What you need to know about the UN Environment Assembly

From 28 February to 2 March, representatives of the 193 Member States of the United Nations, business leaders, civil society and environmentalists from around the world will come together in Nairobi, Kenya, for the resumed fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) ­– the world’s foremost environmental decision making body.

The event comes at a crucial time for the planet when urgent action is needed to avoid the worst effects of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss and pollution and waste. So, what exactly does UNEA do, and why is it important?

What is UNEA?

Created in 2012, UNEA is the result of decades of international efforts ­– initiated at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 – aimed at creating an effective system of international environmental governance.

UNEA meets to set priorities for global environmental policies and develop international environmental law. Decisions and resolutions taken by Member States at the Assembly also define the work of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEA is – in the words of former UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, – “the world’s parliament on the environment.”

Why does UNEA matter?

UNEA is where countries table resolutions and decisions on environmental issues.

The Assembly serves both as a forum and a decision-making body, where the world’s governments, civil society groups, the scientific community and the private sector gather to highlight the most pressing environmental issues and ultimately create the architecture for future environmental governance.

Why is the event being held in two parts?

In short, COVID-19. The pandemic has posed challenges for multilateralism, restricting in-person meetings. As a result, many international meetings have been postponed or reshaped. In the case of UNEA, Member States agreed to organize the meeting in two steps. The first step – UNEA-5.1 – was an online-only meeting held in February 2021. The second step – UNEA-5.2 ­– will be held online and in-person in Nairobi.

Why is UNEA-5.2 important?

UNEA-5.2 comes at a critical time for the environment. It is the first global meeting on the environment after the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). As the world is in a triple planetary crisis, the decisions taken at UNEA-5.2 are particularly critical.

What was achieved at UNEA-5.1?

UNEA-5.1 saw Ministers of environment and other leaders from more than 150 nations take part in the two-day online meeting. The Assembly agreed to a new Medium-Term Strategy, Programme of Work and budget for UNEP. The new Strategy takes UNEP from 2022-2025 and sets out a vision for UNEP’s role in addressing the triple planetary crisis and delivering on the promises of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

What will be achieved at UNEA-5.2?

One of the most significant aspects of this Assembly will be the deliberations on the possible establishment of an international negotiating committee to kick-start work towards a global, legally-binding agreement to address plastic pollution. Given the scale of the global plastic pollution crisis, the discussions between Member States and the private sector, civil society, and other participants could represent the most important development on the global environmental agenda since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Assembly will consider other critical issues, including chemical waste and nitrogen management, nature-based solutions and biodiversity and the circular economy. A Leadership Dialogue will also be held with multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) on the theme ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).’