Fifty years after the landmark 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment—the first ever UN conference on the environment — Stockholm was once again the gathering point to take stock of the state of the human environment and collectively brainstorm on how to move forward. Below is a brief analysis of Stockholm+50: A Healthy Planet for the Prosperity of All – Our Responsibility, Our Opportunity, held 2-3 June 2022.

A coffee break—or, if you prefer, a tea break—is common to many cultures. In Sweden, the practice is a quintessential part of national identity, a non-negotiable part of being Swedish. The word for it is “fika.”

For the Swedes, fika implies more than just a quick, caffeinated break for refreshment. In fact, coffee is arguably the least important part of a much more refined and layered ritual. To the Swedish aficionado, one’s latte or cappuccino must be paired with a particular pastry or other delicacy. More than that, fika is about taking a “pause”—either alone or with colleagues or friends—to step outside the business of the day, to chat or think, to reflect on recent events, or plan ahead. One might describe it as the creation of a clearing, a space that gently interrupts routinized patterns received from the past and refreshes our sense of purpose and engagement with the tasks ahead.

This was the balance the Swedish and Kenyan organizers of Stockholm+50 had set themselves: to mark the past while also looking to a future focused on accelerated action around implementation of commitments generated since the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm 50 years ago. This included inviting participants to confront some tough choices, including addressing the deep connection between justice and our capacity to enable collective action and effective implementation.

Stocktaking in Stockholm

In some ways, Stockholm+50 was the ultimate fika moment. In the opening plenary, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Stockholm+50 would provide an opportunity to step out of delegates’ usual negotiating mode, to “pause” and take stock of progress since 1972, and reflect on what is emerging in all its complexity in 2022. What could be more fika than that?

Was this the right approach? And did the strategic pause serve the organizers’ plan to harvest and honor the achievements of the 1972 Stockholm Conference while also moving us into a new era of implementation-focused multilateralism in support of system-wide societal and economic transitions ushered in by the triple planetary crisis?

The design of the pause entailed a significant investment in the pre-meeting preparation that involved a comprehensive series of informal workshops, notably those convened around the themes of three Leadership Dialogues. In a sense this was not a two-day meeting but the culmination of a carefully enabled series of conversations tapping into new constituencies immersed in the discourses and leadership of just transitions. Pre-meeting deliberations involved 230 national conversations and some 50 countries, with up to 50,000 participants. There was also a major investment by the Swedish co-hosts in a Youth Taskforce, in recognition that part of the historical moment of Stockholm+50 is about restoring trust through fairness in the multilateral process in the face of a critical gaze personified by the Vanessa Nakate and Greta Thunberg generation.

Regional consultations with stakeholders also played a major role. In these meetings the need to fulfill commitments with accelerated actions was a key theme. There were also calls for new commitments on issues such as eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and recognizing the rights of nature, although the Swedish and Kenyan co-hosts’ aim for Stockholm+50 was not to launch new goals or targets.

Nevertheless, expectations on the first morning of the meeting reflected a sense of uncertainty about the event and its aims. The event attracted many government ministers and senior officials, however, heads of state and government were thin on the ground, suggesting to some that many government priorities lay elsewhere. For practiced delegates from multilateral negotiations accustomed to more transactional rituals of negotiating [bracketed trade-offs], often late into the night, the event seemed refreshingly free of controversy or challenge, with lots of time to catch a good night’s sleep, connect with colleagues, and enjoy the hospitality of the conference.

Just like a break for fika, the time to connect was the entire point of Stockholm+50. “This is a commemoration and a conversation, not a negotiation,” concluded one delegate at the end of the first day.

This approach began to yield results, especially during the second day. With no pressure to generate a negotiated outcome text, many delegates clearly felt they could lower their usual diplomatic guard and engage in honest, real conversations.

This was particularly the case in the Leadership Dialogues, which led to some stimulating and, on occasion, even inspiring moments of intergenerational solidarity. The moment when seasoned US Climate Envoy, John Kerry, and Ugandan youth activist, Vanessa Nakate, had a “meeting-of-minds” over greenwashing and the need for genuine climate action by leading industrialized countries was powerful. It reflected a strong theme that emerged throughout the meeting: the importance of intergenerational equity and the need to engage genuinely and deeply with young people in shaping the future they will soon inherit. “Do not hand us a “broken world,” Nakate told delegates. No one disagreed. As one moderator noted, citing the poet David Whyte, “a conversation is listened into existence more than it is spoken.”

Even in the more conventional plenary sessions of pre-written ministerial speeches, many governments appeared open to listening to each other’s views in a constructive exchange. One or two set aside their pre-prepared remarks to talk more frankly to the moment.

And that was the point of Stockholm+50. For all the achievements made possible by the 1972 Conference and its iconic pioneers there was an ever-present undercurrent of opinion in the 2022 conference rooms and in the corridors that there is a clear and present danger: the trajectory of the world’s multilateral environmental negotiations has been too deeply enmeshed and compromised by inherited legacies of Western colonialism and systemic inequality. As some participants asserted, it is too siloed and dislocated from the real drivers of crises that are to be found in the sacred canopy of neo-liberal capitalism and the “holy grail” of economic growth. In a powerful intervention, UN expert adviser, Catherine Odora Hoppers, Uganda, challenged the conference to engage in a genuine learning encounter with alternative, non-western approaches and systems of knowledge.

The idea of a triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss was universally recognized and discussed in depth. Because of some well-chosen global thought leaders, there were also the beginnings of a deeper analysis of the underlying drivers of the crisis in the realms of corporate accountability, and a just transition underpinned by a right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment. This, they said, should be the first point of departure for all decisions that impact nature.

Another set of ideas emerged around circularity and “doughnut economics”—popularized by Dr. Kate Raworth—about the need to integrate economic policy within planetary boundaries.

In addition, the impact of other crises featured prominently and received few, if any, conflicting views. There was no obvious North-South disagreement over how the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other international goals, even if a few countries pointed specifically to vaccine equity issues. Likewise, the war in Ukraine was widely mentioned with regret, even if Western countries were more likely to condemn it as an unacceptable act of aggression while others tended to focus more squarely on the need for a ceasefire to end the tragic consequences.

There was also little obvious disagreement over the need to increase financial and technological support for the Global South, even if this call featured more prominently among developing country speakers. Many endorsed multilateralism and a deepening multi-stakeholder participation and collaboration as the key to implementation, which is surely a positive. Some also recalled developing countries’ right to pursue their own paths to development, mirroring an important inflection of a theme of the 1972 conference.

Skepticism, of course, is also built into these meetings because they perform a kind of ritualized choreography that always shortchanges the future “we” want. Some NGO and trade union responses immediately following Stockholm+50 were scathing and dismissed the event as a “talkfest” and confirmed the organizers’ early fears that elements of civil society would likely judge the event against a mandate (for example, new commitments) that it had not received from the UN General Assembly.

Constructive Conversation or Idle Chatter?

Clearly, this fika conference yielded some interesting dialogue and gave rise to a relatively ambitious set of actionable recommendations. So far, so good.

Some delegates seemed to feel the timing of the event was also providential. With COVID-19 preventing many in-person meetings for the better part of two years, Stockholm+50 was one of the first fully in-person events since early 2020. Despite the many virtual conferences and even negotiations that have taken place, there is no escaping the need for face-to-face talks to make the necessary breakthroughs in the delicate business of international rule-setting.

In addition, Stockholm+50 presented a model of how government representatives may be exposed to new ideas by having the opportunity to step into a Leadership Dialogue where creative minds and practitioners were rehearsing solutions “out of the box.” The format of Stockholm+50 was designed to be part of the message: a managed encounter between practiced negotiators and the thought leaders and activist and epistemic communities who are essential for the task of aligning multilateralism with the findings of scientific experts, such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since diplomats were in a non-negotiating mode, they did not have to adhere to their country’s negotiating position. This seemed, on occasion, to enable government representatives to keep open minds about what they were hearing and express their own thoughts, knowing it would not compromise their negotiating positions in other fora.

There was clearly a strong sense in Stockholm that global negotiations in many multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) have both been dangerously delayed and, at times, out of step with the science. The latest IPCC report demonstrates the existential risk of inaction. Progress on the SDGs has slowed or even reversed. And there is a sense of increasing urgency heading into upcoming negotiations on biodiversity, the ocean, and plastics. That sense that we are running out of time—and we need to move rapidly from negotiation into implementation mode—was absolutely clear in Stockholm. This message was perhaps best captured by Spain’s Teresa Ribera Rodriguez. She told delegates that “We have all the agreements and frameworks we need; now is the time for action, action, action!”

Now that the world is opening up again, many MEAs are gearing up for a series of critical (and often delayed) in-person gatherings aimed at shifting into implementation mode. Meetings like the Second UN Ocean Conference, the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP), and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s COP 27, all present critical opportunities in the coming months to deliver strong outcomes. Meanwhile, negotiations have started on a plastics treaty, while the UN system is strongly focused on getting the SDGs back on track.

Stockholm+50 has arguably helped kick-start normalized in-person gatherings. If fika is an antidote to the stresses of everyday life, Stockholm+50 was an antidote, too, presenting a low-key, low-stress opportunity to talk, get re-accustomed to being together again under one roof, and begin to rebuild those individual relationships and sense of mutual trust and understanding that are essential for success in the critical meetings in the months ahead. Indeed, participants at the meeting were repeatedly invited to cultivate a new relationship with nature, through listening and, as one activist described, by embodying the earth’s presence in the discussions.

Pausing to Move Forward

Will the Stockholm+50 “pause” yield the results needed for our planet? Or will it be remembered as little more than a nostalgic moment that will be overwhelmed by the weight of the 1972 Stockholm Conference’s struggle to bring something new into the world? Only time will tell.

With the candid and constructive exchange that were a feature of Stockholm+50’s extended fika, this meeting in Sweden may have played a useful role in helping delegations remind themselves what is at stake in the months ahead, when there will be little time to pause for coffee, tea, or even a delicious pastry...unless it’s served with a side order of “doughnut economics.”

This article was first published by the IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin. You can view the original summary report on the IISD Earth Negotiations Bulletin website.

Cover image by Fynn Geerdsen.

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