Can multilateralism rise to the moment for Stockholm +50?
People worldwide have high hopes for the Stockholm+50 moment and the 2022 Declaration. Despite the high numbers of norms and standards, international environmental law has not protected the natural environment, let alone restored the damage caused to our planet over the past century. Stockholm +50 could be the time to honor the avant-garde, often overlooked UN World Charter for Nature of 1982 and relaunch the Global Pact for the Environment process.
As the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm approaches, the potential for humanity to finally take the bold steps needed has never been greater. Though perhaps later than we would have wished, the consensus around the science of this moment is well established. And while an ecological collapse is a grave risk, agreement on this reality is the first step towards the action needed.
Data suggests that talking about a collapse is no exaggeration at all. The world is heading for a temperature rise above 3°C this century. Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach. Global warming leads to extreme weather events and disasters that are causing 60 thousand deaths, mainly in low-income countries, while also pushing at least 32 million people into poverty every year. With these trends, a failure to mitigate climate change will generate more than 140 million forcibly displaced people by 2050.
Moreover, we have daunting figures on biodiversity loss. Around one million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades, a rate of disappearance unseen in human history. Deforestation and forest degradation continue to take place at alarming rates. Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses. The area of primary forest has decreased by over 80 million hectares worldwide. Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human activity.
A staggering example of uncontrolled human activity is marine plastic pollution. Fourteen million metric tons of plastic debris end up in the oceans every year. If current trends continue, our oceans could contain more plastic than fish by weight by 2050, most profoundly impacting more than three billion people whose livelihoods rely on the sea.
However, some politicians, decision-makers, and diplomats worldwide are not insensitive to the scientific evidence and alerts on the environmental crisis. Most nations have recognized the ecological limits of economic growth and its impact on the health and survival of species and ecosystems since the 1970s, leading to the impressive production of more than fourteen hundred multilateral environmental agreements, including on climate change, biological diversity, desertification, chemicals, pollution, oceans, and wetlands, to name a few.
Despite the high numbers of norms and standards, international environmental law has not protected the natural environment, let alone restored the damage caused to our planet over the past century. Even if scientists bring new evidence of the impact of human activity on the environment and prominent politicians, diplomats and policymakers devote countless hours to drafting texts and concluding negotiations, the action remains insufficient. Our multilateral system has yet to deliver on its promises to curb climate change, revert environmental degradation, and stop biodiversity loss. The question we must be asking, then, is not what agreement we need but, rather, why is our international environmental regime falling short? What do we need to turn this situation around? How to repair the ecological damage we have caused?
Given the depth and urgency of the environmental crisis, the world is at a historical inflection point. States must recognize the yawning gaps and inconsistencies in the principles, regulatory regimes, governance structures, implementation, and effectiveness of current international environmental Law. Leaders must show renewed political commitment to face the ecological crisis through the loyal implementation of a unifying and overarching legal framework.
Stockholm +50 could be the time to honor the avant-garde, often overlooked UN World Charter for Nature of 1982 and relaunch the Global Pact for the Environment process, which began from a 2018 United Nations General Assembly mandate. The intergovernmental negotiations ended in May 2019 with a less ambitious goal: adopt a High-Level Declaration for the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme by the Stockholm Conference.
The Pact had the potential to become a game-changing initiative. It sought to establish a set of principles for environmental governance to fill the gaps and overcome fragmentation in international environmental law. Among the many gains of such a framework, three are substantial. First, the Pact may be used as a multilateral tool to guide and monitor the implementation of international environmental norms and standards from an interconnected and comprehensive perspective, thus addressing the current redundancies, inconsistencies, and silos.
Second, the Pact could set normative standards to improve and develop national legislation on environmental protection and provide a platform to protect the rights of individuals and groups affected by ecological degradation or specific types of pollution.
And third, the Pact could recognize nature as a common heritage of humanity and our life-supporting system. Paulo Magalhães affirmed that the predominant normative view considers nature a “common concern.” With this approach, states have no specific obligations towards conserving the earth system and may take only “voluntary” actions to avoid or limit the impacts caused by human activity. Considering nature as our commons could radically change the current framework ecosystem degradation could no longer be regarded as a mere externality or unintended consequence of the production of goods and services, a sacrifice made in the name of humanity´s insatiable pursuit of economic wealth. It could ensure a carrying-capacity approach to the use of nature.
Recognizing nature as a common heritage of humanity could set the basis for acknowledging and internalizing the value of nature in sustaining life. The Global Pact could be a stepping stone towards a new economic paradigm based on shared responsibilities where a healthy, well-functioning planetary system is our most valuable asset and overcomes the fruitless debate about national interest versus global, universal wellbeing.
The Global Pact should therefore boost multilateral solutions. States will not only limit themselves to defending their national interest but also cooperate and coordinate actions to preserve and regenerate global common goods such as a stable climate, clean oceans, and fresh air, flourishing forests, and thriving biodiversity.
We know that humankind is at a crossroads due to an acute planetary multidimensional crisis. We also know that our multilateral system has shown timid progress and setbacks in addressing the current ecological breakdown. The critical question is how to learn collectively, to build sustainable development models with low ecological footprints and socially just policies. After fifty years, we are overdue for such bold and transformative actions.
I am optimistic. I see at least three converging factors that can enhance global environmental governance. First is simply consensus. There is broad acknowledgment that the current ecological crisis could reach a point of no return that threatens the very survival of the human species. The second is decades of effort. There is a rich legacy of international environmental law with hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements that would represent a significant advance if implemented coherently and with accountability.
Third, a normative leap. We have finally come to recognize that a healthy environment is a human right and a pre-condition for any meaningful prospect of development or effort to fight poverty and inequalities.
Some recent developments in environmental law in 2021 alone represent sources of great hope. In March, the German Constitutional Court stated that the country’s Climate Change Act violates the State’s constitutional duty to actively protect life and health from the dangers of climate change. In October, the Human Rights Council recognized for the first time that having a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is indeed a human right in its resolution 48/13. And in December, Portugal published a new Framework Law on the Climate that sets the government’s duty to defend the recognition of a stable climate as Common Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations. Nor can we forget several historical precedents from which to draw inspiration, such as the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution that grants nature the right to exist, be protected, and regenerate.
Yet, the struggle against the environmental crisis cannot be limited to the legal battlefield. There is a need to align sound science and information, leadership, and political will. All these factors need to converge for Stockholm +50 and the 2022 Declaration. The Declaration should be robust, comprehensive, and action-oriented. It must provide a sense of direction and uphold the commitment of governments and societies towards a nature-friendly, just, and inclusive development. We have learned that action and implementation is the best way to regain trust between individuals, communities, and institutions.
People worldwide have high hopes for the Stockholm+50 moment and the 2022 Declaration. We are taking steps in the right direction, such as the significant policy and legal transformations that we have witnessed in countries like Germany or Portugal and at the multilateral level in the Human Rights Council in 2021. Let the 50th anniversary of Stockholm represent an inflection point for humanity. Let its outcome serve as a beacon for fairer and more sustainable economies and societies. The choices and the path we take are in our hands.