Ministers of the environment and other leaders from more than 150 nations, last week, concluded a two-day online meeting of the Fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in which the Assembly warned that the world risks new pandemics, if “we don’t change how we safeguard nature.”
The UN Environment Assembly meets biennially to set priorities for global environmental policies and develop international environmental law; decisions and resolutions then taken by the Member States at the Assembly also define the work of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
Due to the pandemic, Member States agreed on a two-step approach to UNEA-5: an online session (February 22-23, 2021) and an in-person meeting planned for February 2022.
Attended by thousands of online participants, including more than 1,500 delegates from 153 UN Member States and over 60 Ministers of the Environment, the Assembly – which was broadcast live – also agreed on key aspects of UNEP’s work, kicked off the commemoration of UNEP’s 50th anniversary and held leadership dialogues where Member States addressed how to build a resilient and inclusive post-pandemic world.
“It is increasingly evident that environmental crises are part of the journey ahead. Wildfires, hurricanes, high-temperature records, unprecedented winter chills, plagues of locusts, floods and droughts, have become so commonplace that they do not always make the headlines,” Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in remarks to the Assembly.
“These increasing adverse weather and climatic occurrences sound a warning bell that calls on us to attend to the three planetary crises that threaten our collective future: the climate crisis, the biodiversity and nature crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis.”
In a political statement entitled “Looking ahead to the resumed UN Environment Assembly in 2022 – Message from online UNEA-5, Nairobi 22 – 23 February 2021” endorsed at the close of the Assembly, Member States reaffirmed UNEP’s mandate as the leading global environmental authority and called for greater and more inclusive multilateralism to tackle the environmental challenges.
The statement said the Assembly wished “to strengthen our support for the United Nations and for multilateral cooperation and remain convinced that collective action is essential to successfully address global challenges.”
It went on to warn that “more than ever that human health and wellbeing are dependent upon nature and the solutions it provides, and we are aware that we shall face recurring risks of future pandemics if we maintain our current unsustainable patterns in our interactions with nature.”
President of UNEA-5 and Norway’s Minister for Climate and Environment, Sveinung Rotevatn, echoed the warning. “Everyone gathered at the Environment Assembly today are deeply concerned about how the pandemic causes new and serious health, socio-economic and environmental challenges, and exacerbates existing ones, all over the world,” he told a press conference on the closing day of UNEA-5.
“We shall work together to identify actions which can help us address climate change, protect biodiversity, and reduce pollution, at the same time,” he added.
The Assembly agreed to a new Medium-Term Strategy, Programme of Work and budget for UNEP. The new Strategy – which will take UNEP from 2022-2025 – sets out a vision for UNEP’s role in delivering the promises of the 2030 Agenda.
“The strategy is about transforming how UNEP operates and engages with the Member States, UN agencies, the private sector, civil society and youth groups, so we can go harder, faster, stronger,” said Ms. Inger Andersen, UNEP‘s Executive Director.
“This strategy is about providing science and know-how to governments. The strategy is also about collective, whole-of-society action – moving us outside ministries of the environment to drive action.”
At an event commemorating UNEP’s upcoming 50th anniversary in 2022, Ms. Andersen acknowledged the importance of the moment to reflect on the past and envision the future.
“Indeed, the strides taken so far towards safeguarding the environment are a testament to UNEP’s work,” President Kenyatta noted. “UNEP has had a lasting impact on how we care for the environment, nature and our livelihoods.”
In the run-up to the Assembly, UNEP launched a major report, together with UN Secretary-General António Guterres – Making Peace with Nature – which provides a comprehensive blueprint for solving the triple planetary emergencies of climate change, biodiversity and pollution. A number of events were also held in support of UNEA-5, including a Global Youth Assembly, a Science Policy Business Forum and the launch of a Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency.
“The last few days have been encouraging. We saw a new global effort on resource-efficient, circular economies. A push on financing emission reductions from forests. Governments, scientists and businesses coming together to look at big data as a tool for change. Youth raising their voices and telling us ‘nothing about us, without us’ and calling for targeted funds to enable their deeper engagement,” Ms. Andersen added.