The independent resource on global security

We must strengthen multilateralism in a new era of risk

A still from the Environment of Peace film
Still from the Environment of Peace film, designed by Soapbox

Today sees the opening of the Stockholm+50 conference, 50 years after the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. The Stockholm Conference, as it is usually called, marked the birth of global cooperation aimed at protecting the natural environment in order to allow continued human progress.

For all the achievements since the Stockholm Conference, however, the need to protect the environment is greater than ever. SIPRI’s report Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk, which was launched last week, shows that a growing environmental crisis is intertwined with a darkening security horizon. There is an urgent need for the world to come together to address these twin crises, and to deal with the risks they create.

In this essay we draw on the Environment of Peace research and our own experience of international diplomacy to explore where that cooperation is most needed, and how it could be strengthened.

The inadequacies of global governance

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, it was all too apparent that global governance was not dealing well with the most important contemporary challenges.

The outcomes of COP 26—the Conference of Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Glasgow in November 2021—fell far short of what was needed, even if they exceeded many observers’ low expectations. The conference’s achievements included accelerating the process of making national commitments more ambitious. But the collective pledges would not keep the global average temperature rise below the ‘desirable’ 1.5°C limit set six years earlier in the Paris Agreement, and probably not below the 2°C limit viewed as essential.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic also highlighted key weaknesses—as well as the strengths—of global governance and cooperation. The rapid development of effective vaccines was an outstanding example of successful cooperation. But the distribution of vaccines was plagued with logistical problems and ‘vaccine nationalism’.

Two thirds of the world’s ocean surface—the so-called areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ)—is being ravaged by unsustainable and illegal fishing and pollution from shipping and mineral extraction. But the institutions and agreements that focus on the ABNJ tend to have narrow mandates, making it hard to address threats to this important global commons.

The legal framework governing the use of outer space is similarly unfit for purpose. Mostly dating from the 1960s and 1970s, it does not regulate the activities of private companies and includes no enforcement mechanisms. Nor does it provide any clarity about how to prevent or even manage the militarization of outer space, or instruments for handling disputes.

And progress on nuclear disarmament has stalled during the last decade and much of the arms control architecture since the cold war has collapsed. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) from 2010 is now the only agreement left that sets any verifiable limits on the size and composition of the Russian and United States nuclear arsenals, while the Conference on Disarmament has long been stagnant as a negotiating body.

The body entrusted with the maintenance of international peace and security, the UN Security Council, was shown to be powerless in the face of the invasion of Ukraine, as a consequence of Russia’s veto power. Russia also blocked, last year, a resolution that would have recognized climate-related security risks as core Security Council business.

In short, the instruments and institutions of international governance are badly in need of a makeover and a revivified spirit of cooperation.

Responding to a new era of risk

We have no choice but to address these deficiencies. As the Environment of Peace report emphasizes, the twin environmental and security crises have brought us into a new era of risk to human security. In this new era, many of the problems we face are non-linear: they are multi-dimensional; they have multiple stakeholders; they have multiple causes; they have multiple symptoms; they have multiple solutions; and they are constantly evolving.

We need global governance fit to address these kinds of risk, and to deliver on three key tasks:

The first is managing the consequences of climate change and environmental challenges, both those that are already here and those that are probably inevitable over the coming years because of the environmental damage we have already done.

The second is tackling the root causes of those environmental problems to stop them getting worse. Because those root causes so often lie in human economic activities, we need to effect a far-reaching green transition—not just decarbonizing energy and transport systems, but also how we produce food, how we manage natural resources and how we manage waste. We must make sure we do not create new risks to peace and justice in the process.

And third, we must ensure that the steps we take to build peace and security are sensitive to the risks from, and potential impacts on, the natural environment.

All of these tasks require collective action both at and between different scales—local, national, regional, global—and within and between different spheres—communities, youth, civil society, public services, government, intergovernmental mechanisms, and the finance and business sectors.

This collective action, in turn, requires the rebuilding of trust, a new social contract, and the means to negotiate a viable bargain between different participants to balance their interests in the most productive way. This is true for relations between states and for relations between community groups. But how do we go about creating this new contract and strengthening collaborative global governance?

Being deliberately inclusive

One of the headline recommendations of the Environment of Peace report is to be ‘deliberately inclusive’. Inclusivity broadens the base of knowledge available when creating or adapting policies. It can help in understanding the nature of the problems policies are meant to address, as well as the context. It can also help to identify possible solutions, who could implement them, and what unintended knock-on impacts—including on peace and security—the policy might have.

And when these different groups know that their perspectives and their interests have been taken into account, it creates legitimacy for the policy, unity of purpose and political trust. These in turn improve the chances of a successful outcome and build political trust that makes even more ambitious policies possible in the future. Healthy democratic governance and a strong civil society are vital to this process.

Inclusivity is as important between states as between communities, even if it inevitably takes different forms. Between states, it means that nations large and small have a seat at the table in discussions that affect them. Inclusivity also means actors from outside the worlds of government and diplomacy can participate meaningfully in multilateral exchanges. One of the questions that the High-level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism will explore is how to make sure that youth, women, Indigenous Peoples and other traditionally sidelined groups are included and can influence what is happening.

Coordinating policy

Non-linear problems demand joined-up policymaking and implementation that is coordinated between the traditional policy areas and sectors. This requires breaking out of siloed thinking. It requires dialogue. And for that to happen, the different policy areas and sectors need to speak each other’s language. Specialization needs to be balanced with breadth of knowledge.

This is an area where substantial progress has already been made. The UN Security Council has held several discussions on climate security. Several governments have, like Sweden’s, pushed for climate security to become more systematically included in the Security Council agenda.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) includes environmental cooperation within its comprehensive approach to security. Its 2008 Madrid Declaration on Environment and Security explicitly recognized the OSCE’s role in addressing security risks related to climate change and other environmental challenges within its region, and in 2021 the OSCE passed a decision at the highest political level on ‘strengthening co-operation to address the challenges caused by climate change’. 

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP)—a key part of the legacy of the 1972 Stockholm Conference—has conducted various projects on the security implications of climate change for well over a decade. In 2018, the UN formally established the Climate Security Mechanism (CSM), which provides integrated climate risk assessments to the Security Council and other UN bodies.

As we push further into this new era of risk, we need more initiatives like this, and stronger, broader mandates.

Paying up

Another area where multilateral cooperation must improve is finance. Huge sums are needed over the coming years to increase resilience to climate change and other environmental hazards, to reverse environmental decline and to build peace. The principle is firmly established that richer countries should provide climate finance and technical assistance to poorer countries for this purpose. This is not only about global solidarity but also a recognition that richer countries have, by and large, had the biggest historical carbon footprints and enjoyed the greatest benefits from fossil-fuelled industrialization.

Yet there is a worrying tendency for big funding pledges to be broken, whether it is for disaster relief, post-conflict reconstruction or climate finance. At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, rich countries pledged to provide US$100 billion of climate finance annually to developing countries by 2020. By 2021, they were still an estimated $20 billion short of the target—arguably far more.

It is also worth noting that when it comes to resilience building, the most fragile states have the clearest need; yet per person, they receive only around one eightieth of the climate financing that flows to non-fragile states.

Trust is an essential foundation for cooperation. One key way to build trust at the multilateral level would be for rich countries to quickly and fully meet their international funding obligations on climate change, biodiversity and other environmental issues.

Data and transparency

Reliable data and improved transparency could play a big role in multilateral action to deal with the twin crises. It is hard to predict the scale and timing of today’s environmental and security risks, partly because they are often generated by combinations of factors originating in different parts of the world.

Shared global or regional banks of accurate, up-to-date data could improve our ability to spot emergent risks and prepare for them, or even stop them materializing. Advances in monitoring, data processing and modelling could help communities, governments and businesses to plan and invest more confidently.

Changing the narrative

Finally, an important factor that could help to unlock progress is narrative: the stories we tell about the green transition and environmental crisis. Narratives are more than descriptions; if they ring true, they can influence and inspire behaviour on a grand scale.

Much of the discussion of environmental issues consists of warnings and alarming statistics. We cannot pretend that climate change and large-scale extinctions are not happening. But delineating the problems only goes so far in provoking positive action. It can even lead to paralysis and despair—in policymakers as much as anyone else—if it is not counterbalanced with optimism and practical ways forward.

Analyses like those of the Stern Review and the New Climate Economy make it abundantly clear that a green transition offers far greater prosperity, far more jobs, than can ever be generated by continuing with business as usual. In the USA, the clean energy sector employs three times as many people as fossil fuel extraction and energy generation and is one of the economy’s chief engines of job creation. In Sweden, the HYBRIT collaboration has developed a viable process for decarbonizing steel production, one of the most emissions-intensive industries. We can legitimately shift to a narrative of opportunities, shared prosperity, dignity and a better, fairer world, achieved through a green transition that focuses on being both just and peaceful.

This will be vital, because resolving both the environmental and the security dimensions of the planetary emergency requires more than simply doing what is being done today but a bit better. It requires transformative change of the kind envisaged in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. And that needs a shared vision, trust and unprecedented levels of cooperation.

The new realism

Between states, this kind of cooperation can seem like an idealist fantasy in today’s toxic geopolitical climate. But in the face of the twin crises, realism and idealism converge. No state can hope to weather these crises acting alone, let alone stop them getting worse. One of the clearest messages of Environment of Peace is that, in this new era of risk, cooperation is the new realism.

The 1972 Stockholm Conference took place at the height of the cold war, and even saw the People’s Republic of China participating in a multilateral conference for the first time. That is a good precedent. But this time round, we cannot afford five decades of further damage to the environment. An honest assessment of the lack of progress to date is also part of the new realism. Undertaking that at Stockholm+50 will lay a solid foundation for the work ahead.


Stefan Löfven became Chair of the SIPRI Governing Board on 1 June 2021. He is a former Prime Minister of Sweden and co-leads the United Nations High-level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, which will prepare recommendations ahead of the 2024 Summit of the Future. Margot Wallström serves as Chair of the international expert panel guiding SIPRI's Environment of Peace initiative. She is a former Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs and European Union Commissioner for the Environment.


Stefan Löfven is Chair of the SIPRI Governing Board.
Margot Wallström is Chair of the international expert panel for the Environment of Peace initiative.