The 2020 consultations between the five Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) generated substantial and frank discussions on issues like climate change, nature and sustainable development, say participants.
“We’ve had excellent discussions with our Nordic partners on the importance of multilateralism in an increasingly complex world, and the global role of UNEP in tackling unsustainable consumption and production to address the three planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.
During the late-October talks, participants also discussed the opportunities presented by UN Development System reforms for strengthening the environmental dimension of sustainable development and UNEP’s role in it, including in supporting its Member States to achieve their environmental commitments. The sustainability of food systems was also on the agenda, as was the relationship between UNEP and various multilateral environmental agreements. Looking ahead towards 2022, the discussion included how to make the best use of the Stockholm+50 Conference, the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of UNEP, also known as UNEP@50, and the upcoming fifth UN Environment Assembly.
In the Nordic countries, the environment and climate are prioritized at the highest political level. Last year, the prime ministers of the Nordic countries committed to working towards carbon neutrality with the Declaration on Nordic Carbon Neutrality. The Nordic Council of Ministers also signed up to a new vision to become the world’s most sustainable and integrated region by 2030, working together to promote a green, competitive and socially sustainable Nordic region. When it comes to the health of our oceans, the Nordic countries have been strong supporters of ensuring a solid global response to marine litter and microplastics under the auspices of UNEP.
The Nordic countries share UNEP’s concern on the critical state of the environment, especially as it relates to biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution, including waste and the unsafe handling of chemicals. While these are all important challenges in themselves, they are also interrelated, posing a serious threat to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the elimination of poverty and inequalities.
They agreed that UNEP and multilateral environmental agreements play a key role in this context and they supported the approach taken by UNEP in its proposed Medium-Term Strategy (2022-2025). That strategy is underpinned by the foundational work UNEP is doing in providing solid science for evidence-based policy-making, and in supporting the development and uptake of environmental governance.
Henrik Studsgaard, the Danish Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Environment and Food, said, “UNEP and the Nordic countries are close and longstanding partners, and together we can give a push on action on a number of important environment-related issues that will be on the international agenda for the coming years.”
The discussions emphasized the linkages between Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG 12), which covers sustainable consumption and production, and environmental challenges. As worldwide consumption and production — driving forces of the global economy — currently rest on increasing the use of the natural environment and resources, they continue to have a destructive impact on the planet. Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, without a transformation of the global economy, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles. A thorough shared focus on approaches to reduce material footprint and enhance circularity in the economy was welcomed.
“Our consultations here today take place in a time when COVID-19 is still very present in our societies,” said Studsgaard. “One thing we have experienced is that we are able to adjust our societies very quickly when we need to. We must use this experience as an opportunity to rethink the way we do things and build back better and greener.”
The Nordic countries and UNEP share the view that the pandemic offers countries an opportunity to decide on recovery plans that will reverse current trends and change our consumption and production patterns towards a more sustainable future where green investments and climate-smart solutions are at the centre.
Eva Svedling, the Swedish State Secretary to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Environment and Climate, underlined that. “As Nordic countries, we are supportive of UNEP’s role as custodian of the SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production and welcome that this issue is integrated into the coming Medium-Term Strategy for UNEP. We see close connections to the conference in Stockholm in 2022.”
The Stockholm+50 Conference is planned to mark a milestone: it has been 50 years since the first United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm in 1972. It was the first world conference to make the environment a major issue, and it also initiated the establishment of UNEP later that year.
Sweden has offered to host the conference and the other Nordic countries see it as an opportunity to increase the focus on the environment, accelerate action and strengthen efforts for the UN Decade of Action to deliver on the SDGs. The connection to the UN75 declaration, which underlines the interconnected nature of our challenges – and the importance of multilateralism in building back better and greener, is also important. The conference would seek to have a strong focus on sustainable consumption and production. The Nordic countries said they continue to count on UNEP’s active support on the path towards Stockholm+50 and beyond.
The Nordic countries welcomed the efforts undertaken by UNEP to play an active role in UN Development System reform and supported the Executive Director’s approach to mainstream and integrate environmental awareness across other UN agencies. They encouraged UNEP to continue to draw on the established presence of other UN agencies on the ground, including the United Nations Development Programme, and work in close collaboration with UN resident coordinators. UNEP@50 is seen as a good opportunity to further strengthen these efforts, according to the Nordic states. Andersen welcomed the support from the Nordic countries for UNEP, including in its role to “be the green thread that weaves through the UN system.
“I would like to thank the Nordic countries for their stalwart leadership on the environment, and for their firm commitments to UNEP – both in good times and in more challenging times. Your support has been very valuable to us through these nearly 50 years of our existence.”
The next step for moving the global environmental agenda is the fifth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), which is likely to be held in two parts in 2021 and 2022 under the presidency of Norway. The first part will be virtual while the second part is planned as a full and substantial UNEA.
Juhani Damski, Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Environment of Finland, highlighted the central role of UNEP and UNEA in coordinating the global environmental agenda. “During these difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic, Finland has appreciated how UNEP has been able to keep up their active work and demonstrate the importance of the environment and biodiversity as key solution providers for a healthy and sustainable future,” said Damski.
Echoing his Finnish colleague, the Norwegian State Secretary for International Development, Aksel Jakobsen, underlined the important role of UNEP in tackling threats to the planet. “We need urgent and meaningful change. International cooperation is a prerequisite to solving complex transboundary and interconnected environmental challenges,” said Jakobsen.
Studsgaard also stressed the role of UNEP in relation to the UN 2021 Food Systems Summit. “Food systems are key to societies, including to fight hunger, but as they function today, they have many negative side effects on the environment. UNEP has a key role in raising awareness of the need for sustainable food systems – systems that are resource-efficient and which minimize negative effects on the environment,” said Studsgaard.
Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP, has been appointed by the UN Secretary-General as the chair of a system-wide UN task force, which will ensure that the entire UN system can deliver on this agenda beyond the summit. UNEP further pointed out that under-consumption and over-consumption of food demonstrate the interconnected nature of different challenges.
In addition to being champions for action on climate, nature and pollution themselves, and providing political support to UNEP, the Nordic countries are also important financial supporters of UNEP. They all believe in providing unrestricted funding to the Environment Fund, UNEP’s core source of flexible funds that supports the bedrock of its work worldwide, rather than specifying to which projects funding should go. While only constituting five countries (or 2.6 per cent) out of UNEP’s 193 Member States, the Nordic countries together provided over 18 per cent of the funding to the Environment Fund from 2015 to 2020, amounting to US$ 77.5 million. In addition, they contributed over US$ 205 million in earmarked funding for thematic areas during the same period.