“The world has to learn to deal with multiple crises and not let go of one in favor of another” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UNEP on the first day of  ‘Stockholm+50: A healthy planet for the prosperity of all – our responsibility, our opportunity’, a conference that was convened by the UN General Assembly as a commemoration of the 50 years since the very first high-level environmental talks.

On June 2 and 3 I had the chance to attend Stockholm+50, which took place in Stockholmsmassan, in Stockholm, Sweden. The conference occurred with the Kenyan government as co-host and involved 3,000 country representatives and people from UN agencies, civil society organizations, and youth collectives. 

To give you some context, half a century ago, 113 world leaders sat at the table for the first time to discuss the connections between environmental and human issues. This moment has been marked in history as the “UN Conference on the Human Environment”, raised in Stockholm, Sweden in June of 1972. And although the conversation was still far from acknowledging issues like climate change (which happened until 1988), it had great relevance in triggering a process of climate diplomacy and negotiations that resulted in the creation of instances such as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which 20 years later organized the Rio Conference, where the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was opened by signature.

Five decades later, Stockholm+50 was expected to boost the conversation about a sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, connect and build bridges across agendas such as the 2030 Agenda, the Paris Agreement, and the post-2020 global Biodiversity Framework, and reinforce the messages of UNEP@50, an event that commemorated UNEP’s 50th anniversary, which took place this same year in March in Nairobi, Kenya.

The program included four plenary sessions, three leadership dialogues, and hundreds of side events, of which my favorites were: “Conversations: Generations of Climate Change Shapers” organized by UNICEF and Fridays for Future; and  “Indigenous Peoples' food and knowledge systems: solutions on sustainability, conservation and restoration” organized by the World Reindeer Herders, the FAO and others. The latter was followed by a fireside reindeer tasting offered by the Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ Innovation FoodLab.

However, the relevance of Stockholm+50 was not always clear among the environmental movement. I repeatedly heard questions about the relevance of going to a conference where no decision was going to be made. For many, it was not clear that Stockholm+50 was more than an empty celebration. In a way, I think it was a time for the Swedish government and the UN to greenwash their image; nonetheless, summits like Stockholm+50 are relevant because they give us an opportunity to push topics on the international agenda. 

This is the case for the Stop Ecocide campaign, which since 2016 has been working to elevate the urgency to have legal support for sustainable development and make Ecocide, broadly understood as mass damage and destruction of ecosystems, an international law. According to Pella, co-founder of Stop Ecocide Sweden, “Stockholm+50 was a moment to get the issue on the table for the Swedish government and internationally, and it seems to have worked”, this can be seen as demands for official recognition of Ecocide were everywhere during the conference, and although an explicit mention is still missing in the official texts, mentions have been made of recognizing the rights of nature.

At the same time, these types of conferences serve as a meeting space for the youth climate movement, which is especially valuable for groups from the Global South, who are sometimes restricted by the limitations of their contexts to intervene digitally in international exchange processes. By attending these events we can talk face to face and share knowledge about our struggles, thus building collective power. In a similar way, it is also a time for the most vulnerable communities to take the spotlight and draw attention to the struggles in their territories.

“For me, it was really important to attend Stockholm+50 because in countries like Pakistan where I come from we rarely get to voice our opinions on crises, which our people are constantly dealing with. It was a great opportunity to spread awareness to big platforms (...) about the big humanitarian issues of our next generation who are facing severe climate disasters” said Dhreen Baloch, a climate and political activist from Balochistan. 

Parallel to the official conference, some important moments for the youth and climate movement took place.

It started with the Youth Assembly convened by the Youth Task Force from May 31 to June 1, carried out at the Stockholm University and the Stockholm+50 venue. The Assembly served as a platform to elevate the claims of over 600 young activists, gather them in written deliverables such as the Youth Policy Paper, and direct them to member states. 

During the same days took place the People’s Forum for Environment and Global Justice, which was organized by the Stochkolm+50 Coalition, provided a space for social movements and civil society organizations to get together and discuss pressuring issues. The Coalition behind this event also organized a demonstration on the evening of June 1 at Sergels Torg, featuring speeches and concerts.

On June 1 we also had the Stockholm+50 Pre-Summit on the Global Just Transition from Fossil Fuels organized by the Fossil Fuels Non Proliferation Treaty. The Summit gathered experts, climate activists, and indigenous communities to hold conversations around the threat of fossil fuels to a healthy planet, peace and security, and strategies for international cooperation to fast-track a just transition.

And finally, on June 3, Fridays for Future Stockholm called a climate march led by indigenous people and youth from the Most Affected Areas by the climate crisis in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. It served as a moment to build collective power towards climate action and call for #PeopleNotProfit. The protest started at 1 PM in Odenplan and concluded in Norrmalmstorg with a series of speeches and musical performances, including Maxida Marack, sámi rapper and activist. 

“The climate crisis will not begin when it starts to heavily impact European countries, it has already been killing and claiming the lives and homes of those from the Global South. Truth is that the climate crisis is everywhere it just doesn’t affect everyone equally” said Jakapita Kandanga, a climate activist from Namibia, during her speech at the climate strike.

To conclude, I believe that Stockholm does have a legacy of sparking a process of climate diplomacy and negotiations, however, after 50 years of fancy talks, we question the value of these conferences that have had very little impact where the climate crisis is ringing loud and clear. Even though Stockholm+50 was an opportunity for the Swedish government and the UN to pick up moments of the young organization to youthwash their image, we will continue to attend and take the space to build momentum and push the most pressuring issues on the international agenda.