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The United Nations Environment Assembly was created as
- a governing body of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), one of the 15 Belgian partner organisations;
- a political platform bringing together environment ministers in order to set priorities for the global environmental agenda.
UNEA has a universal membership of all 193 UN Member States. It meets twice a year in Nairobi, where both the UNEP headquarters and the UN’s headquarters in Africa are located. A virtual session of the 5th UNEA took place in February 2021. UNEA-5 was continued in hybrid format from 28 February to 2 March 2022, followed by the celebration of UNEP's 50th anniversary on 3 and 4 March 2022 (UNEP@50).
For Belgium, it is important that UNEA is a platform that focuses on global environmental challenges, but also addresses economic and social actors and delivers messages that are understandable and communicable to a wide audience. UNEA should focus on acute problems that need to be addressed and build on the momentum of other global, international processes. UNEA output should be action- and solution-oriented and inspire the international community to get to work and bring about change on the ground. The theme should be consistent with UNEP's core mandate and the organisation's clout, while also being relevant to the broader UN system.
UNEA-5 (2021 and 2022)
Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals" was chosen as the theme for the fifth UNEA with the aim of encouraging the world to take more action to protect and restore nature. An important element here is the opportunity that upgrading "Nature Based Solutions" offers for sustainable development in all its dimensions.
UNEA-5 was successfully concluded on Wednesday 2 March with, besides resolutions on biodiversity and health, animal welfare, circular economy and green recovery, among others, the following three important outcomes:
- An agreement was reached to conclude a new intergovernmental legally binding agreement on tackling plastic pollution, an important milestone in tackling this global problem that threatens not only the environment but also human health.
- A definition of nature-based solutions was decided upon, very important to stop the misuse of this term for labelling practices that seem green but are not sustainable.
- It was decided to establish an international panel of scientists to give policy advice on the proper management of chemicals, waste and pollution. This is a panel like the IPCC for climate and IPBES for biodiversity, an important capstone for the science-based approach to the triple planetary crisis.
Because of the postponement of UNEA, these results were a long time coming, and work on them had been going on since UNEA 1, including by various Belgian experts who had collaborated on the establishment of the European position.
Besides these results, it was also decided during UNEA that UNEA 6 will be held in 2024, during the Belgian EU presidency.
During UNEP@50, the environment ministers adopted a strong political declaration that combines the strengthening of international environmental law and the protection of the environment with the necessary attention to support for developing countries.
The overall theme of the fourth session of UNEA in 2019 was “Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production”. UNEP skillfully summarised this theme as “Think Beyond. Live Within.”.
Participation reached a record level with 5000 participants from 179 countries, 6 heads of state or government and 157 ministers. In the margins of UNEA, France and Kenya co-hosted the first regional “One Planet Summit” focusing on Africa, and including the role of energy transition and biological diversity in the fight against climate change in the agenda.
UNEA-4 addressed themes related to climate, biodiversity, desertification, pollution and other environmental problems, allowing to pursue a more coherent approach in the outcome documents. The circular economy theme was broadly addressed during UNEA-4, a theme that allowed the EU to assert its pioneering role and that provided an opportunity for Belgium to highlight its achievements.
The ministerial declaration contains ambitious statements on, among other things, circular economy as a means of achieving sustainable consumption and production and maintaining a target for a reduced use of single-use plastics. It was the first time that such a single use plastics target was adopted on a global scale. Moreover, the declaration launched the development of new global frameworks for the protection of biodiversity and for the sound management of harmful substances and waste after 2020.
Two resolutions tabled by the EU were adopted: one on sustainable consumption and production and one on harmful substances and waste.
In addition, some programmatic and procedural decisions were taken with regard to the functioning of UNEP.