The Fourth UN Environment Assembly opened in Nairobi on Monday with a moment of silence for the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines ET302 accident, which occurred Sunday morning.
The UN flag was flown at half-mast, while colourful country flags were removed, in honour of the 157 victims, of which 22 were UN staff members. More than 4,700 delegates from 170 countries gathered for the week-long UN Environment Assembly— the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment.
“In the wake of this tragedy, it has been difficult to navigate how to proceed without showing disrespect to the many lives lost yesterday,” said Maimunah Sharif, acting Director-General of UN Office in Nairobi and Executive Director of UN-Habitat. “I want to assure you all however, that as the day and week unfolds, and the world’s global environmental leaders meet to discuss the future of our planet, we will not forget this tragedy, nor those that perished with it.”
The Fourth Assembly, which is the biggest gathering in the Assembly’s history, will focus on innovative solutions for environmental challenges and how we can consume and produce sustainably.
UN Environment Assembly President and Estonia's environment minister, Siim Kiisler, asked delegates to define ambitious national targets for reducing waste, increasing the reuse of products and significantly reducing single-use plastic by 2030. He noted that 2 billion people worldwide still lack access to solid waste collection services, while 64 million people are directly affected by uncontrolled dumping and open burning at dumpsites.
“Unless we act now, we will not be able to reverse these mega-trends, thereby protecting human and environmental health and maintaining current and future integrity of global ecosystems. Consequently, many of the Sustainable Development Goals will not be met,” Kissler said.
The Estonian minister also asked for member states to improve their environmental monitoring systems to fill data gaps that currently exist, underlining that open access scientific data would better guide policymakers on what needs to be done across all environmental areas. He asked UN Environment to develop a global environmental data strategy by 2025.
Similarly, Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of the UN Environment, asked delegates to be “optimistic and bold” and quickly move the world to a low carbon economy, which by 2050 would have reduced fossil fuel use by 80 per cent. She also emphasized the need to achieve a near zero waste economy by 2050, to the almost 100 ministers of the environment present.
“We have grown at the expense of nature… we have compelling science that lays out the urgency with which we must act,” said Msuya. “We can no longer grow now, and clean up later. We have reached the planet’s limits.”
Msuya underlined that there are already many examples of people, governments, enterprises and civil society around the world that are acting to protect people and the planet. For example, in Cameroon, farmers are using solar-powered driers to dry cassava crop, which means they can store produce for longer. And in Sri Lanka affordable electric conversion kits are being sold, aimed at transforming the traditional and much-loved Tuk Tuk.
Keriako Tobiko, Kenya’s minister for environment, underlined that the uptake of technology is urgently needed to ensure sustainable use of the environment. He said that Kenya is taking actions to address challenges in solid waste management, such as capturing landfill methane gas for electric power generation.
In her closing remarks Msuya chose to use the words of UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, regarding the work needed to address the planet's environmental crisis.
“In this fast-changing world, standing still means falling further behind,” she said. “So let’s move ahead!”