The changes we need are huge—time is short
By Erik Lundberg, Finland's Ambassador to Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Seychelles and Permanent Representative to the UN Environment Programme and UN-Habitat.
Our planet and humankind face three unprecedented, mutually reinforcing challenges: climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the overuse of critical natural resources.
In the past year, we have seen intense heatwaves and raging wildfires in Europe, the United States and in Japan cause huge economical loss and damage. In Africa and Asia, tropical cyclones and typhoons killed over a thousand people and devastated the lives of tens of millions more. In East Africa, droughts are getting more severe, the rains more intense. Somalia is at the edge of famine because of the drought.
We are also witnessing extreme loss of life in natural environments. In 2019, more than 27,000 species are threatened with extinction.
Our economic model today is overly dependent on the unsustainable use of natural resources. According to the United Nations, the extraction and processing of natural resources is the cause of half of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 80 to 90 per cent of biodiversity loss. Only nine per cent of man-made materials remain in circulation.
Time is running out. We need a coordinated, comprehensive and swift response to these challenges. We cannot continue with our traditional economic and consumption models. There is no planet B.
Finland is ready to take action, but no country can achieve sustainable results on their own
Finland’s new government has set the challenge of climate change as the starting point for its government programme. The ambitious, greenest ever government agenda aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035—becoming the first fossil-free welfare society in the world. Finland also aims to stop the loss of biodiversity and intensify efforts to transition into a circular economy. We are the first country in the world to incorporate the 2030 Agenda in our 2019 state budget, with resources allocated for carbon-neutrality and the smart use of natural resources, and the main taxes contributing to sustainable development. State budgeting is, in our view, a very powerful tool to implement the 2030 Agenda.
Finland also has strong cross-sectoral coordination mechanisms between different ministries as well as other environmental interest groups.
No country, however, can successfully meet these global challenges on their own. We need to work closely together to find comprehensive and effective solutions. We need to increase cooperation, both at the national and the international level. We need to involve civil society, academia, business and governments.
The UN Environment Assembly and the UN Environment Programme can become even stronger and more effective
Finland has consistently called for the improvement of what we call the “international environmental governance”. Previous, systematic reform efforts have aimed to improve coherence, coordination and effectiveness, with the Rio+20 meeting in 2012 as a key milestone. Reform efforts have focused specifically on 1) the governance, financing, and functioning of UN Environment, and 2) enhancement of synergies among multilateral environmental agreements.
The most significant reform so far has been the transformation of UN Environment’s 58-member governing council into the universal UN Environment Assembly, bringing political leaders of all United Nations Member States to the same table to discuss our common environmental agenda. Despite its successes, the UN Environment Assembly is still a young United Nations body and needs further strengthening so that it can take its rightful place within the United Nations system.
As of today, the UN Environment Assembly takes decisions about the work of UN Environment. Instead, it should give strategic guidance to Member States and the international environmental governance system to increase political interest in the environmental agenda, and to motivate and ensure political action both within the United Nations and nationally.
At its fourth meeting in March 2019, the UN Environment Assembly decided to establish a Member State-led review process of its governing bodies, which will culminate in decisions at the Fifth UN Environment Assembly in 2021. We must use this process well and, in accordance with the decision taken at the Fourth Assembly, keep the broad vision of a strengthened UN Environment Assembly firmly in mind.
Finland will hold the Presidency of the European Council for six months as of 1 July 2019 and will be in a key position to coordinate the European Union’s views on the review process.
Boosting the environmental voice and agenda within the United Nations system
We also need to discuss UN Environment’s and the Assembly’s role in the wider United Nations system, to bring the environment more firmly to the core of the United Nations. Linkages between the UN Environment Assembly and the governing bodies of other United Nations entities, the High-Level Political Forum as well as multilateral environmental agreements are crucial and need to be promoted in order to support the 2030 Agenda implementation.
Finland underlines UN Environment’s role as the main environmental coordinating body of the United Nations, working with other United Nations agencies through the Environment Management Group, with members from 51 multilateral bodies.
The ongoing broader United Nations reform offers good opportunities to enhance collaboration with the United Nations at the national level and to decrease competition between United Nations agencies. This is particularly important for UN Environment, due to its limited in-country presence. We support ongoing efforts within UN Environment to actively participate in the implementation of the United Nations reform.
Fragmentation versus synergy
A key challenge for effective international environmental governance is fragmentation. We have a myriad of multilateral environmental agreements, different in membership, scope, governance structure and funding mechanisms. Finland has actively been trying to promote synergies between different multilateral environmental agreements. We also support clarifying the relationship between multilateral environmental agreements and the UN Environment Assembly.
A recent report on international environmental governance, financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers, recommends that multilateral environmental agreements and their governing bodies are given a more prominent role during the UN Environment Assembly. It also suggests exploring a further alignment of UN Environment’s programme of work and the multilateral environmental agreements.
While fully respecting the mandates of each multilateral environmental agreement, future UN Environment Assemblies should approach the environmental agenda in a holistic manner, actively looking for possible synergies. The UN Environment Assembly would also benefit from greater incorporation of science into decision-making and systematic linkage with different environmental assessment mechanisms.
UN Environment is our key partner, and the UN Environment Assembly is the most important tool we have to make sure we can face our climate and environmental challenges in an inclusive, coordinated and effective way.
Let’s help them help us!
Erik Lundberg is Finland's Ambassador to Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Seychelles and Permanent Representative to the UN Environment Programme and to UN-Habitat.
He took office in Kenya in September 2018. Prior to this, he served inter alia as Finland’s Ambassador to Norway and as Director for Human Rights at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Finland.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this opinion editorial are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the UN Environment Programme