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The End of Sustainability Summitry – Reflections on ‘Stockholm+50’

It’s Sustainability Summit Season once again.


On 2-3 June, a few thousand government delegates, UN officials, civil society representatives and observers met in Stockholm to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the legendary 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, widely seen as the launch event for global environmental governance. This ‘Stockholm+50’ event could be seen as the latest in a long tradition of major global environmental gatherings that followed the 1972 conference: the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (‘Rio Earth Summit’), the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (‘Rio+20’). Each of these historic summits has shaped global governance in its own way.


This year’s conference in Stockholm, however, can’t be compared to these earlier summits. ‘Stockholm+50’ was no major summit; officially it was not even a ‘conference’ but an international ‘meeting’, with the wordy title ‘A Healthy Planet for the Prosperity of All – Our Responsibility, Our Opportunity’. No significant decisions were taken, and none were planned. No new agreements, no new action programmes, no new principles, no major institutional reforms emerged as key outcomes.


There were the usual speeches by heads of UN agencies and other leaders, from the Secretary-General of the United Nations to the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. The sense of urgency in these statements was strong, although not too different for example from Indira Gandhi’s famous statement fifty years ago at the original 1972 Stockholm Conference that ‘the environmental crisis which is confronting the world will profoundly alter the future destiny of our planet’. Most countries had sent their ministers of the environment – some also their heads of government – with brief statements to convey their best intentions, to confirm their commitments and sometimes to even announce a few new policies. Many government representatives called for greater ‘political will’ and ‘bold action’. A highlight in the list of ‘excellencies’ was the intervention by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was represented by a youth delegate (along with the minister), whose passionate plea for urgent action from the international community earned loud applause from the public representatives of this international community.


The key outcome of Stockholm+50 is a statement by the co-chairs of the meeting – the president of Kenya and the prime minister of Sweden – entitled ‘Key recommendations for accelerating action towards a healthy planet for the prosperity of all’. The co-chairs concluded that Stockholm+50 has ‘underlined the urgent need for bold and deliberate actions as well as clear political will to accelerate action on these commitments, strengthen the multilateral system, increase ambition and solidarity, and set us on a credible path towards a healthy planet for all – leaving no one behind.’ They added ten recommendations, among others to ‘place human well-being at the centre of a healthy planet and prosperity for all’, including by adopting ‘a fundamental change in attitudes, habits, and behaviours’; to ‘recognize and implement the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment’; to ‘adopt system wide change in the way our current economic system works to contribute to a healthy planet, through defining and adopting new measures of progress and human well-being’, including by ‘encouraging a global dialogue to promote sustainable consumption and production’ and ‘promoting phase out of fossil fuels’.


While many of these recommendations strike the right note, their realization continues to depend on other institutions. The final recommendation thus kicks the ball over to future meetings and parallel processes by calling on governments ‘to take forward the Stockholm+50 outcomes, through reinforcing and reenergizing the ongoing international processes, including a global framework for biodiversity, an implementing agreement for the protection of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction, and the development of a new plastics convention; and engaging with the relevant conferences, such as the 2022 UN Ocean Conference, High Level Political Forum, the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Summit of the Future.’


Apart from that, not much happened. The spacious plenary hall remained largely empty, with many government seats often vacant. A bit livelier were the side events and associated events where international organizations, civil society groups and others presented their work or engaged in roundtables. But also here, the surprise factor remained limited.


Hence, compared to the earlier events in 1972, 1992, 2002 and 2012, this year’s ‘Stockholm plus 50’ meeting marks the decline of sustainability summitry. All well-known rituals of summitry were re-enacted once more, with plenaries, dialogues, side events and the odd demonstration outside the conference venue. Politically, however, the event lacked any significant outcome or progress.


This is not necessarily a failure. The lacklustre Stockholm+50 meeting reflects the massive institutionalization and functional differentiation of global sustainability governance over the last five decades. While the 1992 Rio Earth Summit still centred on the then new international conventions on climate and biodiversity, such issues are now negotiated in the established conferences of the parties of those agreements, such as last year’s climate conference in Glasgow. Today’s overall centre of environmental decision-making is the United Nations Environment Assembly, which held its own special session to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme in March 2022 in Nairobi. While earlier summits ended with new international programmes of action, such as the ‘Agenda 21’ of 1992, for Stockholm+50 the ‘2030 Agenda’ of 2015 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals still serves as the normative framework of global sustainability governance. Although scientific evidence assembled in the 2022 SDG Impact Assessment suggests that the Sustainable Development Goals have had only limited political impact, any progress review for the SDGs lies with the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, with hardly any need for added reviews at the Stock­holm+50 conference.


In short, the increasing institutionalization and differentiation of global governance has not left much to be done for summitry going forward, in contrast to the mega-summits of the past.

The question remains whether this functional differentiation of global sustainability governance requires stronger legal and institutional structures to integrate and steer the overall ‘architecture’ of global sustainability governance. The 1972 and 1992 conferences resulted in broad declarations of general ‘principles’, some of which may be in need of an ‘update’ after so many years. Some scholars and nongovernmental organizations thus called in Stockholm for a new declaration of the earth system and a stable climate as a ‘Common Heritage’ of humankind. This is an idea that dates back to the 1980s but has not gained much traction since then. Regardless of the merits of such proposals, governments today do not seem keen to negotiate new overarching principles. In 2022, the focus is on implementation, ‘bold action’ and ‘acceleration’ – or at least on announcements to this effect.


Concrete political impact of the Stockholm+50 meeting is thus hard to find. The international travelling circus of ministers, bureaucrats, UN officials, civil society representatives, business lobbyists and academic observers came together to commemorate the landmark 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment – the historic summit that launched the evolution of global environmental governance. Yet, its subsequent institutionalization and differentiation now makes the old rituals of Global Sustainability Summitry increasingly obsolete. The time of general mega-summits seems to be over - at least for now. Eventually, of course, this might change again: once governments realize that only drastic transformations and economic restructuring can stem global heating and other interrelated crises. We might then expect a new wave of global summitry again, to face the escalating planetary emergency.