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What you need to know about the UN Environment Assembly

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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).’

UNEP

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China will aim to plant and conserve 70 billion trees by 2030

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Xie Zhenhua, China’s Special Envoy for Climate Change announced the country’s active response to the World Economic Forum’s 1t.org initiative, the platform supporting the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. The World Economic Forum and China Green Foundation will actively echo and support the contribution to be implemented in China. This initiative will encourage society-wide stakeholders, including enterprises, individuals, and local governments at all levels to commit with actions to plant, conserve, restore and manage 70 billion trees in China by 2030.

1t.org was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting two years ago to support the growing momentum around nature-based solutions by mobilizing the private sector, facilitating regional multi-stakeholder partnerships, and supporting innovation and ecopreneurship on the ground.

During his speech at the Forum’s 2022 Annual Meeting in Davos, Xie Zhenhua said: ‘China’s forest cover and forest stock volume have been growing in the last 30 years, and China accounts for more than 25% of the world’s new green areas. China responds actively to contribute to the 1t.org initiative from the World Economic Forum, and I am announcing here that China aims to plant and conserve 70 billion trees within 10 years to green our planet, combat climate change, and increase forest carbon sinks.’

In support of this bold contribution, Chairman Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum said:

‘We appreciate China’s effort in supporting the 1t.org initiative of the World Economic Forum and relevant UN initiatives, we highly appreciate China’s practices upholding relative international commitment such as the Paris Agreement and Biodiversity target through Nature-Based Solutions.’

China’s Bold Action

In the past decade, China has regrown more than 70 million hectares of forest cover. The country has benefited greatly from solutions in biodiversity conservation, sustainable usage and climate governance, resulting in wetland and forest restoration that also combats desertification.

China’s 14th “Five Year Plan” has a stated target of increasing forest coverage to 24.1% by 2025, and forest stock volume up to 19 billion cubic meters. Science-based greening efforts and inter-ministerial cooperation have provided the key vehicle for forest ecosystem restoration.

China’s contribution will encourage the 1t.org initiative to collaborate more closely in the local context to fulfill this contribution and will stimulate collective community actions at large scales and empower Chinese organizations and individuals to make contributions. China’s active response to 1t.org displays the nation’s capacity and strong commitment to safeguard the Paris Agreement and post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.

How Trees Can Play Their Part

China’s land restoration and afforestation projects provide fundamental support to the country’s poverty reduction targets of elevating 20 million people out of poverty, with the lives of 3 million people already improved through increased household income. Healthy and resilient forests are also part of people’s expectations for better living qualities according to China’s strategy. During the period of China’s13th Five year plan, the Chinese forest tourism industry grew substantially with an annual average of 1.5 billion tourists visiting national forests.

Mobilize Society-wide Action, Plant Future Trees of Hopes

China’s active response to the 1t.org initiative encourages all stakeholders to promote solutions and activities to meet climate and nature targets. These include emission reduction policies for committed companies and individuals; guiding local governments to promote climate adaptation activities such as afforestation and ecological restoration, engaging scientific organizations, think-tanks, and civil societies to promote accountable and credible tools and evaluation frameworks; creating digital environments and crowd funding opportunities for innovation solutions; and adding afforestation and carbon storage incentives.

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More Industrial Hubs to Accelerate Their Net-Zero Transition

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Four leading industrial clusters in the Netherlands, Belgium and the US today announced that they are working together with the World Economic Forum to reduce their carbon emissions faster through the Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net Zero initiative.

Launched at COP26 in November 2021, the initiative aims to accelerate the decarbonization of hard-to-abate industrial sectors, while maximizing job creation and economic competitiveness. The approach focuses on building cross-industry and cross-cluster partnerships to better implement low-carbon technologies – as in the case of the regionally developed Basque Hydrogen Corridor – and on accessing public funding and blended-finance options for clusters’ decarbonization projects.

Under this initiative, the World Economic Forum, working closely with Accenture and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as knowledge partners, connects private and public stakeholders to assess how to meet individual and collective decarbonization goals, fosters new enabling policies and provides guidance and support for local community engagement.

Industrial clusters are geographic regions where industrial companies are concentrated, making them an attractive target for impactful emissions reduction strategies. Since industrial assets are located in close proximity of each other, sharing of infrastructure (such as CO2 and hydrogen pipelines or renewable energy assets), financial and operational risks, and natural and human resources becomes possible. This also provides opportunities to deploy and scale new green technologies, such as hydrogen and the capture, utilization and storage of carbon for industrial applications, enabling a systemic approach to emissions reduction.

The clusters joining the initiative are:

· Brightlands Circular Space, together with Brightlands Chemelot Campus, Chemelot, and the Chemelot Circular Hub in Geleen, Netherlands. It will help accelerate the energy transition and circular economy.

· H2Houston Hub, formed through the Center for Houston’s Future and encompassing more than 100 organizations and companies. It will leverage the Houston area’s position as the US’s largest hydrogen producer and consumer, and use innovation and scale to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen and emissions.

· Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance, with approximately 100 corporate, governmental and community organization members. It will lead the region’s campaign to establish a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, US.

· Port of Antwerp-Bruges, Europe’s second-largest port. It will drive the circular economy and energy transition.

These four large industrial emissions centres, involving oil and gas extraction and processing, shipping, heavy-duty transportation, chemicals and other sectors, currently account for CO2 emissions of 296 million metric tonnes per year – greater than the annual emissions of Poland. They employ more than 470,000 people and represent an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $135 billion.

“Supporting industrial clusters and corporate partners in the development and implementation of their net-zero strategies is at the heart of what we do,” said Roberto Bocca, Head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Platform, World Economic Forum. “We are proud to leverage our collaborative platform and expertise in partnership building to grow the clusters initiative as well as other decarbonization efforts we support, such as the First Movers Coalition, Mission Possible Partnership and Clean Hydrogen Initiative.”

The four new clusters join four others in the UK (Zero Carbon Humber and Hynet North West), Australia (Kwinana Industries Council) and Spain (Basque Net-Zero Industrial Supercluster), which were part of the initial launch of the initiative. Based on metrics provided by each cluster, all eight clusters could potentially save more than 334 million tonnes of CO2 – more than the equivalent annual emissions output of France. They could also create and protect 1.1 million jobs and contribute $182 billion to regional GDP.

“The Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance seeks to locate a clean hydrogen hub in the state of Ohio, leading to the eventual decarbonization of much of the transportation, electricity, industrial and heating sectors,” said Kirt Conrad, Co-Founder, Ohio Clean Hydrogen Alliance and Chief Executive Officer, Stark Area Regional Transit Authority. “Investment into a clean hydrogen hub in Ohio will help create massive economic, environmental and health benefits for the state and its citizens.”

“With our focus on becoming the premier circular ecosystem in Europe, it is of upmost importance that we foster competitive collaboration between the companies in our cluster as well as with other global clusters,” said Lia Voermans, Director Brightlands Circular Space, “We believe that this initiative provides a gateway to access the best practices and processes supporting industrial decarbonization.”

The new clusters are already actively advancing their decarbonization journey. For instance, the Port of Antwerp-Bruges is starting to convert hydrogen into sustainable raw materials and fuel for the port’s chemicals sector, whereas the Ohio Clean Hydrogen Hub Alliance has developed hydrogen fuel cell buses which tour around the US, educating transit authorities on the potential and viability of clean transportation. However, to achieve net-zero emissions, these efforts must be scaled up. Often, financial mechanisms, rather than technology, are the main roadblock, and policy frameworks to support valuable future technologies are lacking. As value chains are transformed, the creation of new partnerships will be key.

“The Houston region has the talent, expertise and infrastructure needed to lead the global energy transition to a low carbon world,” said Brett Perlman, CEO of the Center for Houston’s Future. “Clean hydrogen, alongside carbon capture, use and storage are among the key technology areas where Houston is set to succeed and can be an example to other leading energy economies around the world.”

“The Port of Antwerp-Bruges hosts Europe’s largest chemical cluster and supports the European Green Deal to become climate neutral by 2050,” said Jacques Vandermeiren, Chief Executive Officer, Port of Antwerp. “To reach this goal we will all have to work together with respect for individual company needs, industry characteristics and timing. The Transitioning Industrial Clusters towards Net-Zero initiative is a means to inspire and incentivize companies to share best practices in our common pursuit of staying well below 2°C.”

In addition to the eight clusters currently involved in the initiative, more than a dozen in the US, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region are also in the process of joining. The aim is to build a community of 100 global industrial clusters to accelerate industrial decarbonization.

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Global Food Crisis Must Be Solved Alongside Climate Crisis

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Instability in Ukraine is threatening to intensify an already precarious global food security outlook. Increasing prices of fertilizers and inaccessibility of Ukrainian exports have made a delicate situation potentially dire, as 800 million people now go hungry each night. Russian blockades of Ukrainian ports have further intensified world leaders’ focus on worsening food insecurity.

“Failure to open the ports is a declaration of war on global food security,” said David Beasley, Executive Director, United Nations World Food Programme. The pandemic had already complicated global efforts to reduce famine and food insecurity, and those challenges have only intensified with the conflict in Ukraine. “We’re taking food from the hungry to give to the starving,” said Beasley of the recent conditions.

Food insecurity is a problem not only for public health but also for geopolitics and security. “Hungry societies break down wherever you are in the world,” said Julia Chatterley, Anchor, CNN.

There is a risk that short-term efforts to combat food shortages could come at the expense of meeting climate and sustainability targets given the interconnection between agriculture and climate change. Global food production contributes more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, and efforts to ramp up food supply could worsen emissions and reliance on fossil fuels.

Innovation technologies and regenerative techniques can improve agricultural productivity. “Agriculture has to be part of the solution to climate change and the solution for food security,” said J. Erik Fyrwald, CEO, Syngenta Group. The goal must be growing more food on less land and, to do so, farmers can employ best practices from both organic and conventional farming. He advised that EU food policy reforms that shift away from a focus on organics towards targets on productivity and emission reduction could better address the current crisis. Techniques such as crop rotation and covering land in winter better protect soil and help farmers increase yield with less fertilizer.

Africa can play a major role in improving global food security, but the continent faces multiple challenges to unlocking agricultural productivity. Already, famine has intensified social and political turmoil in several countries. “If we don’t silence the guns, it’s not going to work,” said Philip Isdor Mpango, Vice-President of Tanzania, regarding the goal of increasing agricultural productivity. He pointed to the continent’s young population – with roughly 70% of the population aged 25 or younger – and the need to include youth in improving agricultural productivity. “We must strategize so we have the youthful population involved in agricultural value chains.”

Another challenge relates to post-harvest losses. Approximately one third of the continent’s food production is lost after harvest due to poor infrastructure, storage and other challenges. Investing in irrigation, transport infrastructure and storage facilities can improve Africa’s contribution to global food security.

Viet Nam is experiencing the current food crisis alongside intensified effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and saltwater intrusion. The nation has a plan to become a “food innovation hub in South-East Asia,” said Le Minh Khai, Deputy Prime Minister of Viet Nam. Doing so requires a holistic approach that balances short-term and long-term strategies and involves multinational organizations, entrepreneurs, investors and farmers.

Both wealthy and developing nations have a key role to play, particularly given that food production must increase more than 60% by 2050 to feed the world. “Solving the global food crisis is everyone’s business,” said Mariam Mohammed Saeed Al Mheiri, Minister of Climate Change and the Environment, United Arab Emirates.

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