A fateful June: The future of the environment, millions of refugees and even world peace hung in the balance

by , under Ahti Tolvanen

Ahti Tolvanen*

At last there has been a decision of the world’s nations to put an end to the burning of fossil fuels. It took the world at least 50 years to arrive at this point which happened in Stockholm June 3rd, 2022 in the closing statement of a conference to observe the 50th anniversary of the UN’s first Environmental Conference in 1972.

In 1972 the US was waging a cruel war in Vietnam against an enemy supplied with weapons from Soviet Russia. Critics were saying it was a farce to have talks about the environment and make no mention of the

US´s destructive military intervention. Olaf Palme was famously outspoken on the theme.

Now the shoe was on the other foot. Russia had invaded Ukraine in February and the US was shipping weapons to repel the attackers.

NGOs led by the Climate Action Network lobbied and demonstrated energetically to have an end to fossil fuels renounced in Glasgow at COP 26 but were stymied in the last hours, mainly by the fossil fuel lobby. It took another International conference to get there.

Scientists have been warning the world about fossil fuels as the main driver of the climate crises for years, but the way climate politics works, we needed to have fossil phase-out on the books or we will never get it done.

In 1972 when the first Stockholm conference convened acid rain and a loss of ozone were serious environmental concerns. Measures were put into place to alleviate these in the following years. But in 1972 the human biological footprint was at approximately the level of natural replacement. Since then we have lost about 60% of living creatures and are consuming renewable resources at nearly twice their rate of renewal.

We are running out of time and Stockholm+50 may be too little too late. The world`s nations still have to build millions of solar and wind projects, get billions of gasoline combusting vehicles off the road and restore millions of acres now devastated by animal farming in order to turn downwards the steady increase in atmospheric carbon.

A public pre-Conference on June 1st anticipated the need to go beyond another declaration by urging the adoption of an International Fossil Fuels Non-proliferation Treaty. This proposal aimed to fast-track carbon reduction in two ways, It would make defossilization a requirement under international law and it would be driven by the most climate-committed states who were expected to be initial signatories, thus creating a higher standard than other climate agreements which depended on a consensus even the most reluctant would undersign.

A positive reverberation of the Stockholm outcome may possibly be seen in a decision in Nairobi at the June 26 preparatory meeting of the long-delayed UN Biodiversity Conference to finally convene on December 5th in Montreal to implement concrete action on the stalled Biodiversity Treaty.

Inger Andersen, director of the UNEP, under whose aegis Stockholm 50 convened, confirmed the need to go even further quickly when she spoke in Helsinki just two days after Stockholm.

”The coal and oil industry has more money than ever,” she said. ”It is clear we are going the wrong way”.

Finnish Environment Minister Emma Kari raised the same concern in her speech.

Both women were obviously thinking of the over four trillion dollars invested in fossil fuels since the Paris COP in 2015. Meanwhile developing nations and NGOs have been working for a half-decade to get developed nations to deliver on their promises of 100 billion dollars annually for investments to address climate-related impacts.

In 2019 the UNEP reported that to keep warming below 1.5 C would require annual reductions in CO2 emissions of 6% yearly over the next decade. That was three years ago and emissions have only risen.

In the same paragraph as it called for fossil fuel phase-out the final Stockholm presidential statement called for new ways to measure wealth. But the details were not specified, a deficiency the proposed Treaty could remedy.

While diplomats pondered the climate crises in Stockholm the media was mainly preoccupied with the Ukraine war and the decision by Sweden and Finland to join Nato. Although the Nato military alliance accounts for about 6 % of CO2 emissions, about three times as much as aviation, and is increasing investments to rise beyond 200 billion USD in war materials annually-billions climate action urgently needs- neither Nato nor military emissions got much attention at Stockholm+50. Not even from the Extinction Rebellion blockaders at the airport. 

This alone is enough to make one want to throw one’s hands up in despair.

Then I met Helena Lindeman at an informal vegetarian dinner with climate activists. Four years ago she had been taking a course with colleagues working in international development.

They were doing team projects about what one person might do about the climate crises. Helena remembered an environmental conference in Stockholm in 1972, which had led to the founding of the UNEP. She suggested there might be a 50th anniversary reconvening where fossil fuels might be phased out.

Helena got busy calling her contacts. One call or meeting led to another. Finally, on June 3rd Stockholm+50 called for phasing out fossil fuels.

In discussing the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment with Helena we recalled that it was presided over by a Canadian named. Maurice Strong. He had volunteered at the UN when it was founded after WWII because he wanted to “make the world a better place.” His first job was watchman at UN headquarters where he met people who got him interested in the environment.

When Strong started his career at the UN the world was weary of war and the UN was founded to reshape international relations on a foundation of peaceful diplomacy. A cornerstone of that new era was laid in 1953 with the adoption of the UN Refugee Convention to provide international protection to victims of war and persecution.

As Finland and Sweden prepare to join the Nato military alliance and its strategic encirclement of Russia, it seems Scandinavian leaders are joining the politics of mutually assured nuclear destruction and abandoning decades of commitment to peacebuilding. Both peace and saving the environment seem to be becoming part of a ”sustainability” mantra for our leaders as billions more of our taxes are diverted to war-making capabilities. Refugees are increasingly looked on as a threat to be spurned at frontiers rather than persons needing protection from dictatorships like Turkey, a leading purveyor of a tyrannical government, which Nato obsessively bends backward to keep in the club although it mocks the main values the alliance has vowed to defend.

Stockholm Plus 50 may be remembered as the last best effort of UN diplomacy to rise above the banal din of the day’s politics to turn the tide against the short-sighted politics of saber-rattling and environmental collapse.

*The writer is a member of Al Gores Climate Action team and the Finnish Anti-Hate Crime Society