Stockholm+50: some reflections

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 15. April 2021 - 14:24

Stockholm+50, some reflections

Arthur Lyon Dahl

In June of 2022, the United Nations will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden, that led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the beginning of UN action on the environment. Planning is now underway for Stockholm+50. As a veteran of the original Stockholm Conference, where I represented the Bahá'í International Community, this is something to which I have given a great deal of thought in my roles with the Global Governance Forum and the Climate Governance Commission. With so many environmental crises coming to a head, and building on the CBD COP15 and UNFCCC COP26 this year, Stockholm+50 needs to be the turning point for an integrated transition across all environmental dimensions and the SDGs. It should aim to be as creative as the original Stockholm Conference in breaking new ground for the UN system. UNEP was intended to be a catalyst for a UN-wide response to the environment. The aim of Stockholm+50 should be to catalyse a transformation of the whole UN system. The following are some dimensions of that necessary transformation.

All the evaluations of UN action point to beautiful texts and high ambitions that fail on implementation. The focus at Stockholm+50 should be on obstacles to implementation and how to address them collectively as a world community. This will require challenging some of the basic assumptions of the present international order.

National sovereignty is the founding principle of the UN, but with the globalisation of the last 75 years, national sovereignty no longer exists. The economy has globalised. The pandemic is global. Climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss know no borders. The fatal flaws in the UN system result from the primacy of national sovereignty over the common good, whether in the veto in the Security Council or the voluntary nature of international law. Today sovereignty serves primarily to protect national crimes from international action. We need to replace this outworn concept by the principle of national autonomy, the freedom of countries to choose their own ways and means to respect the global common good in keeping with their local environment, resources, economy and culture. That freedom is best protected by an effective system of global governance, just as individual freedom is best protected by an efficient national government.

Our globalised system has hit or overshot planetary boundaries with grave threats to our future. At the time of the Stockholm Conference, limits to growth were only a hypothetical projection in computer models. This new reality requires a new capacity for binding global legislation in those areas like greenhouse gas emissions, the nitrogen cycle, pollution by plastics and other persistent chemical products, and ecosystem functions that are essential to maintain the liveability of the planet for all of us.

It is also clear that all of our problems - environmental, social and economic - are interrelated in a single complex global system which the present approach in silos by separate issues cannot address effectively. The future UN system response needs to be much more integrated, overcoming the competition between specialised agencies and programmes, while filling gaping gaps in economic governance. The WTO should not remain outside the UN system, and new institutions are needed for the necessary regulation of multinational corporations and a global financial system that facilitates tax avoidance rather than corporate citizenship. At the same time, a much more flexible approach is needed to multistakeholder and multilevel governance, with wider participation and more subsidiarity, moving responsibility for implementation down to the levels closest to those most affected at the scale of each problem.

Another under-appreciated issue is the impact of corruption on environmental issues and action. From wildlife crime and illegal logging and fishing to waste dumping, corruption and illegal actions are significant contributors to environmental degradation. More recently, while few data are available, the fact that a significant part of the flow of funds for pandemic response and economic stimulus is being captured by corruption suggests that much of the money now being directed to respond to climate change will similarly not be used for what was intended. There are now proposals for an International Anti-Corruption Court that would finally give the world community the means to address this problem when corrupt government leaders and even state capture by corrupt interests or organized crime make national action impossible.

In the area of international environmental legislation, we have seen great fragmentation, placing an impossible burden on governments to participate in all the separate processes. Significant consolidation is required, while also strengthening means of enforcement, and assisting those countries that lack the technical and financial capacities for implementation.

Science has always been at the foundation of addressing environmental problems since the environmental assessment component of the Stockholm Action Plan. But science today faces an often concealed problem, the privatisation of science and knowledge through intellectual property rights, whether in patents for vaccines or multinational scientific publishers copyrighting access to the scientific literature. I am constantly blocked from reading publications (even my own) because I do not have access to an academic library able to pay high subscription fees, so much more so for those scientists in developing countries. If the UN is to lead in using science for environmental monitoring, assessment and planning, it must guarantee for everyone free access to that information.

Finally, UNEP has always been under-funded, so there needs to be agreement on new funding mechanisms for international action that do not depend on voluntary contributions by governments. These need to be global to avoid the usual race to the bottom. A global carbon tax is one obvious possibility. I suggested many years ago a global tax on the trade in forest products, the proceeds of which could pay to protect those forests with the highest global value for biodiversity conservation or as a carbon sink. A well-designed financial instrument can both discourage environmentally damaging activities and reward those that are sustainable. Stockholm+50 should think creatively about these possibilities.

These proposals may be ambitious, but if we do not aim high, we shall always do too little, too late, and we cannot afford that anymore.

Last updated 15 April 2021