11 December 2017
SDG Knowledge Weekly: Pollution and the SDGs
Photo by IISD/Francis Dejon
story highlights

Reports and news coverage around third session of the UN Environment Assembly addressed air and marine pollution, e-waste and frameworks for tackling the challenges.

The UN Partnership for Action on Green Economy and German Development Institute released a joint publication on Green Industrial Policy.

The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research analyzed synergies and trade-offs across the SDG framework, with a focus on responsible consumption and production.

This week’s brief reviews the latest conversation around pollution, with the topic serving as the overarching theme of the third meeting of the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives to UN Environment Programme (OECPR-3) and the third session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-3) in Nairobi, Kenya. In his opening remarks at OECPR-3, UN Environment Programme Executive Director Erik Solheim said that centering discussions on pollution allows for bringing together many SDGs into one, forward-looking agenda.

UNEA-3 convened from 4-6 December 2017, on the theme, ‘Towards a Pollution-Free Planet.’ A background report of the same title provided the substantive foundation for the meeting, with sections explaining the science, impacts and economic costs of pollution, governance frameworks for pollution in the context of the 2030 Agenda, and priority interventions and transformative actions to shift economies. The authors issue “a call to action towards a pollution-free planet for all,” concluding that such a world is possible, but only with political leadership and high-level champions, matched by local actions and civil society engagement. The report’s eight annexes compare issues such as the magnitude and severity of measures of pollution, global and regional costs, the impacts, benefits and limitations of cleaner technologies, and multi-stakeholder partnerships and platforms currently tackling the issue.

The background report fed into UNEA-3’s final Report of the Executive Director. The final Report outlines a framework for international action on pollution, grounded in five aspects: 1) political leadership, 2) the right policies, 3) a new approach to managing our lives and economies, 4) investment, and 5) advocacy for action. Following UNEA-3’s conclusion, a UNEP press release highlighted that, among other outcomes, nearly 2.5 million pledges from governments, civil society, businesses and others were made to “beat pollution” affecting freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, oceans and the atmosphere. Examples include carbon footprint reductions, policy changes around the use of plastic bags, and better stakeholder engagement. A summary of UNEA-3 is also available on the SDG Knowledge Hub.

Building on the interest around pollution following the gatherings in Nairobi, UNEP is offering a free online course titled, ‘Global framework for a pollution-free planet,’ with sign-ups currently underway. The four-hour course will orient participants to the scientific underpinnings of pollution problems worldwide, as well as the relevant global legal framework and “elements of a framework for action” to mitigate pollution.

Official documentation and outcomes from the meetings span air and marine pollution, exposure to lead, managing soil pollution and more. On marine pollution, a recent Chinese ban on both plastic and solid waste imports may translate to pollution increases in exporter countries, if they do not act to mitigate such waste being created. Authorities in the Asia-Pacific region have been cracking down on illegal waste, with a recent discovery of over 1.5 million tons this past summer. INTERPOL released an estimate that nearly 13 million tons of plastic waste were illegally dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone. UNEP’s Lisa Svensson called the issue of ocean plastic “a planetary crisis” as reported by BBC. At UNEA-3, UNEP recognized the role of enforcement officers and organizations in tackling the growing illegal trade of chemicals and harmful waste, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

On air pollution, a UNICEF report titled, ‘Danger in the Air: How air pollution can affect brain development in young children,’ looks at the linkages between air quality and youth health. As noted in UNICEF’s press release, the paper finds that pollution particles can impact early childhood development, with impacts comparable to those from malnutrition or poor stimulation. The challenge is greatest in East and South Asia, where nearly 17 million babies live in areas with air pollution in excess of six times the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended limit. A UNEP news story outlines the role of trade in accelerating innovation and research and development for cleaner technology. Stay tuned next week for coverage of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial and related trade publications! [SDG Knowledge Weekly – 18 December 2017]

Additional analyses, toolkits and guidance for decision-makers, issued largely in conjunction with actors from the UN system, address industrial policy, consumption and production practices, and electronic waste. The UN Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE) and German Development Institute (DIE) offer guidance for policy makers on decoupling wealth creation from environmental damage in a new book titled, ‘Green Industrial Policy: Concept, Policies, Country Experiences.’ The joint publication is divided into chapters on conceptual foundations, the economic and social benefits of green transformation, accelerating change and country experiences, and stresses that businesses and consumers alike can benefit from green industrial policies. The Partnership received US$35 million in funding commitments at UNEA-3. Earlier DIE work on green industrial policy is available here, and a ‘Practitioner’s Guide to Strategic Green Industrial Policy’ by the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) on behalf of PAGE is also available.

On SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), UNEP’s International Resource Panel (IRP) released a report assessing global material use. A summary analysis is available on the SDG Knowledge Hub. Relatedly, a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) finds that “consumption is the bottleneck for sustainable development.” The findings stem from PIK’s analysis of synergies and trade-offs across the SDG framework “at both country level and on a global scale,” using official SDG indicator data for over 200 countries. The research article highlights that SDG 12 has “negative correlations” with ten other Goals, meaning that progress on the Goal 12 will slow progress on others, in part due to the current development paradigm whereby human well-being improves at the cost of environmental degradation. SDGs that display high synergies feature indicators that stem from the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), such as reducing poverty and improving health, or utilize the same indicator across multiple targets.

On electronic waste, the UN Environmental Management Group (EMG) released ‘The United Nations & E-waste: System-wide action on addressing the full life-cycle of electrical and electronic equipment,’ which notes that global consumption of electronic equipment is on the rise. The report lists 14 international processes that have a role in the regulation or control of e-waste, identifies existing initiatives that address e-waste-related problems, and makes suggestions on how to more effectively tackle them. The authors call to increase inclusivity with respect to UN-led e-waste initiatives through enhanced cooperation with the private sector and consideration of e-waste from a more universal perspective. The EMG co-hosted a Nexus Dialogue around UNEA-3, and will further support Members of the Issue Management Group on Tackling E-waste to undertake a gap analysis and establish a joint work plan on e-waste, identify inter-agency coordination mechanisms, and increase support within the UN system.

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