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UN Environment Assembly ends with 'soft' outcomes

As the third assembly closed in Nairobi, a ministerial declaration and 13 non-binding resolutions were passed, reports Liu Qin

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The opening meeting of the UN Environment Assembly on December 4 in Nairobi (Image: Cyril Villemain/UN Environment)

On the final day of the United Nations (UN) Environment Assembly in Nairobi, a ministerial declaration plus 13 non-binding resolutions were passed, with countries committing to action to protect human health and tackle air, water, soil and marine pollution.

The theme of the assembly was “Towards a Pollution-free World.” At the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, 4,000 government officials, scientists, businesspeople, UN officials and civil society representatives came together to decide how to tackle global environmental crises.

According to UNEP, if countries meet the commitments made it would result in 1.49 billion people having clean air to breathe and one third of the world’s coastline being clean. The goals would require US$18.6 billion of new investment.

UNEP executive director Erik Solheim told chinadialogue that he was optimistic about tackling pollution. He pointed to China’s successful efforts to reduce air pollution as an example for other countries, and the eradication of polio as an example of the international community working together to resolve an environmental issue.

‘Soft’ outcomes

The 13 resolutions passed contained commitments on eliminating marine litter and microplastics. While the resolutions are not binding, they do include specific actions and measures for countries to take.

The resolution on marine litter and microplastics explicitly calls for the provision of a secretariat for this project – a special working group with no limit on membership numbers. Its purpose would be to examine barriers and options for resolving the problems. It would look at the environmental, social and economic costs and benefits of the different proposals, as well as their feasibility and effectiveness.

However, Cheng Qian, representing Greenpeace East Asia, said that the text of the resolutions included limited concrete actions, casting uncertainty over implementation.

"The resolutions are non-binding, so member states will suffer no consequences if they do not act, and there are no resources allocated to support action on pollution. 'Towards a Pollution-free World' remains a slogan."

Despite the lack of binding force, progress on the resolutions will be examined at the fourth UN Environment Assembly. The public, media and international society will be watching – so Cheng believes there is some motivation for action.

According to the draft proceedings (No.68) from the assembly, representatives believe that the ministerial declaration will increase the political visibility and credibility of the assembly. Representatives also held that the statement would pave the way for the implementation of governance, institutional, technological and financial mechanisms.

Representatives were also clear on how the declaration fell short, with some calling for a binding international instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity resources in areas beyond national jurisdictions, such as the seabed.

Focus on business

One representative praised the inclusion of different scientific, policy and business interests, while another said that the private sector could take on a crucial role in technological innovation and sustainable financing mechanisms.

But Cheng Qian commented that business had drawn too much attention at the assembly. “After all, it is businesses that produce pollution. Civil society played less of a role at the assembly compared to businesses. We could attend meetings, but did not have the right to speak.”

UNEP has recognised that technically and commercially viable solutions could increase the efficiency of water and energy use in buildings, agriculture, transportation and other key sectors by 60-80%.

UNEP executive director Erik Solheim said that the power of the private sector should not be underestimated, and many projects will need to be implemented on a commercial basis.

Business representatives said they want to reduce pollution, not create it. 

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