Sustainability is now a household word, but it wasn’t always that way.
The United Nations' Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm fifty years ago. This historic event was the first to recognize sustainable development as an international concept. Sweden and the UN will mark the occasion with Stockholm+50, an International Meeting that serves both as a reminder and a call to action.
The world is in deep planetary and human crises. Both the UN's Sustainable Development Goals are off track and multilateral climate and biodiversity agreements behind schedule. It is crucial that governments integrate sustainability into their economic plans. Researchers are available with tools and evidence to assist them.
It was fifty years ago that the time was right for an environment agenda to be introduced on the global stage. The Industrial Revolution propelled optimistic ideas about economic growth as a driver for progress. However, it was necessary to address concerns about damage to the environment. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), which raised awareness of the dangers of pesticides, was one example of how scientific information was brought into mainstream.
A team of policymakers and researchers issued another alarm in The Limits to Growth in March 1972. This was one of the first reports to predict catastrophic consequences if humanity continued to exploit Earth's limited natural resources. A few months later, the conference in Stockholm was organized by Maurice Strong, a Canadian industrialist. It was a success. This set in motion crucial institutions, including the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) which was established in Nairobi. It was the first UN agency to have its headquarters in a developing nation. UNEP helped to create the 1987 Montreal Protocol to eliminate ozone-depleting chemicals. It also co-founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It was instrumental in the establishment of the first international agreements for sustainable development on biodiversity, climate, and desertification.
There were also missed opportunities and mistakes. A disjointed governance system was created by the establishment of multiple agencies. The new environment ministers had little power. Environmental protection was often separated from social and economic concerns in national budgets. Action on climate change was not focused for a long time. The economic drivers of climate change were also overlooked.
The world is still in crisis 50 years after this historic conference. Visionaries are now warning of imminent biodiversity and climate crises.
Stockholm+50 promises "clear, concrete recommendations and messages for all levels of government." Over 90 ministers are expected, but only 10 heads and representatives of governments will attend. This is a missed chance for high-level actions. Because of their presence, world leaders signal that sustainability is at the forefront of their agendas, they are essential.
Although much of this is still talk, the fact that sustainability must be incorporated into policymaking is now well-known. Through the C40 Cities network, city governments all over the globe are creating ambitious climate action plans. Companies are also adopting sustainability principles. These include reporting their carbon footprints and ensuring that investments do not cause harm to the environment.
However, this urgency has not reached the top of the state and government. Except for a few exceptions, such as New Zealand, Finland, Scotland, and Wales, most countries are unwilling to integrate their economic, social, and environmental policies.
This is good for the environment, but also for economic soundness and well-being. While the pandemics and war in Ukraine may have triggered the current food and energy crisis and the decline in living standards, it is also caused by the loss of natural resources.
2.200 environmental scientists signed a letter, the Menton Message, to U Thant, the UN secretary-general. This was just before the 1972 conference. Signatories felt that the world was heading towards multiple crises. They called for "massive research into problems that threaten humanity's survival", including hunger, natural-resource depletion, and environmental degradation. The UN system played a major role in building the knowledge base that showed why sustainability was necessary and in developing the policy architecture to make this happen. To make the Stockholm vision a reality, heads of government and the UN system must take bolder actions. It is imperative to accelerate the creation of a board consisting of scientists advisers for UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres. The board should be able to find a way to bring together action on sustainability closer for world leaders once it is established.
Researchers now have the opportunity to join a successor of the Menton Message, which has been organised by the International Science Council and the Global Science Network Future Earth. The Stockholm Environment Institute also organizes it. The authors wrote an open letter to the world, stating that "pro-environmental action appears like one step forward after 50 years." Even though the world produces more food than it needs, many still suffer from hunger. We continue to support and invest in fossil fuels even though renewable energy has become more cost-effective. We seek out resources at the lowest price, often disregarding local rights and values.
Leaders around the world must listen to and accept the findings of the research community to enable them to make meaningful changes. The pursuit of environmental sustainability is not an obstacle to prosperity or well-being. In fact, it's vital for them. Powerful people need to take notice.