The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) was created in 2012 by decisions of the Rio+20 conference and the UN General Assembly (UNGA). It was envisaged, in the words of former UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director, Achim Steiner, to be “the world’s parliament on the environment.” This Policy Brief presents an overview and commentary on decisions taken at the fourth session of UNEA (UNEA-4), and concludes with a few thoughts on the implications for the world’s environment.

UNEA-4 convened in Nairobi, Kenya, from 11-15 March 2019. The Assembly adopted a Mininsterial Declaration, 23 resolutions and three decisions. The drafts were negotiated during the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives (OECPR), which took place in the week before UNEA-4 opened, from 4-8 March 2019. Further negotiations, as needed, took place in the UNEA Committee of the Whole from 11-13 March, ahead of the final two days of ministerial-level meetings. Negotiations were initially conducted in five thematic Working Groups, and this Policy Brief discusses the resolutions by those themes.

UNEA resolutions are not legally binding, and the content may be repetitive from one session to the next. Nevertheless, they represent the joint aspirations of the international community, frame consensus around actions to be taken, and help coordinate development aid and technical assistance.

Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP): The five resolutions in this group were all adopted. They address SCP, food loss and waste, sustainable mobility, sustainable business, and sustainable infrastructure.

The SCP resolution (UNEP/EA.4/L.2) relates closely to SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production), including target 12.1 on implementing the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on SCP (10YFP), target 12.3 on halving per capita global food waste and reducing food losses, and target 12.7 on promoting sustainable public procurement practices. The resolution requests UNEP to establish a time-limited task group, comprising the International Resource Panel and the One Planet Network, to report on possible pathways to implementing SCP, for consideration at UNEA-5. It also requests UNEP to provide an overview report and recommendations on best practices in sustainable product design and services, and, separately, to report on the potential of current sustainable economic models for achieving SCP in sectors such as plastics, textiles, and construction. Member States are asked to promote the formation of communities of practice that will cooperate with the One Planet Network and 10YFP focal points.

Other resolutions with implications for the SDGs include the resolution on curbing food loss and waste (UNEP/EA.4/L.3), which supports calls in other fora to move towards sustainable food systems – including that of the ministerial declaration from the 2018 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), and SDG target 2.4 on sustainable food production systems. The resolution on sustainable mobility ((UNEP/EA.4/L.4) refers to a sustainable cities approach (SDG 11), involving, where appropriate, full life-cycle assessment of various mobility options.

Resource Efficiency, Chemicals and Waste: UNEA-4 adopted resolutions on strengthening global governance on marine plastic litter and microplastics (UNEP/EA.4/L.7), solid waste management (UNEP/EA.4/L.8), sound management of chemicals and waste (UNEP/EA.4/L.9), addressing single-use plastics pollution (UNEP/EA.4/L.10), and sustainable nitrogen management (UNEP/EA.4/L.16).

The plastics resolutions required protracted negotiations as some countries opposed setting targets for phasing out single-use plastics, while others were ready to adopt national bans. On marine litter, some countries would have preferred stronger language; nevertheless, the resolution allows for scientific review, expert meetings, and stakeholder engagement on the issue. Disappointingly for some, UNEA did not establish an Open-ended Working Group but only renewed the mandate of the Ad Hoc Expert Group on Marine Litter, a temporary entity.

While not attracting the level of attention as the chemicals, waste and plastics resolutions, the text on sustainable nitrogen management was adopted with little fanfare. Yet some noted it as a win on a neglected but important issue for agriculture and water quality worldwide.

Biodiversity and Ecosystems: This group of eight resolutions achieved quick consensus on issue areas in which international programmes or initiatives are already well developed. The resolution on protection of the marine environment from land-based activities (UNEP/EA.4/L.12), for example, builds on work done by the long-standing Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA), and lays a foundation for future work that the EU has expressed willingness to support. Resolutions on mangroves (UNEP/EA.4/L.13), sustainable coral reefs management (UNEP/EA.4/L.14) and peatlands (UNEP/EA.4/L.19) were agreed by the end of the first week of discussion, and on rangelands and pastoralism (UNEP/EA.4/L.17) shortly afterwards.

A draft resolution on deforestation and agricultural commodity supply chains (UNEP/EA.4/L.15) was strongly opposed by some developing countries that felt unfairly targeted in the mention of specific products, such as palm oil and soy. They stressed that agriculture is not the sole driver of deforestation, and highlighted the role of their countries in producing food for the world. Some commented that opposition on this was “diplomatic payback” for the treatment of palm oil under recent EU biofuels legislation, while others noted that arguments against this resolution were disingenuous, failing to acknowledge the presence of vested commercial interests in deforestation.

The wide-ranging resolution on biodiversity and land degradation (UNEP/EA.4/L.11) gives a boost to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and to the land degradation neutrality (LDN) target in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), also highlighting the need for Member States to engage in developing a strong post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The resolution requests UNEA to take action on many issues that are also addressed in SDG 14 (life under water) and SDG 15 (life on land), though without referencing specific SDG targets. Specifically, it requests UNEP to support Member States in strengthening ecosystem resilience, and to develop and build on sustainable wildlife-based economies, explore “innovative financing” for ecosystem restoration and conservation, and address sand and dust storms through a range of means.

Environmental Governance: A resolution on gender equality, human rights and the empowerment of women and girls in environmental governance (UNEP/EA.4/L.21) requests UNEP to facilitate the collection of disaggregated data on progress made in achieving gender equality in environmental policies and prorammes, and to report back to UNEA-5. It also invites Member States to strengthen and implement policies aimed at increasing the participation and leadership of women in environmental decision making and to recognize their role as managers of natural resources and agents of change in safeguarding the environment – aims that are relevant to SDG 5 (gender equality), especially its target 5.5 on women’s participation and equal opportunities for leadership, and target 5.A on women’s access to ownership and control over land and and natural resources.

Other resolutions in this cluster cover the poverty-environment nexus (UNEP/EA.4/L.22), mineral resource governance (UNEP/EA.4/L.23), and the Montevideo V Programme on environmental law (UNEP/EA.4/L.24). A draft resolution on the governance of geoengineering (UNEP/EA.4/L.20) was finally withdrawn in the face of opposition from one country, but the proponents of the resolution, a coalition of 11 developed and developing countries, led by Switzerland, pledged to raise the issue again at UNEA and other multilateral fora.

UNEP Programme of Work and Budget, and Other Administrative and Budgetary Issues: Negotiation of the draft decision on a provisional agenda, date and venue of UNEA-5 (UNEP/EA.4/L.29) met unexpected resistance as the exercise brought the question of UNEA’s intersessional process to a head. Some favored convening the OECPR back-to-back with UNEA in order to save on travel costs as well as to introduce the element of time pressure to negotiations without which, they felt, less would be achieved. Others preferred convening the OECPR some weeks or months before UNEA, feeling that delegations were already overloaded at this meeting, and that a significant portion of drafting and agreements should be accomplished beforehand.

The decision that was finally adopted by UNEA requests draft decisions to be submitted at least eight weeks in advance of OECPR-5. It also requests the Chair of the Nairobi-based Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR), in close consultation with the UNEA President, to present a consensual CPR-based review process to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of UNEA and its subsidiary bodies. The resolution further requests UNEP to submit an action plan to implement sub-paragraphs (a)-(h) of paragraph 88 of the Rio+20 Outcome, which outlines various actions on strengthening the role of UNEP, including the consolidation of its headquarters functions in Nairobi – a point that was stressed by the African Group.

Other resolutions and decisions adopted in this cluster are: the implementation plan ‘Towards a Pollution-free Planet’ (UNEP/EA.4/L.25); implementation and follow-up of UNEA resolutions and related activities (UNEP/EA.4/L.26); endorsement of the Global Environment Outlook (UNEP/EA.4/L.27); the proposed programme of work and budget for the 2020-2021 biennium (UNEP/EA.4/L.28); and management of trust funds and earmarked contributions (UNEP/EA.4/L.30).

Ministerial Declaration: UNEA-4 adopted a Ministerial Declaration (UNEP/EA.4/L.1), which was developed in three open consultations convened by UNEA-4 President Siim Kiisler (Estonia). The original draft put forward during the meeting contained several targets to be met by 2025, including setting national targets for sound waste management, phasing out the most problematic single-use plastic products, and supporting global efforts to develop sustainability and circularity guidelines for products. None of these targets survived in the final version that was adopted. Some delegations expressed uncertainty over their ability to meet such targets, while others considered it reasonable to commit to these as a milestone toward the 2030 deadline of the SDGs. The Declaration that was adopted seeks to “significantly reduce” single-use plastic products by 2030. It also commits to work towards comparable international environmental data, agreeing to support UNEP to develop a global environmental data strategy by 2025, in cooperation with other relevant UN bodies.

By any measure, UNEA-4 was an extremely busy meeting, with more than 30 draft resolutions put forward initially, some of which were eventually merged with others. In many cases, the adopted resolutions help to strengthen the international framework or mandate of UNEP to take action, in collaboration with others. However, while UNEA-4 somewhat advanced a policy agenda in areas where global governance is still lacking, such as on marine plastics and geoengineering, it did not achieve the necessary consensus for action. On many resolutions, some countries preferred not to refer explicitly to SDG targets, while others warned against backsliding from commitments to achieve the SDGs.

Despite these issues, UNEA has tremendous convening power, demonstrated by the continued presence of the world’s environment ministers and by the proliferation of parallel meetings, side events and exhibitions held in its margins. As the Assembly matures into a truly Member State-driven process, it is increasingly up to Member States themselves to prioritize common and emerging issues, rather than seek to serve narrowly-defined national interests. [IISD RS Coverage of UNEA-4] [IISD RS Summary Report on UNEA-4] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on UNEA-4 Outcomes] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on Expectations for UNEA-4]