Speech by The Minister for the Environment Lena Ek at 12th Special Session of the Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GC/GMEF) "From Stockholm to Stockholm"

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Exellencies, colleagues, distinguished delegates, Ms Dowdeswell, Mr. Tolba, Mr, Töpfer, Dr. Chambas, Executive Director Steiner,

I am deeply honored to be here in such eminent company and on such a special occasion.

The UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld once wrote: "In our era, the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action." This is what the Stockholm Conference in 1972 was about. It was the international community's maiden voyage in dealing with cross-cutting environmental issues in an action oriented way. It was of course a great challenge.

Sweden as the host country has received a lot of credit for turning this challenge into a success. But, other countries such as the United States, India and Argentina played critical roles as continuous supporters of the process, not to forget the pivotal importance of the exceptional leadership of Mr Maurice Strong who unfortunately could not be here with us today.

Already then, what we now know as "sustainable development" was actually predicted in the Declaration of the conference: [I quote]

"To defend and improve the human environment for present and future generations has become an imperative goal for mankind - a goal to be pursued together with, and in harmony with, the established and fundamental goals of peace and of worldwide economic and social development."

These are goals that are almost more valid today, in our time. The agenda for sustainable development was, as you all know, generally agreed in Rio in 1992 and further refined at Johannesburg in 2002. However, when it comes to action, we still have a lot of work ahead of us.

We have some global success stories, such as the phasing out of ozone depleting substances. However, dealing with ozone depletion has been quite straightforward in comparison with our efforts to address other environmental issues such as climate change, the loss of ecosystem services and biodiversity and the use of dangerous chemicals, to mention a few of the large challenges.

The Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius warned the world already in 1896 about the 'greenhouse effect'. Today's scientists and the Secretary General of the United Nations talk about planetary boundaries and a safe operating space for humanity. Today most scientific findings on climate change tell us that the situation is even more serious than we thought. This development underlines the need for a close link between science and policy. A solid scientific base is crucial for advances in international negotiations.

Since 1972 we have learned through for example the Stern report and the equally important Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, the so called TEEB study, that the cost of inaction outweighs the cost of action. This insight should also help to create the political will and give the right incentives to act. Today, when the true value of ecosystem services are not accounted for, it might make sense to convert a mangrove into a shrimp farm since it brings a 20 times larger benefit than the value of the mangrove wood. If the ecosystem services would have a value, keeping the mangrove would bring a 10 times higher value than selling the wood. In order to increase political will and the support of the business sector and civil society for the necessary proactive legislation and economic instruments, we would be helped by a "Stern 2.0 report", focusing more on the BENEFITS of ACTING.

What we have also learned during the past 40 years is that it is possible to combine ecology and growth. Since 1970 the use of oil has more or less been cut by half in Sweden. At the same time the use of bio-energy has grown by 60 per cent. Between 1990 and 2006, we reduced our emissions by almost 9 per cent, while experiencing an economic growth of 44 per cent. A key factor has been the introduction of a tax on CO2. Another important action has been the establishment of a national system of environmental quality objectives, that have given a clear vision and direction for our environmental work. On the basis of this experience we welcome the proposal of Sustainable Development Goals as a possible outcome of Rio+20 that would help steer and focus the international sustainable development work.

One example of where inexpensive actions can have multiple benefits for sustainable development is the reduction of short lived climate pollutants. UNEP has shown that a reduction of these could:

  • avoid 2.4 million premature deaths annually from outdoor air pollution;
  • increase annual yield of four major food crops with 32 million tons a year and;
  • reduce global warming by about half a degree in the coming decades and even more in the Arctic.

Last week in Washington DC, Sweden together with its partners Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico and the United States as well as UNEP, launched the Climate and Clean Air Coalition. I hope many of you will decide in the next few months to join this global initiative to spur local and regional action to reduce short lived climate pollutants.

Distinguished colleagues,

The world of 1972 was strikingly different from that of today. Not only is there a changed geo-political landscape, but we have also witnessed how environment has entered many international, regional and national agendas. What we need now is a new boost forward. In that, an important starting point is joint ownership and responsibility - governments, industry and other partners need to work together.

To foster partnerships and innovative ideas, and to provide a platform for dialogue on such ideas between decision-makers, young people, the business sector, civil society and researchers, the Government of Sweden will in April this year organize a Partnership Forum for Sustainable Development - a Stockholm +40 meeting. It will focus on sustainable innovations, sustainable production and sustainable lifestyles - core elements of a green economy. I look forward to seeing many of you in Stockholm taking part in this important debate on key sustainable development issues.


Looking at the system of international environmental governance, we can conclude that these 40 years have been a period of remarkable development. UNEP, one of the most important outcomes of Stockholm, has with modest means, but with immense commitment, played a crucial role in driving and facilitating this development. However, it is clear that to address the remaining challenges we need a stronger voice for environment in the UN system.

40 years after UNEP's creation, there could be no better time for us to take decisive action to establish the necessary preconditions for UNEP to finally become the global environmental authority it was set out to be in Stockholm in 1972. Strengthening UNEP by establishing a UN Organisation for the Environment would, for example, mean an agency better positioned to promote mainstreaming of environment into the UN's work on development, health, security and other areas.

Another important issue that we should address in Rio is enhanced collaboration and coordination between the many Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

Already in 1972 it was understood that chemicals and hazardous wastes are a potential threat to sustainable development if they are not managed soundly. Since then the global chemicals industry has grown nine fold with a considerable increase in trade, and with that a greater risk of exposing people and the environment to new chemicals. We need to step up our efforts to reach the 2020 goal of Sound Chemicals Management that we agreed upon in Johannesburg. In Rio, we should commit to a further deepening and broadening of the synergies among the chemicals and waste conventions, with an integrated approach to financing options as a key component. Such initiatives will also free up resources for much needed implementation work at the country level.

It is my sincere hope that we will make good use of this anniversary year and the possibilities it holds for us. We simply can't afford not to take bold decisions on greening our economies and strengthening our institutions. I would like to round off by echoing some words from Mr Strong's opening statement in Stockholm in 1972: "Because we can change, because we want change, we shall change."
Thank you for your attention.