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Mainstream, VOL LX No 31, New Delhi, July 23, 2022

50 years of Stockholm: From Environment to Sustainability | Swapan Kumar Sil

Friday 22 July 2022


by Swapan Kumar Sil *


How far it is applicable in the real world is still uncertain. But the world leaders are persistently hopeful that we will get over the crisis arising from environmental degradation and pollution by anchoring this concept.

After the industrial revolution in Europe, development and environment were never friendly to each other; yet, in 1972, the highly intrusive and consumerist nations took their first step to get together under the umbrella of ‘environment protection’ and at least acknowledge via the UN aegis that mankind was overutilizing mother earth’s gifts to the species. The proposer was Sweden and 114 countries, including the larger developing ones like China and India, were part of the intent to ‘assess and manage’ the environment.

In commemoration of fifty years of this Stockholm convention on human environment, the United Nations General Assembly decided to convene an international conference in Stockholm on 2-3 June 2022, titled, ‘Stockholm+50: a healthy planet for the prosperity of all — our responsibility, our opportunity’ (by resolution 75/280 on 24 May 2021). Accordingly, a preparatory meeting held on 28 March 2022 in New York decided the agenda and arranged the drafting of all the background papers to be presented in the June conference for collaborative and multi-stakeholder discussions.

In the interim period, it was obvious to the world by 2012 that with active commercial interests like Carbon trading and all the small and big wars raging all over the world, environment management had taken a back seat in the world’s priorities. Exactly therefore, ‘The third leadership dialogue’ pertaining to the speedy implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development in the context of the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development deserves to be treated as the most important background paper as far as the context of its emergence and further development is concerned.

Pre-globalisation, environment could not be denoted as ‘in crisis’ till the middle of twentieth century owing to the limitation of the ‘market’ as perceived by the west. With the advent of the new world order resulting from gradual decolonisation after World War II and the slow rise of the South, markets began to expand rapidly. Simultaneously, the hostility and inherent contradiction between development and the environment began to show up sharply.

Equality joins the Vocabulary

Inequality develops from the uneven right to access to commodity and service. Till the advent of the industrial revolution, the extent of unevenness was in a limited sphere. It was due to the prevailing tool-based technology (TBT) which was in favour of using renewable natural resources, largely with almost unchangeable rate of production. The non-renewable natural resources which were in use then were limited in number with limited use.

Innovation of machine-based technology (MBT) initiated the beginning of industrial revolution, which gradually broke the barrier of using non-renewable resources and facilitated increase in the rate of production with abrupt growth of productive fields. This change had a profound effect on inequality. Development of MBT did not happen to accelerate the social production system everywhere in the world simultaneously. The countries included in OECD are well advanced in the use of MBT and non-renewable resources since the sixteenth century. Some of the remaining countries started to avail of MBT, at best, seventy-eighty years ago and in respect to the use of non-renewable resources, they are still far behind OECD countries. And a good number of countries are still in the pre-industrial age, except the use of MBT in a few sectors, facilitated by MNCs for resource access.

Therefore, the extent of unevenness as to the right to access to commodity and service is almost immeasurable at present. Under this situation, the only way to reduce inequality is to ensure the enhanced use of both renewable and non-renewable natural resources. How many multiples of the present figure of use of natural resource need to be extracted is not easily measured.

It was the Club of Rome which seems to have foreseen this problem in mid-1960s and came up with the idea of equity. It stimulated considerable public attention in 1972 with the publication of its first report, The Limits to Growth. In 1970, global extraction of natural resources (Biomass, fossil fuels, metallic minerals and non-Metallic minerals) was 27 billion ton. Within one decade this had reached 34 billion tons. The manyfold increase in exploitation and extraction of minerals in the last 50 years can be assessed in the 2019 report, the Global Resource Outlook

Even in the early 1980s, it was well-understood that environmental degradation and pollution caused by over-production and development. To come to grips with the extant crisis, Perez de Cuellar, the then UN Secretary-General, instituted the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983, with Gro Harlem Brundtland as its chairperson. Brundtland submitted her report, ‘Our Common Future’ on 20 March 1987. What we call ‘sustainable development’ today was the principal narrative of Brundtland report. According to the report, ‘Sustainable development is development that meets the need of present without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their own needs’. The aspiration uttered in the definition is, obviously, praiseworthy but how it may be achieved materially is still unperceivable.

The UN Conference on Environment and Development held in 1992 in Rio was largely devoted to discussions on sustainable development goals and climate change in keeping with the first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a permanent international organisation to deal with climate change, is an important outcome of UNCED-’92.

Greenhouse Emissions 

In the matter of sustainable development, UNCED ’92 had observed that it was an attainable goal for all the people of the world. Accordingly, one of the most important decisions adopted in the UNCED ’92 was agenda-21, a programme of action to achieve overall sustainable development in the twenty-first century. Later, the UN General Assembly also formed a commission on sustainable development to ensure effective follow-up of agenda-21. Since ’93, this commission has convened once every year.

Thus, since 1995, the UNFCCC has been conducting a conference every year on how to contain the emission of greenhouse gases — that have increased the global average temperature — to near 1.5 degree Celsius and not more. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol had, however, failed to produce any result. The session convened in 2002 in Johannesburg was a world summit on sustainable development. There was a political declaration as usual at the end of summit, but it had no doable word on how to achieve sustainable development materially to overcome environmental challenges. It is a reality that the Rio declaration, agenda-21 and the Johannesburg declaration etc. are yet to yield any effective change in the world environment.

Most world leaders participating enthusiastically in all such UN-sponsored initiatives, return home to anti-environment, industrial-development pressures. The impact of such pressures on sustainable development is that soon, various ecosystems are likely to lose their capacity to return to their innate sustainable positions. To overcome this stalemate, the UN has again come up with an ambitious programme — that of transforming our world.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 set the base year for signatory nations as 2010 and the target of 45 percent emission reduction by 2030, going to zero-emission in 2050. As many as 194 countries have submitted Nationally determined Contributions (NDCs, towards emission reduction targets) to the secretariat of the UNFCCC.

UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2021 finds that, despite a dip in 2020 of carbon dioxide emissions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world is still heading for a temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century.

The latest update shows that for all available NDCs of all 193 Parties taken together, a sizable increase, of about 13.7%, in global GHG emissions in 2030 compared to 2010 is anticipated. Total GHG emissions in 2030 for the 151 Parties that communicated new or updated NDCs show almost six per cent change from 2010. The IPCC has estimated that limiting global average temperature increases to 1.5C requires a reduction of CO2 emissions of 45% in 2030 or a 25% reduction by 2030, to limit warming to 2C. If emissions are not reduced by 2030, they will need to be substantially reduced thereafter to compensate for the slow start on the path to net zero emissions, but likely at a higher cost.

The EGR report released at a Nairobi conference in December 2020, says, ‘that in 2019, total greenhouse gas emissions, including land-use change, reached a new high of 59.1 gigatonnes of CO2 equivalent (GtCO2e). Global greenhouse gas emissions have grown 1.4 per cent per year since 2010 on average, with a more rapid increase of 2.6 per cent in 2019 due to a large increase in forest fires.’ It hopes for a green pandemic recovery by 2020-21 to a project emission fall by 25 per cent in case of most nations and hopes that a green pandemic recovery could cut up to 25 per cent off predicted 2030 greenhouse gas emissions and bring the world closer to meeting the 2°C goal of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. In This Context, it is noteworthy that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide reached 419.85 ppm in July 2022, from 356.12 ppm in July 1992 (the Keeling Curve or Tipping Point as it is called).

The Emissions Gap Report 2021, however, painted a rosier picture and shows that new national climate pledges combined with other mitigation measures put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. That is, well above the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and would lead to catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement, the world needs to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.

Annual Global resource extraction increased from 27.1 billion ton in 1970 to 92.1 billion ton in 2017. During this period world population increased from 3.68 billion to 7.6 billion, nearly two- fold and per capita resource use increased from 7.36 ton to 12.11 ton. It does not mean world people in general get equal share of development always.

Per capita consumption of resources in high-income countries is 27 ton. In low-income countries it is only 2 ton (which has been India’s battle since the turn of the century). In accordance with UN estimate, there are 46 underdeveloped countries comprising one billion people. Apart from this, there is another one billion people below the poverty line and with low incomes in developing countries like in South America and Africa, and in China, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, etc.

Now if we think to reduce inequality between high-income and low-income people, more 50-billion ton natural resources are needed to be extracted. Similarly, if the remaining four billion people in the middle income are to be provided with equal socio-economic status with high-income people, there will arise a necessity of at least 40-billion ton of natural resources. Therefore, to achieve the goal of ‘reduced inequality’, the extraction of natural resources needs to be doubled at least.

Sustainibility on the Dashboard

United Nations convened a special General Assembly session on 25-27 September in 2015, in New York and adopted a resolution which had a list of 17 sustainable development goals to be achieved within 2030. The goals are: 1) No poverty 2) Zero hunger 3) Good health and wellbeing 4) Quality education 5) Gender equality 6) Clean water and sanitation 7) Affordable and clean energy 8) Decent work and economic growth 9) Industry, innovation and infrastructure 10) Reduced inequality 11) Sustainable cities and communities 12) Responsible consumption and production 13) Climate action 14) Life below water 15) Life on land 16) Peace, justice and strong institutions 17) Partnerships for goals. The goals are, obviously, promising in terms of social objectives. How far the goals are potentially achievable within 2030 is yet to be seen. However, we may raise the question of sustainable development at least in terms of just one goal — that of inequality reduction.

Reduction of inequality is, obviously, an important social objective. But if the world leaders are strong-willed about its implementation along with other sustainable development goals within 2030, crisis cropping up from waste and depletion of resources will appear with multidimensional risk.

The people to be benefitted from the accomplishment of this goal will, however, confront an environment of greater adversity with a severe deterioration of living conditions. (The global extraction of resources is around one third by biomass content and the remaining two third consists of fossil fuel, metallic minerals and non-metallic minerals.) The waste generated from the use of biomass is mostly decomposable in the environment through bio-friendly ecological cycle. But the waste generated from the remaining resources always imperil human living condition as there’s no plausible bio-friendly ecological cycle to decompose these wastes and integrate them into the environment.

Sustainibility’s Intention and Design

From Rio ’92 to UNGA 2015 (Special session), all the summits cried sustainable development from roof tops, but how this aspiration can materialize is still unclear. Sustainability continues to remain a concept, still on the theoretical plane, like the term circular economy in the corporate world. In the view of World Economic Forum, ‘a Circular Economy is an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative — intentionally or by design’.

 It replaces the end-of-life concept with restoration, shifts towards the use of renewable energy, eliminates the use of toxic chemicals which impair reuse and return to the biosphere, and aims for the elimination of waste through the superior design of materials, products, systems and business models. This view is an explicit idea about what is to be done to follow the Brundtland’s definition. Restoration of resources, especially non-renewable, by reuse and recycling is in vogue since long with a lot of limitations which varies with the kind of resources. But elimination of waste through the super design of materials, products and business models is still mere an uncertain vision.

 A lot of research projects had been undertaken in different countries to find out the way of appropriate disposal method of toxic chemicals, plastic waste, radioactive nuclides and greenhouse gases. But except some process of confining the waste in a limited sphere, nothing has so far really come out of any super design of transforming waste into usable commodity.

Lesson to be drawn from the experience of last fifty years, clearly indicates that keeping the market-interest only in consideration, today’s environmental crisis is unlikely to be mitigated.

 Stockholm+50 held on 2-3 June identified as principal issue three givens: climate change, biodiversity loss and proliferating pollution. Old wines in new bottles. The crises continue. The focus has now become a little more specific — on financing, governance systems and strengthening of multilateralism. Co-chairs, Emma Kari, Finland’s Minister of environment and climate change and Yasmine Fouad, Egypt’s Minister of environment, did not reveal any new approach to get over the environmental crisis.

Reduction in the use of non-renewable resources (fossil fuel, metallic mineral, and non-metallic mineral) is the only way to overcome today’s emission crisis. Development receives priority in every country. In the high income-countries, with the normal consumerism of citizen, the clandestine objective of development is to gain political and economic domination over other countries. The countries of middle and low income talk of development for poverty-eradication, employment-generation and above all to reduce inequality, but to be more powerful is also a hidden agendum.

Last fifty years’ failure to achieve any reduction of environmental degradation and pollution is due to market systems that ignore earth’s environmental crisis. Development, other than that relating to the eco-friendly good life of people, has to become civilisational priority. Only then can climate change be fought.

 However, reduction in the use of non-renewable resources is an interim arrangement to lessen the threat. But a perpetual solution has to be a well-designed execution of development which shall ensure the restoration of ecological resources that are used in the social production system. At present, this system is protected by several well-balanced and powerful market regimes. Consumers are seduced with comfort and producers are tempted with surplus value. Climate crisis, environment and sustainability have no place in the intention of either.

* (Author: Swapan Kumar Sil is an environment activist is associated with Bijnan Darbar — a people’s science organization in the state of West Bengal, India)


The above article was edited by Papri Sri Raman

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