World Leaders Set for Pivotal Environmental Assembly

In February 2021, representatives of the 193 Member States of the UN, businesses leaders, civil society and environmentalists from around the world will come together virtually for the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), the world’s highest environmental decision-making body.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) answers frequently-asked questions about this biennial assembly, which aims to galvanize international action on climate change, pollution and ecosystem loss.

Given the enormity of challenges the world is facing, why are environmental conferences like UNEA important?

UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres has said it best: Humanity is waging a war on nature. And this is suicidal. In 2020, the world faced flooding, wildfires, locust invasions and a pandemic that has brought life-as-we-know-it to a halt. The message could not be clearer.

Human economic activity has put extreme pressure on the planet, propelling climate change, destroying biodiversity and ecosystems, and rising pollution levels. UNEA will help strengthen international efforts to tackle these three crises.

Apart from the fifth session of UNEA, the year 2021 will see other landmark environmental conferences, including the IUCN World Conservation Congress, the Food Systems Summit, the UN Ocean Conference, the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26), and the Convention on Biodiversity (COP 15)

It’s a busy year – and a pivotal one. At the international level, there is a tremendous will to safeguard the planet for generations to come.

In recent years, we have seen countries pull back from their international commitments. Is there still a place for international assemblies, like UNEA?

Even before COVID-19, progress across the Sustainable Development Goals was uneven. But where multilateral action was taken, it has made a difference. Last year, for example, marked the 35th anniversary of the International Convention to protect the ozone layer. As a result of decisive, coordinated action, the ozone layer is now healing, saving millions of lives and avoiding untold economic damage.

Inclusive multilateralism is the only way to solve the challenges we face. It is time to revisit the Paris climate change agreement – renew the leadership and solidarity that made that landmark accord possible – and lay the groundwork for a more sustainable future.

With much of the world struggling to manage the economic fallout from COVID-19, aren’t there more pressing issues than the environment?

There is no way to address economic fallout without also addressing the environmental challenges we face. Over half of global gross domestic product depends on nature to some extent, but human activities are eroding this economic base. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found in 2018 that land degradation and biodiversity loss was costing the world 10 per cent of GDP each year in lost ecosystem services.

Many financiers are already recognizing this and setting targets that align portfolios with the Sustainable Development Goals. Frameworks such as the Principles for Responsible Banking and the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance have gathered hundreds of banks and institutional investors under commitments to transition their trillions of dollars of assets to low-carbon and nature-positive investments.

At UNEA, talks are expected to focus on COVID-19 recovery packages. What is the goal of these discussions?

Stimulus packages represent an opportunity to affect positive change – but as UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2020 found, this opportunity has not been seized adequately.

Over the next year, the world is likely to see trillions of dollars directed toward additional stimulus spending. Most of these stimulus packages are based on government borrowing, so if not invested well, we may end up saddling the next generation with a pandemic debt. The discussions at UNEA will focus on how to direct stimulus funds towards creating low-carbon, nature-positive and pollution-free societies and economies, in which finance fuels the energy transition and green jobs. 

Given the challenges that businesses are facing due to the pandemic, is there a strong case for investing in the planet?

The financial implications of ecosystem loss for businesses include reduced commodity yields, disrupted supply chains and the loss of sources of new products.

Even in purely economic terms, the dividends from investing in nature are huge. For example, between now and 2030, the restoration of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems damaged by development could create $9 trillion in value for human societies. The economic benefits are 10 times more than the cost of investment. To take advantage of these cost-benefit ratios, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration from 2021 will mobilize the global community to restore degraded land, coasts and seas.

Diverse ecosystems are also more stable and productive. The World Economic Forum’s ‘The future of nature and business’ report finds that transforming the food, land and ocean use system could create 395 million new jobs by 2030.

The virtual meeting of UNEA-5 is to be followed by an in-person session in Nairobi, Kenya in February 2022. Find out more about UNEA-5 and follow the proceedings here.

By UN Environment Programme

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