Council on Energy, Environment and Water Integrated | International | Independent
Stockholm+50: Unlocking a Better Future
Arunabha Ghosh, Eric Kemp-Benedict, Fiona Lambe, Henrik Carlsen, Nina Weitz, Prayank Jain, Åsa Persson

Suggested citation: SEI & CEEW (2022). Stockholm+50: Unlocking a Better Future. Stockholm Environment Institute. DOI: 10.51414/sei2022.011


This report, in collaboration with Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), is an independent scientific report for the UN international meeting, ‘Stockholm+50: a healthy planet for the prosperity of all – our responsibility, our opportunity’. Based on a synthesis of scientific evidence and ideas, it identifies concrete actions under three broad shifts: redefining the relationship between humans and nature; ensuring lasting prosperity for all; and investing in a better future. The report analyses the barriers to change and underlines the ways to unlock progress by improving coherence, accountability, solidarity and a renewed multilateralism. It highlights that these shifts require the involvement of multiple  actors – including governments, multilateral institutions, private sector and individuals – and emphasises on reforming the global governance landscape. It makes recommendations for reform and new thinking on complex issues of finance, technology, lifestyles and others, all of which need bold action for a better future.

Fifty years since the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the world has changed in alarming ways. Stockholm+50 is an opportunity to move beyond gridlocked international negotiations. It is a chance to reshape national and global interactions, deliver equity and amplify a global movement for a more caring world. This report is a contribution to support and enable a legacy that unlocks a sustainable future for all humans and the planet.

Key Messages

  • The ‘action gap’ is significant. Since 1972, only around one-tenth of the hundreds of global environment and sustainable development targets agreed by countries have been achieved or seen significant progress, but it is not enough.
  • The world is better equipped for change than ever. With growing public support, faster uptake of clean technology, inclusive and innovative finance and robust scientific evidence on positive co-benefits of acting now, 2022 can be a new watershed moment for pursuit of a sustainable future.
  • Bold and science-based decision-making is needed to accelerate the pace of change. Decision makers at every level will need to simultaneously compress timescales for decision-making in this decade to be transformative, and extend time horizons to avoid lock-in, accommodate time lags and reduce intergenerational discrimination.
  • We have keys to unlock a better future. Our synthesis of scientific research and new ideas points to three broad shifts that require immediate actions now repairing our relationship with nature, ensuring prosperity that lasts for all and investing in a sustainable future. If these actions are initiated now, they can seed transformative change.
  • The conditions for change must improve. There are ample opportunities for leaders to tackle structural barriers that hold back effective action by improving policy coherence and ensuring strong and consistent incentives for action; renewing multilateralism by rebuilding solidarity for the common challenges we face; and by creating a culture of accountable promises.


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Chief Executive Officer
Stockholm+50 is an opportunity to learn from the past, take stock of the present, and take transformational steps to create a legacy of a sustainable future for the planet. The SEI-CEEW scientific report brings together existing knowledge to advocate for a paradigm shift that would ensure sustainability and a green recovery for all. We aim to push the envelope and challenge our received wisdom.

actions to unlock a sustainable future

Executive Summary

Looking back at the past 50 years, the world has changed in many ways – but not in the direction called for at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972.

Today we commemorate that conference at the UN international meeting ‘Stockholm+50: a healthy planet for the prosperity of all – our responsibility, our opportunity’. The context in which the Stockholm+50 international meeting takes place is alarming: we face intertwined crises of the state of our planet and extreme inequality among people and societies. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to slow or reverse progress. And geopolitical shifts highlight our interconnectedness and vulnerabilities more than ever.

The future, 50 years ago

At the 1972 gathering in Stockholm, heads of state committed to taking responsibility for protecting and promoting human and environmental health and well-being.

Today, we can see that the track record to deliver on the ambitions of half a century ago has been poor. Our assessment of the framework for environmental action conceived in 1972 shows that, while knowledge, goals and agreements have only increased, international supporting measures – financing, technical cooperation and organization with strong mandates – remain too weak to deliver on the goals and lead to actions in accordance with our knowledge. So far, only about one-tenth of global environmental and sustainable development targets have been achieved, and outcomes and impacts for a healthier planet remain insufficient.

Humans are causing unprecedented change to the global environment and are risking tipping points with major and irreversible changes in our lifetimes. Climate change has already caused widespread adverse impacts to nature and people, and limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach without immediate, rapid and large-scale reduction of emissions. Biodiversity and ecosystems are deteriorating worldwide, and goals for conserving and sustainably using nature cannot be met by current trajectories.

Unsustainable production and consumption patterns put a healthy planet and sustainable development at risk. The use of natural resources has more than tripled from 1970, continues to grow. The use of these resources and their benefits is unevenly distributed across countries and regions. The poorest half of the global population owns barely 2% of the total global wealth, while the richest 10% owns 76% of all wealth. Compared to 1972, overdevelopment and affluence, rather than underdevelopment and scarcity, are the drivers of unsustainable resource use. Currently, no country is delivering what its citizens need without transgressing the biophysical planetary boundaries.

The inequity among people and places in both causing deterioration and suffering from its impacts is high. The poorest half of the global population contributed 10% of emissions; the richest 10% of the global population emitted more than half of the total carbon emissions during 1990–2015. Meanwhile climate disaster–related death tolls of potentially exposed populations during 2000–2017 indicate 16 deaths per million for high-income groups, compared to 60 per million for low-income groups. The social and economic costs of inaction are predominantly borne by the poorest and most vulnerable in society, including Indigenous and local communities, particularly in developing countries.

Global income and wealth inequality

High-income countries must drastically reduce their footprints, especially in light of their cumulative footprints over time, to avoid closing development pathways for low-income countries and future generations. A person born today may live in a world that is on average 4°C warmer than today, in which 16% of species would be at risk of extinction, and their exposure to heatwaves during their lifetimes is up to seven times that of a person born in 1960.

Social achievements, biophysical transgressions: country performance 1992 – 2015

Today, our modes of consumption, production and finance are leading to environmental changes that undermine hard-won development gains. But a ‘low-carbon life’ can and should be a good life – and one that is easily accessible to all. The coming decade is crucial to redirecting our trajectory toward a sustainable and just future.

From urgency to agency

The framework for environmental action conceived in 1972 has delivered political and scientific activity, but the outcomes remain insufficient. The world has already agreed on a vision for sustainable development and common future – Agenda 2030. This vision still needs to come to fruition.

There is growing momentum for change. Public opinion reflects the sense of urgency and indicates willingness to change lifestyles. Youth worldwide are both exercising and demanding more agency to fight climate change, environmental degradation and inequity. Key technological development and uptake has occurred faster than anticipated, and evidence builds of the many wins and co-benefits from taking climate and sustainability action at a policy level.

We need to compress timescales for decision-making and implementation of key investments and infrastructure, without compromising values of democratic legitimacy and inclusiveness. Simultaneously, timescales must be extended in decision-making to avoid intergenerational discrimination and committing ourselves to unsustainable infrastructure, and to enable bold, long-term transformation.

Achievement of global environment and sustainable development targets

We have the means to act; we need incentives that favour actions over commitments. We are better equipped than ever to make 2022 a new watershed moment for pursuit of our sustainable future on Earth. If we unlock change now to enable delivery on a compelling post-2030 vision, we won’t need a Stockholm+100.

Keys to unlock a better future

With Stockholm+50, we must unlock change that is substantial and systemic. A sustainable world should provide a good quality of life that is broadly shared and can be maintained indefinitely into the future.

Based on a synthesis of scientific evidence and ideas, we identify concrete actions under three broad shifts that would take us to a more sustainable development. If they are initiated now, they can accelerate change, large and small, for the long term.

Repair the relationship between humans and nature

The past 50 years – and even the past 5 years – have seen huge losses and degradation of nature globally. Humans have altered 75% of the planet’s land surface, impacted 66% of the ocean area, and destroyed (directly or indirectly) 85% of wetlands. Many societies value nature as an instrument, something to be used for resources; that perspective has driven the ecological decline of the past half-century and beyond. An instrumental valuation often underpins policies and economic structures that in turn shape behaviour and social norms at the individual level. Repairing the relationship between people and nature will require redressing this imbalance, by placing more emphasis on the intrinsic and relational value of nature. Such a shift would be transformative, requiring deep changes across societies, economies and communities: how we live in our cities, how we produce food, how and what we learn, and the knowledge and rights that inform our choices.

Calls to action

  • Integrate nature in cities and urban areas – Local governments can promote human-nature connectedness through green architecture, infrastructure and access to nature in the towns and cities where most people live and work, as a way of both seeding transformative change through shaping values and providing immediate climate, biodiversity and health benefits.
  • Protect animal welfare by mainstreaming it in sustainable development governance – Animal welfare matters morally, but many of the ways in which we currently interact with animals also limit our ability to achieve sustainable development goals and impact the environment. Stronger protection of animal welfare will help build human-nature connectedness, and can also directly or indirectly benefit many other societal goals.
  • Expand and invest in nature-based education – Through education policy and school curricula that connect children with nature, education authorities and teachers could contribute to a long-term, catalytic effect on repairing our relationship with nature. Inspiration can be taken from Indigenous communities’ nature-based education.
  • Recognize Indigenous local knowledge and the Rights of Nature – Greater recognition of indigenous local knowledge can make nature conservation more effective and support indigenous rights. Assigning legal rights to nature can be a way of limiting extraction of resources but can also lead to recognition of nature’s intrinsic values and changed behaviour over time.
Ensure prosperity that lasts for all

The amount of natural resources extracted by humans globally each year has tripled since 1970. High-income countries have consumed most of these resources, with CO2 consumption footprints that are more than 13 times the level of low-income countries. Ensuring lasting prosperity for all and bringing emission and resource footprints within ecological limits requires a complete rethink of our ways of living, and a shift in social norms and values that drive human behaviour. It requires redefining prosperity at all levels in society and economy.

Calls to action

  • Make a sustainable lifestyle the easy choice – We are now at a point where efficiency-oriented options and nudging measures for making lifestyles more sustainable are insufficient; systemic and transformative measures are needed. These should actively create enabling infrastructures, reconfigure systems and amplify social norms around sufficiency, as well as new global governance initiatives to address equity in these transitions. In order to change lifestyles, governments must consider alternatives ways to price consumption-related resource footprints.
  • Purchase function, not product – Material throughput can be substantially lower if households, businesses, and government agencies switch from purchasing products to acquiring functions of products. Supportive regulatory frameworks and changed social norms on ownership and reuse could have a transformative effect on scaling such business models and reducing material throughput.
  • Make supply chains better for both humans and the environment and ensure that integrated supply chains bridge the technology and economic gap between developed and developing economies. Sustainable patterns of production should include prospects for new jobs and skills, scope for additional investment, higher interdependency in co-creating and sharing prosperity, social safety nets for the vulnerable, and environmental integrity.
  • Align national statistics with sustainability goals – It is time to move beyond GDP as the single metric and adopt indicators that help measure progress towards the vision of sustainable development, such as indicators on inclusive wealth and indicators recognizing the caring economy. Global governance and convergence on alternative metrics are needed to reduce the risk for first-movers.
  • Change the selection environment for innovation – The upstream selection environment for innovation has a cumulative impact on technological development. Common sustainability standards and principles should be applied to guide innovation, international organizations work to harmonize these and publicly funded innovation demand adherence.
Invest in a better future

To ensure prosperity for all and repairing our relationship with nature, investing in a better future is necessary. Today, we have the paradoxical situation of a massive amount of capital ready for sustainability investments, yet persistent funding gaps in low-income countries.

The SDG funding gap globally has been estimated at USD 2.5 trillion by the OECD, while UNCTAD estimates that the value of sustainability-themed investment products in global capital markets increased by more than 80% from 2019 to 2020. Action is needed to not just mobilize capital for sustainability, but to ensure sufficient levels at lower costs, supporting allocation to places and sectors in need, and transitioning out of unsustainable practices and capital goods.

Calls to action

  • Recognize and enhance public funding of innovation and co-development – Mission-driven public investment can contribute to sustainability-oriented innovation systems. These efforts are promising for both high-income and low-income countries. To bridge the technology gap between rich and poor countries we need a new paradigm of ‘co-development of technology’, particularly in critical areas of clean energy, health, and sustainable agriculture. This requires jointly designed research and development programmes, pooling of resources, co-owned and shared intellectual property, local adaptation, and equitable voice in the governance of emerging technologies.
  • Incentivize active engagement in private finance –Private finance has a critical role in bringing innovation to market, and investors should engage more actively to ensure sustainable finance becomes the norm. At a global scale, private investors are increasingly interested in monitoring the environmental, social and governance (ESG) performance of their investments, but through shareholder initiatives or direct engagement with the firms in which they invest they have much more power to transform sectors or industries.
  • Raise adequate private finance – We need to address scale, regulation, balance and risk for emerging markets to access investments for sustainable infrastructure. Creating multi-risk, multi-country hedging platforms can lower the cost of capital and crowd in more private and institutional investment into developing countries and emerging economies.
  • Reduce risks to sustainability, enhance risks of unsustainability – One key to increasing the scale of private finance for a sustainability transition is to alter the perceived riskiness of investments. This includes both reducing the perceived risk of sustainable investments and raising the perceived risk of unsustainable investments, for example through allocation mandates on lending portfolios. Many low-income countries cannot de-risk financially underserved sectors and technologies. To overcome this barrier, risks can be pooled across countries and then de-risked through a common fund.
Improving conditions for change

Progress in these action areas are steps on our path to sustainability, that would activate and accelerate the three shifts we urgently need now and hopefully lead to systemic changes. At the same time, we also need to address the systems and infrastructures we have inherited, in processes that will unfold more slowly. The governance context in which we understand these barriers has changed since 1972. Our world today has shifted even more toward multi-level, polycentric governance, where we have a complex set of actors, institutions, and sources of agency.

Actors in environmental global governance

Decision makers and policymakers, at all levels, should dismantle barriers of political incoherence, weak multilateralism, limited accountability, and unreformed international finance, which prevent our acceleration towards sustainable and equitable societies.

  • The structural barriers of policy incoherence, weak multilateralism and lack of accountability must be decisively tackled to enable effective action on redefining humans’ relationship with nature, ensuring lasting prosperity for all, and investing in a better future.
  • With more actors and stakeholders participating in global governance today, many more routes are available to taking action. However, conflicts of interest and uneven power relationships must also be recognized.
  • Governments and international organizations must make their policy mixes coherent and consistent towards sustainability goals, in order to increase incentives for action, by adopting new practices and tools for more integrated and systemic policymaking.
  • The gap in trust and solidarity between countries acts as a barrier to new agreements, to raising ambition and to accelerated national implementation. Opportunities exist to renew multilateralism, to more effectively tackle environment and development crises and to rebuild solidarity: developing multilateral responses to chronic risks, replacing technology transfer with a new paradigm of ‘co-development of technology’, and setting norms for the global financial system.
  • Countries, companies and citizens have to be held accountable for their actions and their inaction. We need new imaginative mechanisms for nurturing constructive accountability, which incentivizes and leads to bold action and change, rather than threatens and leads to pre-emptive action and reduced ambition.

Indicators of net-zero target governance

Accelerating change

We hold the keys that can unlock opportunities for change. Setting small and large processes in motion today can allow us to progress on the goals that were established 50 years ago, at the first UN meeting to bring together humans and the environment.

We repeat the same call made in the 1972 UN Stockholm Declaration for a new watershed moment in 2022:

A point has been reached in history when we must shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences. Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.’


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Chief Executive Officer

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