What is the UN Environment Assembly and why does it matter?

What is the UN Environment Assembly and why does it matter?

Set up as a sort of ‘world parliament on the environment’, UNEA aims to define priorities for environmental policies and develop international legislation on the matter.

Why is UNEA important?

The 2024 Environment Assembly, or UNEA-6, is expected to host a record 6,000 delegates, including seven Heads of State and 139 Ministers and Vice-Ministers, as well as experts, activists, and industry representatives.

UNEA was created in 2012, as an outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), held in Brazil. Since its establishment, the Assembly has ushered in a new era of multilateralism with environmental issues given the same level of importance as such global concerns as peace and security, and health.

Over the years, UNEA has approved important resolutions on topics such as combating illegal wildlife trafficking, protecting the environment in areas of armed conflict, sustainable urban mobility, among others. 

Due to the discussions at the Environment Assembly’s 2022 session, negotiations have begun on the first legally binding international instrument to end plastic pollution, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2024.

What’s at stake for UNEA-6?

The central theme of UNEA-6 will be multilateral environmental agreements and how they can help overcome the triple planetary crisis of climate chaos, biodiversity loss and pollution.

Despite the socio-economic uncertainties that arose in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the current growing geopolitical tensions, the last two years have been marked by very important victories for environmental cooperation.

For instance, in 2022, the UN General Assembly recognized the universal human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, opening space for constitutional and legal changes at the country levels in favor of the environment and humanity.

That same year, the historic Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework was approved, with measures to protect 1 million species of animals and plants that are on the verge of extinction.

In June 2023, the 193 UN Member countries signed the so-called High Seas Treaty, to conserve marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdictions.

Last November, a long-awaited agreement on ‘loss and damage’ financing for vulnerable countries hard-hit by climate change was announced at the UN climate conference, COP28.

UNEA-6 has set aside a day during its session that will be dedicated to discussion of these and other successes, and consideration of how governments can take broad and unified actions, including adequate financing, to implement the multilateral agreements they have signed.

At the same time, UNEA-6 will not just focus on new commitments, but on fulfilling all those that already exist.

UNEP's Executive Director Inger Andersen at the 31st Session of the International Resource Panel in Nairobi.

What are the priority topics?

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), has highlighted the six priority areas for UNEA-6: Water scarcity; responsible mining; mineral management, especially phosphorus; climate-altering technologies; financing environmental actions; and implementation of the Kunming-Montreal framework.

According to Ms. Andersen, “All we need to do is get together and deliver on these global solutions that we have promised to each other so that we can secure the future for all of humanity, living on a healthy and thriving planet.”

Negotiations ahead of and during the event are focused on the proposed resolutions presented by Member States and the ministerial declaration that will be adopted at the conclusion of the Assembly. The resolutions aim to identify and prioritize common challenges and possible solutions. They also define priority areas of work for UNEP. 

At UNEA-6, 20 resolutions and 2 decisions will be debated, covering topics such as solar radiation modification, mining, desertification, circularity of the sugar cane agroindustry, highly dangerous pesticides, increasing the resilience of ecosystems and communities to drought, regional cooperation for air quality, among others.

Single-use plastic bag floating by a coral reef, Bali.

© Ocean Image Bank/Naja Bertolt

What’s up with the negotiations?

In the Environment Assembly, resolutions are expected to be approved by consensus. In practice, this means that every member present has the right to veto a decision. Therefore, the week leading up to the conference is essential for delegations to review draft texts and avoid or overcome impasses. Negotiations often extend into the week of the conference, with closed-door sessions that can go on late into the night.

As the world’s highest decision-making body on the environment, UNEA aims to help restore harmony between humanity and nature, improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.

UNEP will purchase certified carbon credits to offset travel emissions from funded participants as part of its annual environmental inventory process to offset greenhouse gas emissions, as well as several other measures to reduce the environmental impact of the conference. 

Read More