Our Burning Planet


Fifty years after Stockholm Conference we face multiple hells, but ‘only one Earth’

Fifty years after Stockholm Conference we face multiple hells, but ‘only one Earth’
A firefighter walks amid firetrucks as they work at putting down a house set on fire by the Coastal Fire in Laguna Niguel, California, USA, 11 May 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ETIENNE LAURENT) | A worker collects a sample of delivered wheat grain at a government-operated mill in central Fayoum, Egypt, on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Photo: Islam Safwat/Bloomberg via Getty Images) | A healthcare worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 booster shot at a vaccine clinic inside Trinity Evangelic Lutheran Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, U.S, on Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2022. (Photo: Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images) | A wheat kernel in a field during a harvest on a farm in Rahma Village, Fayoum, Egypt, on Thursday, May 19, 2022. (Photo: Islam Safwat/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As we take stock of progress made, we should remain mindful of the current multiple crises: the war in Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic, the multilateral trading system crisis, the food crisis, and the overarching climate crisis.

Every year, World Environment Day is observed on 5 June to emphasise how important environmental protection is for all species and the planet. Fittingly, the theme for 2022 “Only One Earth” was also the motto of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference).

The Stockholm Conference, the first world conference to make the environment a major issue, adopted the Stockholm Declaration and Action Plan for the Human Environment and several resolutions.

Containing 26 principles, this declaration placed environmental issues firmly on the international agenda and paved the way for talks between developed and developing countries about the significant link between economic growth, the pollution of the air, water, and oceans and the well-being of the global population.

This was also in line with the late prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme’s statement in his historic speech at the Stockholm Conference: “The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation — we share it. The big oceans are not divided by national frontiers — they are our common property.”

To commemorate the anniversary of the 1972 conference and to celebrate 50 years of global environmental action, the Swedish government will host a Stockholm+50 international meeting on 5 June 2022.

As we take stock of the progress that has been made over the last 50 years, we should also remain mindful of the current multiple crises: the war in Ukraine, the Covid-19 pandemic, the multilateral trading system crisis, the food crisis, and the overarching climate crisis. This potpourri can be compared to multiple hells in the face of only having one Earth.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, former US Secretary of State and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger addressed some of the most pressing issues facing the world. Referring to the Russia-Ukraine war, Kissinger said that the conflict in Ukraine can permanently restructure the global order. He is right: the war and its impacts on the human environment are severe.

Apart from the human suffering, destruction of infrastructure and the damaging effects on the functioning of basic services cause serious environmental harm. Damage to wastewater and drinking water, contamination of water resources caused by rocket explosions are coupled with huge volumes of debris and waste, while the release of hazardous substances such as asbestos, industrial chemicals, and fuels compound the effects of environmental contamination.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have been receiving daily reports and images of a humanitarian catastrophe. At the same time, another one is looming in many African states due to the loss of grain and food imports.

The world is suffering from an unprecedented level of global shocks, one of which is the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change as we have seen in the recent devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal. Along with other global shocks, these conditions could lead to an increase in food insecurity in many parts of the world.  

Gloria Abraham Peralta, Chair of the World Trade Organisation (WTO)’s farm trade talks, recently rightfully stated that “conflicts, the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change are increasing the vulnerability of people around the world.” She also noted that the resulting food price hikes and supply shortages are pushing millions more people into poverty.

Hopes are high that the outcomes of the WTO’s 12th Ministerial Conference to be held during the week of 13 June 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland will assure the long-term goal of reforming agricultural trade by progressively cutting trade-distorting subsidies, opening markets for food and farm goods while coping with future crises. International trade has negative environmental implications, increases environmental externalities and contributes to pollution or natural resource degradation.  

As a crucial institution for the governance of international trade, the WTO can and should do more to help protect the environment from the negative externalities of trade. One thing is clear: we need multilateral action to reform the international trade regime and at the same time reduce climate-linked fragility risks, in particular those related to food security.

We already have blueprints and roadmaps for environmental protection and the mitigation of climate change such as the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Climate Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Where the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that droughts have increased in parts of Africa, at the recent 15th Conference of the Parties to the UNCCD (COP15) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, the focus was on “Land. Life. Legacy: From scarcity to prosperity” to ensure that land, which is the lifeline on this planet, continues to benefit present and future generations. Equally, COP27 to the UNFCCC, which will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt later this year, holds much promise.

Despite some progress since the 1972 Stockholm Conference, we have largely failed to sustain our environmental action and, because of this, we find ourselves in the midst of a climate crisis that is spiralling out of control. The risk of food insecurity is only one of the consequences of the climate crisis.

Ultimately, protecting the environment is in our best interests and while we may be going through multiple hells at the moment, it is most probably in the absence of none, the second-best possible unifier to acknowledge that we only have one Earth to go forward with in the next 50 years and beyond. DM

Oliver C Ruppel is Professor of Law and Director of the Development and Rule of Law Programme (DROP) in the Faculty of Law at Stellenbosch University. He also serves as Director of the Research Centre for Climate Law (Clim:Law Graz) at the University of Graz in Austria. He specialises in International Environmental Law, World Trade Law, Sustainable Development Law and Climate Law.


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