Stockholm+50: A climate failure of five decades?

After attending the Stockholm+50 conference (2-3 June) which discussed the future of our planet, Swedish sustainable development expert Kaj Embrén and environmental activist Charles Secrett reflect on the urgency of our environmental crises and the crucial role of cities in accelerating climate action.

Stockholm+50: A climate failure of five decades?

In 1972, at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, 122 nations committed to development paths that could conserve critical nature and maintain the Earth’s capacity to produce renewable resources, while alleviating poverty (especially in the South), securing human rights and generating wealth.

Fifty years on, and after more than 500 multilateral agreements, 27 COP climate summits, 15 COP biodiversity summits and three overarching Earth Summits, humanity is still failing to meet these goals.

We face an unprecedented series of interconnecting development failures: a planet where civilization itself is threatened by unprecedented global heating, species extinction rates and ecosystem destruction, unsustainable emissions of greenhouse gases and other chemical pollutants, and the collapse of life-giving, productive Earth systems on land and at sea.

As Professor Johan Rockstrom – one of the world’s foremost authorities on the relationship between human development and nature’s workings – warned at Stockholm +50: “This is the decade when things have to shift: we must bend the curves of emission, of loss of biodiversity and of all unsustainable loading of all materials caused by overproduction and consumption.”

As expected, participants repeatedly raised the alarm, calling on world leaders to forge a truly sustainable development trajectory based on a just transition for all. But despite three leadership dialogues, hundreds of events, and the involvement of youth groups (the future, personified) from around the world, no new meaningful commitments were agreed upon.

National governments could do worse than learn some practical lessons from how Stockholm City manages its affairs. Indeed, cities hold the key to sustainability.

Globally, cities already account for some 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, more than two-thirds of humanity will be living in urban areas. Getting energy, resource consumption and transport patterns ‘right’ there will go a long way to living and working sustainably.

Three companies – Stockholm Exergi for energy, Vasakronan for real estate management, and Swedavia for aviation – are on course to become climate-positive, climate-neutral and fossil-free respectively, between 2030-2040. All three firms have significant state, city and private sector pension fund investment, which drive positive company social and environmental decision-making. Equally important, Stockholm uses its local tax codes and public spending to further social and environmental improvements.

Since 1990, Stockholm has reduced per capita GHG emissions from heating, electricity use and transport by a massive 70%. The aim now is to allow no more than 1.5 tonnes of emissions per citizen annually by 2023, and to become fossil-free by 2040.

Stockholm Exergi

Image: Stockholm Exergi

Stockholm Exergi runs Stockholm’s district heating infrastructure providing heating, cooling and electricity to 95% of all property owners in Stockholm. Exergi is owned in equal parts by the City of Stockholm and Ankhiale, a European consortium. Exergi is the world’s largest district cooling network and is on target to become climate-positive by 2025.

According to Anders Egelrud, Exergi’s chief executive and winner of the European CEO 2022 Award: “We handle society’s residual waste to produce heat and electricity in our energy plants, helping to prevent heavy metals and other hazardous substances from ending up in nature or in new products.  But there is still a lot to do.  Europe today could produce over 100 Terrawatt hours of electricity from garbage in landfills.”

Stockholm Exergi has recently issued a green bond, worth SEK1.5bn. Earlier this year, Stockholm Exergi got EU funding with €180 million for its bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) work. BECCS involves capturing and storing co2 produced as part of flue gas emissions produced by burning otherwise wasted residual forest products from elsewhere in the country.


Image: Vasakronan

Vasakronan is one of Sweden’s largest real estate companies and is owned by the country’s four largest pension funds. Systematic planning has halved energy use across its huge property portfolio and reduced emissions by 95% since 2006. It has been climate-neutral since 2008.

In 2010, Vasakronan became the first company in Sweden to launch so-called ‘green leases’ for its tenants. A green lease incorporates provisions that encourage both landlord and tenant to reduce a property’s environmental impact. In 2013, the company issued the world’s first green corporate bond, and, in 2018, the world’s first ‘green certificate’; financial instruments that generate funds for short- and long-term sustainability spending.

Sustainability is central to Vasakronan’s DNA. Its board, management and workforce are now committed to becoming climate-neutral across the entire value chain by 2030.

According to the firm’s head of Sustainability Anna Denell, the biggest challenge now is to realise the energy efficiency potential of existing buildings compared to the resource-intensive construction of new build.


Image: Swedavia

Swedavia is a state-owned company that runs Sweden’s 10 busiest airports.  On 31 December 2020, the company achieved its climate target of zero emissions from fossil fuels in its airport operations.

According to Swedavia’s head of sustainability Lena Wennberg, all of the energy used by the airports for heating-cooling, lighting and running machinery and equipment comes from renewable wind and hydropower; alongside district heating produced from biofuels derived from residual forest products.

The corporate vision is to show the world that it is practical to operate fossil-free airports.  Their new strategic environmental goals are to reach 5% bio-aviation fuel use by 2025; to have fossil-free domestic flights in the air by 2030; and for all international flights to be fossil-free by 2045.

Corporates and cities showing leadership

Ambitious as they are, companies like these will not solve the climate and resource crisis in isolation. But they demonstrate what can be done to realise mutually supportive environmental, social and economic development goals – as the 1972 Stockholm Conference set out to achieve.

This is an imperative goal for all sectors to reach. Human prosperity and well-being depend on living and working within the limits of global, continental and local scaled natural systems. Ultimately, it is individuals and families who suffer materially when wealth creation is founded on the destruction, degradation and pollution of the biosphere.

A new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on ‘stranded fossil fuel assets’ shows how vulnerable private and public sector pension funds (especially in OECD countries) and wider financial markets are becoming as governments shift from using fossil fuels in order to curb carbon and other GHG emissions. Most of the impending financial losses, collectively amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, will be borne by individual investors, shareholders and pensioners as pensions, mutual funds, shareholdings and other investments in unwanted fossil fuels fall in value.

It is undeniable that the current geopolitical situation – the war in Ukraine, mounting tensions between the global North and South over tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis, and truly catastrophic disparities between the relative wealth and economic and political power of the 1% and 99% – impacted expectations at Stockholm+50.

But there is hope from the level of cities. As the C40 group’s chief executive Mark Watts stated: “To hear and see political leaders running major cities being able to demonstrate that they are sticking to the science-based targets and that they can show that they are improving people’s quality of life while driving emissions down and improving resilience gives hope and shows that it is possible to stay on the 1.5C emissions target, while dealing with the problems that surround us.”

Kaj Embrén is a Swedish sustainable development expert with more than 30 years experience working in climate change mitigation, sustainable business, and green finance. He has extensive knowledge of the green economy, and a track record of collaborating with public, private, and non-governmental organizations in Europe and across the world.

Charles Secrett is an environmental activist and was the head of Friends of the Earth England, Wales and Northern Ireland from 1993 to 2003. He has worked as a strategic advisor and political campaigner on environmental and sustainability issues since 1980.

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