Stockholm+50: priorities for re-energising global action

World leaders last week met at the Stockholm+50 conference to reflect on 50 years since the landmark 1972 Stockholm conference that put the environment at the heart of international development. IIED director Andrew Norton reflects on the meeting's outcomes and sets out three priorities for action.

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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022 
07 June 2022
A group of young people, men and women, walk in line holding protest signs (saying things such as "fight for our future") as part of a march

Young people in Pittsburgh in the United States protest during an Earth Day climate strike in April 2022. Stockholm+50 was about rebuilding trust, environmental accountability and human wellbeing (Photo: Mark Dixon, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The Stockholm+50 conference concluded on Friday with a statement from the co-hosts, Sweden and Kenya, outlining a ten-point agenda (PDF) for re-energising global action ‘towards a healthy planet and prosperity for all’.  

The agenda covers key areas for accelerating action, from recognising the human right to a healthy environment, to system-wide transformations in key sectors, rebuilding trust, strengthening accountability and putting human wellbeing at the centre of the agenda for action.

The original 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment was intimately linked with the founding of IIED. Our first director, Barbara Ward, was commissioned to write the pre-conference scientific report, which she co-authored with René J Dubos. This was published following the conference as ‘Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet’. It’s an extraordinarily prescient text.

In Stockholm last week, I was invited to join a panel of speakers reflecting on the scientific report produced by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and CEEW (the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, based in India). The report, entitled ‘Stockholm+50: Unlocking a Better Future’, is full of excellent technical recommendations and proposals for sharpening the focus on accountability for action in global environmental policy.

Watch Norton speak at the launch of the ‘Stockholm+50: Unlocking a Better Future' report. His contribution is at 47 minutes, 59 seconds

The action gap

I suspect the report is likely to be remembered, at least in part, for this remarkable observation on the ‘action gap’: “Since 1972 only around one-tenth of the hundreds of global environmental and sustainable development targets agreed by nations have been achieved or seen significant progress”.

When it came to my turn to comment, I referred to Barbara and René’s seminal work from 50 years ago and one striking recurring theme.

Looking forward in time – long before there was any broad consciousness of the seriousness of the situation – they clearly recognised the risk that nations would not come together strongly enough to take action to protect degradation of the planet’s vital public goods, such as the atmosphere and the ocean.

They consistently put their hopes in the notion that a growing realisation of common interest might drive globally coordinated action. Why hasn’t this happened?

The blockages are clearly political, and there has been a persistent tendency for short-term material national interest to be put before social and environmental justice and long-term sustainability.

The response we need now should take on that fundamentally political dimension of change, and focus on combating rising inequality at all levels, to rebuild solidarity and to unlock transformational change. Three things should be a priority:

  • Fix the egregious inequality in pandemic responses (particularly vaccine access) which has led to rich countries being able to restart their economies faster than low-income countries. This is essential if we are to rebuild relationships of trust, one of the ten recommendations set out in the Stockholm+50 final statement
  • Turn the coming debt crisis – emerging pre-pandemic but super-charged by both COVID-19 and the impacts of the Ukraine war on global energy and food markets – into an opportunity to drive green transitions in indebted countries. IIED's research shows how innovative debt instruments could enable least developed countries to use the amounts they owe to finance action for climate resilience, green transitions and protecting nature
  • Tackle surging global income inequality by introducing wealth taxes on the richest, many of whom have seen extraordinary rises in their personal wealth during the pandemic, and use the funds mobilised to build resilience in communities at the sharp end of the world’s environmental crises.

There are many other lessons to be drawn from Stockholm+50. Whatever the flaws of the multilateral architecture of sustainable development, the world still needs this framework to address the range of environmental and social crises we face. Recent moves by donors such as the UK to dramatically reduce funding to UN development agencies are not helpful.

Backing better finance for locally-led action

To finish on an upbeat note, I was delighted to see the commitment to strengthening finance for locally-led action for people, nature and climate at an official side event we co-convened with our partners at Sida on Friday.

The starting point was a new IIED report on getting finance and decision making to the local level. This is an incredibly important area: for years, research has shown that locally-led action is critical for addressing the triple crises, and yet – still – very little funding reaches local actors, whether local government, communities or the local private sector.

The report sets out recommendations for governments, multilateral development banks and global funds to strengthen locally-led action via tangible actions to:

  1. Increase the quantity, improve the quality and transparency of finance flows for locally-led action for people, nature and climate
  2. Simplify access to finance
  3. Prioritise equitable governance of finance
  4. Strengthen investments in national and local institutions, including building national delivery mechanisms to get finance to the local level, and 
  5. Tackle the underlying drivers of vulnerability and recognise the value of coherent responses to the triple crises of climate, nature and poverty in finance and all decisions.

At the side event, speakers representing Indigenous People and local communities, governments and the financial sector shared their ideas on generating more robust support and financing for local priorities.

Watch a recording of the side event on financing locally-led action for people, nature and climate above or on IIED's YouTube channel, where viewers are also able to use timestamps to go straight to specific speakers

In the face of the potentially overwhelming global crises of climate, nature loss and growing inequality, it was a heartening reminder that increasing solidarity, commitment and effective global action is possible.  

We hope the many initiatives taking up the theme of locally-led action for climate and nature can encourage greater ambition, scale and speed of action.

About the author

Andrew Norton was director of IIED from 2015-2022 

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