundreds of scientists and experts from across the globe contributed some 20,000 pages on the human environment which were curated into an 800-page document to be circulated in the conference. Many say the preparation for the conference was the most expansive exercise within the UN system.

Stockholm declaration: Key agreements

Earth’s natural resources, including air, water, land, flora and fauna, especially representative samples of natural ecosystems, must be safeguarded for the benefit of the present and future generations through careful planning or management.

The discharge of toxic substances or of other substances and the release of heat, in such quantities or concentrations as to exceed the capacity of the environment to render them harmless, must be halted in order to ensure that serious or irreversible damage is not inflicted upon ecosystems. The just struggle of the peoples of ill countries against pollution should be supported.

States shall take all steps to prevent pollution of the seas by substances that are liable to create hazards to human health, to harm living resources and marine life, to damage amenities or to interfere with other legitimate uses of the sea.

The environmental policies of all States should enhance and not adversely affect the present or future development potential of developing countries, nor should they hamper the attainment of better living conditions for all, and appropriate steps should be taken by States and international organizations with a view to reaching agreement on meeting the possible national and international economic consequences resulting from the application of environmental measures.

States have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.

Hint of a consensus

The world also witnessed the environment entering into the global political agenda. But it suffered from the many divisions that already existed.

The Cold War was precipitating the division between the East and the West. However, both the United States and the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics USSR bloc supported the conference. But a disagreement arose around the participation of two UN non-members — East Germany and West Germany. This ultimately led to the USSR and its allies boycotting the conference.

On another front, immediately after the proposal for the conference on environment, developing countries took it as another ploy by rich countries to usurp natural resources and to hamper their growth. During the UN General Assembly debates in 1968, many developing countries had expressed misgivings about plans for an environmental conference, believing it would be dominated by interests of wealthier, industrialised countries.

Brazil was the most vocal in its opposition to the conference calling it as a “rich man’s show”. It opposed any initiative that could limit its sovereignty over natural resources and constrain economic growth. Latin American countries supported Brazil and there was an imminent boycott of the conference.

While preparations were on for the conference, a proposal to put all natural resources under a global administration witnessed vehement opposition from developing countries.

Inder Kr Gujral, former prime minister of India, told Down To Earth in 1992: 

The industrialised nations were basically worried about air and water pollution, while developing nations hoped for assistance to wipe out their sordid poverty without needless damage to ecosystems.

He attended the Stockholm conference as India’s urban housing minister in the cabinet of Indira Gandhi.

The then PM of India, the only head of government who went to attend the conference, famously linked poverty and environment:

There are grave misgivings that the discussion on ecology may be designed to distract attention from the problems of war and poverty. We have to prove to the disinherited majority of the world that ecology and conservation will not work against their interest but will bring an improvement in their lives.

Paradigm shift 

The Stockholm conference indeed started the contemporary “environmental era”. In many ways, it made multilateral governance of planetary concerns mainstream. This led to more than 500 multilateral environmental agreements being adopted in the last 50 years.

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 being implemented through the UN system trace their origin to the Stockholm Declaration.

Since that summer in Stockholm half-a-century ago, nobody has lived a normal month climate-wise. In April 2017, scientists from Climate Central, an international association of scientists and journalists reporting and researching climate change, released a stunning chart depicting a monthly temperature rise since 1880.

“There has not been a cool month in 628 months,” the research said. In the last 50 years, human-induced changes on the planet disrupted a secure and suitable natural world that was in existence for over 12,000 years and helped humans prosper.

Stockholm 2022

The world is all tuned in to the Stockholm+50, to be held in the same city in June, but with a vastly changed planet, notwithstanding the rooting of the multilateral environmental regime.

On June 2-3, world leaders will not discuss how the past half-century was, but how the next 50 years would be treated with emergency actions. It is also aptly themed as “Stockholm+50: A healthy planet for the prosperity of all — our responsibility, our opportunity.”

If the Stockholm conference could accord some time to all, the current one comes without a deadline, as time has already run out.

Since the “environmental era” started, there are no signs of a restrain on our relationship with nature. UN data circulated to commemorate Stockholm+50 showed that trade has increased gone up 10 times, the global economy has grown five times and the world population has doubled.

“Human development is largely fuelled by a tripling in the extraction of natural resources, food production, and energy production and consumption over the past 50 years,” says an advance draft copy of the document to be discussed at Stockholm+50.

The UNEP’ Inclusive Wealth Report 2018 had said: 

During 1990-2014, produced capital grew at an average annual rate of 3.8 per cent, while health- and education-induced human capital grew at 2.1 per cent. Meanwhile, natural capital decreased at an annual rate of 0.7 per cent.

Last year while preparations were on for Stockholm+50, UNEP’s Making Peace with Nature report warned: “Such an uncoordinated response has contributed to the fact that the world is on track to warm at least 3˚Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100—despite a temporary decline in emissions due to the pandemic. That is double the 1.5 warming mandated in the Paris targets, which would require a 45 per cent global emission reduction by 2030.”

A visualisation of the next 50 years, published in PNAS on May 4, 2020, states that “1 to 3 billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 y [years]”. The study says humans have resided in a “climatic envelope” characterised by ~11˚C and 15˚C of mean annual temperature and “the geographical position of this temperature niche is projected to shift more over the coming 50 y than it has moved since 6000 BP [before present]”.

“It looks unliveable for many,” said Tim Lenton, co-author of the study when it was released. So, many areas in North America and Europe that have comfortable temperatures would become as hot as north Africa. Tim warns: “Where we are headed is a place we don’t want to go.”

‘Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?’

Indira Gandhi’s presence at the Stockholm conference was rare since she was the only prime minister to attend the event. Her speech is still remembered for its “poverty the biggest polluter” message. It was a question she raised, and in a context. Excerpts from her speech:

On the one hand the rich look askance at our continuing poverty, on the other, they warn us against their own methods. 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?

For instance, unless we are in a position to provide employment and purchasing power for the daily necessities of the tribal people and those who live in and around our jungles, we cannot prevent them from combing the forest for food and livelihood; from poaching and from despoiling the vegetation.

… How can we speak to those who live in villages and in slums about keeping the oceans, the rivers and the air clean when their own lives are contaminated at the source? The environment cannot be improved in conditions of poverty. Nor can poverty be eradicated without the use of science and technology.

Illustration by Ritika Bohra

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