The new human environment


Climate, a pandemic, armed conflicts and hunger – "multilateralism as usual" will not be enough, if we want to get a grip on the overlapping crisis. 

So far, the Stockholm +50 anniversary conference in June 2022 is shaping up in classic UN fashion: The multilateral system is set to showcase its important role in combating the three-pronged climate, biodiversity and pollution crisis and boost the implementation of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals adopted many years ago. The brutal war in Ukraine, the new geopolitical uncertainties and the incipient world food crisis now put this conference in a changed political environment. But it was clear long before the start of the war in Ukraine that the internationally agreed sustainability goals could not be achieved at this rate of implementation – the overlapping (environmental) crises were anything but halted.

The war in Ukraine could trigger a global food crisis of unknown proportions. The global food price index of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is at a record high, and the World Food Program is running out of money and food for humanitarian aid. The food security of vulnerable people has already drastically deteriorated. The war has eliminated 33 million tons of wheat exports from Russia and 20 million from Ukraine, together amounting to around 25 percent of global wheat exports. Egypt, for example, imports around 13 million tons of wheat from the two countries every year. Where will replacements come from and how will the supply be ensured? A further uncertainty: The world food system has so far been based on the massive use of fertilizers – and Russia was one of the main suppliers.

What does this new situation, and in particular the looming food crisis, mean for Stockholm plus 50? The central concept of the 1972 conference, the "human environment", can be used to briefly describe the geopolitical framework and the situation of the natural environment in 2022. It is important to note that "human environment" should not only be understood from the perspective of the industrialized countries and the war in Ukraine. Let's remember that the essential debate leading up to the 1972 conference revolved around the question of whether it should be an environmental or a development conference and to what extent environmental policy, as a concern of the industrialized countries, would hinder the countries of the global South in their development. The term "human environment" served as the bracket with which the environment and development were to be linked. This must also be ensured (again) in 2022.

About the new geopolitical confusion in the human environment in 2022

We are only beginning to recognize the impact of the war in Ukraine on the international order. The resolution condemning the Russian attack, passed with the votes of 141 member states of the UN, can only be understood as an initial picture of the situation. The 35 abstentions (including India, China, Pakistan, South Africa and Vietnam) and the 11 member states that stayed away from the vote have to be taken into account. When adding up the number of people represented, the majority did not condemn the Russian attack. Is this a first sign of change in global (sustainability) governance?

Politically, 1972 was dominated by the bloc confrontation between the "West" and the "East", as well as the North-South debate and the question of environment versus development. Today, more than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are still dealing with the emergence of a multipolar world with new geopolitical risks and uncertainties. And since February 24, we are once again faced with a war in Europe, the further course of which cannot be foreseen at the time of writing. Russia's open threat to use nuclear weapons and the horrific crimes in Ukraine mark a new human environment.

The partial disruption of global trade routes – especially for food – caused by the war and the possible critical deterioration in the world food situation threatens to become a litmus test for the global system. The question is how this crisis will be managed and by whom. It should also not be forgotten at this point that the rich global North has not adequately supported the countries of the South with vaccines in the still-ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Surely this must have led to the realization in the global South that one-world rhetoric does not correspond to reality in the event of a crisis. Will we now see a similar situation with the food crisis?

The question of adequate global governance is much more fundamental, however:Under these conditions, is the current multilateral system capable of effectively addressing the combined crisis of climate, coronavirus, armed conflict and poverty? "Multilateralism as usual" during Stockholm plus 50 could have devastating effects. Let there be no misunderstanding here: International cooperation is needed to meet the many and varied global challenges. The UN system was founded precisely for the purpose of tackling tasks that individual states (no matter how large they may be) are too small to handle – through targeted cooperation and a reconciliation of interests, thus creating added value for all. But merely referring to a need for change has long since ceased to be sufficient. The multilateral system has proven that it is possible to bring together member states, civil society, academia and, increasingly, business in international negotiations for a joint analysis of problems and long-term global descriptions of goals. But the Achilles' heel of this system is the far too slow or even non-existent implementation of resolutions by the signatory parties and other stakeholders. Problems were identified and described but not in fact solved.

So the resolutions and scientific analyses of the problems were not the issue; rather, too little attention was paid to the conditions of implementation. How can development – not only in the global South, but also changing economic development in the North – lead to the solution of global environmental problems? How can political majorities to implement the agreed goals be obtained in democratic societies? Winning democratic majorities for – often far-reaching – transformations and securing them in the long term is not a trivial undertaking, and the entrenched economic framework with its profit logic and growth-oriented system has been largely disregarded. It remains possible to reap private profits by externalizing environmental and social costs.

The current question is how an adequate harvest can be secured in the coming years under the conditions of a disrupted world trade system, and how the necessary transformation of the global food system can be initiated at the same time. The scientific findings are clear: The current system is largely responsible for destroying the human environment without providing healthy food for all. But is the UN system capable of acting to avert a global crisis under the new geopolitical conditions? Or has the time finally come for the industrialized countries to stop using hundreds of millions of tons of grain for industrial animal fattening and biofuels?

Granted, the future development of the world's food supply is unclear, but there is enough evidence to suggest that there may be severe disruption in global supply chains. Stockholm plus 50 must confront this challenge! There are two alternatives here: either the multilateral system can avert the hunger crisis with a show of strength, or the G7 must form a new alliance to combat hunger together with the countries acutely threatened by it. Without an effective initiative to solve the impending hunger crisis, the global North's credibility is not the only thing that will be weakened further. The North must now be prepared to share its grain reserves with the hungry in the event of a food supply disruption. The drama of unshared vaccines must not be repeated. Such action can also support a new start in the joint implementation of the necessary measures to protect the climate.

Sociologist Alexander Müller is head of a global study of the UN Environment Program on "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food" and Managing Director of TMG - Töpfer, Müller, Gaßner GmbH, Think Tank for Sustainability.

This is a translation of a text first published in the magazine Böll.Thema 50 years of international environmental policy.