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Turning over a new leaf? The first meeting of the UN Environment Assembly

NOTE: This guest post was written by Julie Cook. Julie is a 2014 graduate of the School of Diplomacy. She has previously written on the topics of cap-and-trade policies, environmental concerns in refugee camps, and dangers related to Arctic ice melting. Her interests include environmental organizations, wildlife conservation, and corporate environmental policy and social responsibility.

This past month marked the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya. About 1,200 participants from all U.N. Member States, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, attended the event to develop this new institution and discuss some of the biggest environmental issues facing the international community. This is a monumental achievement as this body is the highest U.N. body created on the issue and will be the new global voice on environmental issues across the U.N. organization.

The UNEA grew out of the existing U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), and will be its governing body with a scope that includes not only environmental development but also legislative and financial concerns of the U.N. Member States. Within the past meeting as well as in the future, the UNEA has the mandate of taking global political and scientific concerns, and providing assistance in drafting resolutions and setting the environmental agenda. Additionally, part of the goal in the creation of this body was to give environmental issues the same status as those of peace, security and trade. While the environment has always been a consideration within the U.N., as its own subsidiary assembly it will no longer need to compete for attention within other issues, but may stand strongly on its own.

UNEA was created based on the requests of world leaders during the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (known as Rio+20) which was held two years ago. Attendees of the Rio+20 felt that there should be a strong global authority on environmental issues that would help to both regulate and make suggestions about the nature of environmental issues. This body would need to be the highest level of influence, but also have a focus on major environmental concerns that transcend borders. Delegates desired a body that could have more strength in encouraging governments to set standards and polices across multiple sectors while maintain a wide scope.

For the first meeting, the focus was on issues that are considered the largest environmental concerns of our time: air pollution, plastic debris in the ocean, chemicals, waste and wildlife trafficking, as well as the continuation of the Millennium Development Goals. These are issues that demand a global response based on their non-region specific nature and solutions tend to include a continuation of the current path but with increased commitment. The decisions on the issue of air pollution, easily one of the most difficult based on implementation problems, were built upon strengthening the existing work undertaken by the UNEP. Similarly, solutions to the problem of illegal trafficking were based on existing work promoting alternative livelihoods for poachers along with zero-tolerance policies. In addition to the existing solutions, the UNEA choose to highlight those species beyond the charismatic megafauna (tigers, elephants, etc.) that are so frequently emphasized and instead focused on fish species, illegal timber and other lesser known species.

The agenda also included the issue of marine plastic, one of the newest environmental focal points. In dealing with this problem, the UNEA has shown interest in strengthening information exchange and while this just seems like political lingo for doing something without physically doing something, this is such a new topic that the methods on how to handle the problem is limited. Additionally, this is a problem that demands international cooperation in its negotiation as the vast majority of the problem of marine plastic is located in international waters.

The UNEA is unique among many international organizations as it deals with all environmental concerns and holds more power as a governing body within the U.N. where it can apply more pressure to member states. Many international organizations like the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) are successful in their programs but have limitations in creating environmental rule of law. The UNEA will be able to have a greater presence, and will help to steer the global conversation. Furthermore, the UNEA’s position as the highest body in environmental issues implies that it must contend with all environmental issues and not just specific concerns. Many environmental organizations tend to focus the majority of their efforts on one issue, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While concerned with related issues, CITES is, by design, a topic focused organization. The UNEA might focus on a particular issue as part of a conference theme but must consider all environmental issues within their decision-making.

Unfortunately, the UNEA will also have to contend with the same dilemmas facing all environmental organizations, namely enforcement and compliance. While the UNEA will hopefully be able to apply more pressure than groups like CITES, WWF and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it can only really “encourage” governments to adopt and enforce regulations. What a government says it will do and what it actually does when the delegates return home are often vastly different. Air pollution has been a constant example of this struggle as pollution regulations have been set and monitored, yet many countries still do not comply. Financial concerns will also make an appearance as there are often countries interested in supporting the efforts of environmental organizations but do not have the means.

Ideally, the UNEA has been set up in such a way to combat the traditional problems faced by international environmental organizations, manly through their increased scope and (hopefully) power in moving these issues forward into governmental implementation. This is still a new and promising group though, with much to do before its next meeting two years from now.

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