News.Jun 03, 2022

Where has fifty years of environment work taken us?

Announced as a celebration of 50 years of global environmental action, the UN conference Stockholm +50, held on 2-3 June, attracted high level participants from around the world. It demonstrated, once again, that while there is a repeated global promise to act on climate change and environment degradation, we are in fact doing far too little, far too slowly.

In 1972, in Stockholm, a young Swedish student saw the signs for a UN conference about the environment. He decided to attend. There was no need for formal registration, he simply walked in to listen as the likes of Olof Palme and Indira Gandhi talked about what had to be done to avoid an environment crisis.

Fifty years later, the world was back in Stockholm to discuss the environment. And as a somewhat more senior advocate for a sustainability and water-wise world, the then student, Torgny Holmgren, participated again. This time as executive director of SIWI.

“A lot has changed in 50 years. Back in 1972 I could walk in from the street to participate. No security at all. Today, the environment debate has become a concern for a much larger community, which is of course a good thing,” he says.

e7e63920-67fb-4ff8-a88a-5653b7f708b1Torgny Holmgren at Stockholm+50 with SIWI colleagues Karin Gardes and Thomas Rebermark. Photo: SIWI

He continues:

“As part of the water community, it is important to be at conferences such as this, to stress that it is essential to not only include but strongly focus on water, as in the global environment work. Water ties all the global sustainability goals together, and by focusing on water we will get access to concrete solutions to many of the challenges we face”.

Besides being a celebration of 50 years of global environment work, Stockholm +50 also served as a stark reminder of how few goals and promises from the past half century we have lived up to. The main report that laid the foundation for the conference, notes that we have only fulfilled about ten percent of what we have said we would do.

This was a recurring theme during Stockholm +50, with the request for accountability being one of the most repeated phrases, including by the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres. In his speech on the opening day, he also stated another of Stockholm +50’s themes: we need new measurements of wealth, as the once we currently rely on, to a large extent also are measures of unsustainable consumption.

Water was not explicitly part of the Stockholm +50 agenda but was mentioned by several speakers as an essential factor in the work towards a sustainable future.

“Now we need to move from words to action”

Dr Thérèse Rudebeck, SIWI

SIWI’s Therese Rudebeck sums up her days at the conference:

“Stockholm +50 has been an important opportunity to reconnect and revitalize bilateral and multilateral dialogues and processes. For SIWI, it has also been a chance to showcase the importance of water for all sustainable development. Now we need to move from words to action.”

Serving as a reconfirmation of yet unrealized promises, the Stockholm +50 conference did not end with a concrete outcome. This setup had attracted some criticism ahead of the meeting. Some also remarked that there was a lack of a broad youth participation, despite many high-level speakers stating the importance of including the youth in the work for a more sustainable world.

Ms Jaee Nikam, SEI Asia and coordinating author of the Stockholm +50 Youth Report, reiterated this importance by saying that we must not widen the gap between young and old further. While on stage with decision-makers from around the world, she said:

“I’m not here to blame you. I want to work with you. Here’s my hand.”

SIWI’s Swedish Water House held three Stockholm+50 associated events ahead of the conference. The webinar series focused on water’s role in achieving a healthy planet for the prosperity of all. Each webinar focused on a specific aspect of water and its role in achieving security, resilient landscapes, and global health.

Watch | The role of water in achieving security

Watch | The role of water in ensuring mosaic landscapes

Watch | The role of water, sanitation and hygiene in safeguarding global health

Read our summary of the key takeaways

As the world came to Stockholm the following SIWI staff were at Stockholm+50, advocating for water to be on every agenda. The incoming Director of Swedish Water House and International Policy, Thomas Rebermark, was also in attendance.