At first glance “UNEA” appears as just another agency of the international community with an abbreviation that hardly anyone recognizes. However, a second look reveals a new development in the international arena. UNEA, the United Nations Environmental Assembly, was held for the first time in June this year.
The newly constituted body is a child of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi and has ambitious goals. It is concerned not only with environmental and sustainability issues, but also with fundamental economic and legal questions. UNEA stands for a general shift away from pure economic priorities towards sustainable development. But how feasible is this still unknown body?
A first part of the answer lies in the five day event that just passed with more than 1,200 delegates from over 160 states. Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP, wrote in the meeting’s paper that it “bestows a new level of legitimacy and authority on the decisions that will be taken.” These decisions include varying issue areas such as “green economy”, air pollution, environmental crime and the role of women.
First, the pillar of green economy discusses sustainable consumption and production. UNEA has acknowledged expressing green targets in financial terms. The World Economic Forum is quoted with six trillion dollars each year necessary to build new adapted infrastructure, not including the negative externalities of environmental degradation. It is clear, that a true sustainability switch requires a fundamental change of thinking and investment channels. UNEA aims at facilitating a forum for policy makers, civil society, businessmen and financial professionals to explore options for capital flows in a green economy. In 2013, for instance, China outweighed Europe for the first time as the centre for renewable energy investment at 56 billion dollars. However, in order to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, investments in low-carbon energy technologies at least need to double.
China has succeeded Europe in investments in renewable energy
Another example of an economic aspect of sustainability is pollution. For instance, plastic waste poses a great threat to marine life, with conservative estimates of the overall financial damage of plastics to marine ecosystems standing at thirteen billion dollars each year. UNEA suggests to view plastics in themselves as a valuable commodity and makes a business case for managing plastic use. Moreover, UNEA discusses deadly air pollution, especially in African urban centres. The aim is to find its key sources, understand the issue and emphasize courses of action. Recently, the WHO has emphasized that air pollution causes illness and leads to over three million deaths annually.
Illegal wildlife trade and other criminal acts concerning the environment have over the years emerged as forms of Organised Transnational Crime that threaten biodiversity. Some hard facts include that illegal animal trade – including trafficking of ivory, tiger parts, shark fin, and skins- is valued at least fifteen billion dollars! For instance, the salamander species “Kaiser’s spotted newt” with a remaining number of one thousand has been offered on the internet, and an estimated 4,4 leopards are poached weekly in India to meet private demand. Another sobering statistic tells that today there are more Bengalese tigers in Texas than in the Bengal region itself. Now, it comes down to law enforcement and a strong civil society to adverse these trends, educate people, consumers, increase penalties and fight corruption.
UNEA has discussed at its inaugural event these and more topics, such as the important role of women. It appears that the mindset is changing, that economic are not anymore prior to environmental concerns, that one cannot work without the other. UNEA has set ambitious goals to tackle one of humankind’s biggest issues, how to treat the natural environment with our seemingly endless possibilities and desires. The agency has only started working now, and we will watch its progress. Achim Steiner concluded the first day by asking: “How on earth will soon ten billion people live together on this planet?”