08 Mar 2019 Story Cities and lifestyles

The tricky business of reaching a global consensus on the environment

Photo by Manuripi

Getting 193 United Nations Member States to see eye to eye on a range of pressing environmental issues is not easy. While the world is “getting smaller”, and technology is bringing us together as never before, political, cultural and linguistic barriers remain significant.

This week and up to 15 March 2019, UN Environment is using its convening power to bring together country representatives, members of civil society, private sector and others from across the world to work on solutions that will ultimately benefit people, and the planet on which we all depend.

Naturally, many issues are disputed.

For instance, while some countries are in favour of phasing out all single-use plastic products by 2025, many others are opposed, fearful of the impact on jobs and the economy.

Although all Member States are signed up to the Sustainable Development Goals, many concepts which have been accepted in UN Environment circles are still disputed by the governments of some countries, such as “circularity” (the idea that we aim to make products which can be recycled without causing waste). Not everyone agrees with the notion of “green business”, or “‘global markets for green products and services”.

Also, there is no agreed definition of “environmental human rights defender” at the intergovernmental level.

Data gap challenges and the need for data harmonization and standardization inevitably come up in the discussions, and many issues such as fossil fuel subsidies and climate finance are contentious.

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Ringed plovers in the Arctic. Photo by GRID-Arendal

Reaching a consensus on geoengineering is proving to be an onerous task, one that Switzerland is trying to coordinate.

Then there are issues, such as gender, that some countries believe fall outside the UN Environment Assembly’s remit.

“The fine art of diplomacy is on full display this week in Nairobi,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration.

“And despite all the difficulties to find wording that all can sign up to,” he added, “the world has seen big successes recently which united all nations, such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and the agreements to protect the ozone layer, and a new UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030. It can be done, based on the common need of all countries to address the essential environmental issues of our time.”

Who’s coming to the UN Environment Assembly?

  • Representatives of more than 170 Member States
  • Over 500 private sector and special guests
  • 88 ministers
  • Heads of State from France, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Madagascar as well as the Prime Minister of Rwanda
  • The President of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, the Interim President of the World Bank and many others
  • 70 other delegations
  • Goodwill Ambassadors and UN Patrons: Lewis Pugh, Nadya Hutagalung and Karry Wang
  • Over 280 journalists

For those who like to plan ahead: the Fifth Environment Assembly is provisionally slated for 22–26 February 2021.