The world laid the groundwork for a radical shift to a more sustainable future, where innovation will be harnessed to tackle environmental challenges, the use of throwaway plastics will be significantly reduced, and development will no longer cost the earth.
After five days of talks at the Fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, ministers from more than 170 United Nations Member States delivered a bold blueprint for change, saying the world needed to speed up moves towards a new model of development in order to respect the vision laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.
Noting that they were deeply concerned by mounting evidence that the planet is increasingly polluted, rapidly warming and dangerously depleted, the ministers pledged to address environmental challenges through advancing innovative solutions and adopting sustainable consumption and production patterns.
“We reaffirm that poverty eradication, changing unsustainable and promoting sustainable patterns of consumption and production and protecting and managing the natural resource base of economic and social development are the overarching objectives of, and essential requirements for, sustainable development,” the ministers said in a final declaration.
“We will improve national resource management strategies with integrated full lifecycle approaches and analysis to achieve resource-efficient and low-carbon economies,” they said.
More than 4,700 delegates, including environment ministers, scientists, academics, business leaders and civil society representatives, met in Nairobi for the Assembly, the world’s top environmental body whose decisions will set the global agenda, notably ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit in September.
As well as pledging to promote sustainable food systems by encouraging resilient agricultural practices, tackle poverty through sustainable management of natural resources, and promote the use and sharing of environmental data, ministers said they would significantly reduce single-use plastic products.
“We will address the damage to our ecosystems caused by the unsustainable use and disposal of plastic products, including by significantly reducing single-use plastic products by 2030, and we will work with the private sector to find affordable and environmentally friendly products,” they said.
To address critical knowledge gaps, ministers promised to work towards producing comparable international environmental data while improving national monitoring systems and technologies. They also expressed support for UN Environment’s efforts to develop a global environmental data strategy by 2025.
“The world is at a crossroads but today we have chosen the way forward,” said Siim Kiisler, President of the Fourth UN Environment Assembly and Estonia’s environment minister. “We have decided to do things differently. From reducing our dependence on single-use plastics to placing sustainability at the heart of all future development, we will transform the way we live. We have the innovative solutions we need. Now we must adopt the policies that allow us to implement them.”
The Assembly started on a sombre note after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Addis Ababa to Nairobi, which claimed the lives of all 157 people on board, including UN officials and other delegates who were travelling to the meeting. A minute’s silence was held for the victims at the opening ceremony, where officials also paid tribute to their colleagues’ work.
At the close of the Assembly, delegates adopted a series of non-binding resolutions, covering the logistics of shifting to a business-unusual model of development.
These included a recognition that a more circular global economy, in which goods can be reused or repurposed and kept in circulation for as long as possible, can significantly contribute to sustainable consumption and production.
Other resolutions said Member States could transform their economies through sustainable public procurement and urged countries to support measures to address food waste and develop and share best practices on energy-efficient and safe cold chain solutions.
Resolutions also addressed using incentives, including financial measures, to promote sustainable consumption while encouraging Member States to end incentives for unsustainable consumption and production where appropriate.
“Our planet has reached its limits and we need to act now. We are delighted that the world has responded here in Nairobi with firm commitments to build a future where sustainability will be the overarching objective in everything we do,” said UN Environment’s Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya.
“If countries deliver on all that was agreed here and implement the resolutions, we could take a big step towards a new world order where we no longer grow at the expense of nature but instead see people and planet thrive together.”
A key focus of the meeting was the need to protect oceans and fragile ecosystems. Ministers adopted a number of resolutions on marine plastic litter and microplastics, including a commitment to establish a multi-stakeholder platform within UN Environment to take immediate action towards the long-term elimination of litter and microplastics.
Another resolution called on Member States and other actors to address the problem of marine litter by looking at the full life-cycle of products and increasing resource-efficiency.
During the summit, Antigua and Barbuda, Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago joined UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign, bringing the number of countries now involved in the world’s largest alliance for combatting marine plastic pollution to 60, including 20 from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The need to act swiftly to tackle existential environmental challenges was underscored by the publication of a series of comprehensive reports during the Assembly.
Among the most devastating was an update on the changing Arctic, which found that even if the world were to cut emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, winter temperatures in the Arctic would rise 3-5°C by 2050 and 5-9°C by 2080, devastating the region and unleashing sea level rises worldwide.
Global Linkages - A graphic look at the changing Arctic warned that rapidly thawing permafrost could even accelerate climate change further and derail efforts to meet the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to 2°C.
Meanwhile, the sixth Global Environmental Outlook, seen as the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment on the state of the planet, warned that millions of people could die prematurely from water and air pollution by 2050 unless urgent action is taken.
Produced by 250 scientists and experts from more than 70 countries, the report said the world has the science, technology and finance it needs to move towards a more sustainable development path, but politicians, business people and the public must to back change.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who attended the summit on Thursday, said action on unsustainable resource use was no longer a choice, but a necessity.
“As Member States have stated during vibrant debates, alongside civil society, businesses, the science community and other stakeholders here in Nairobi, it is yet possible to increase our well-being, and at the same time maintain economic growth through a clever mix of climate mitigation, resource efficiency and biodiversity protection policies,” she said.
As evidence mounts of the devastating effects of human activity on the health of the planet, a global clamour for swift action is rising. As delegates prepared to leave Nairobi on Friday, hundreds of thousands of students in around 100 countries took to the streets as part of a global protest movement inspired by Swedish student Greta Thunberg.
Speaking during the Environment Assembly on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said young people were right to protest and that the world needed their anger to drive faster, more forceful action.
“We believe that what we need, given the situation we live in, are real laws, rules that are binding and adopted internationally. Our biosphere faces total devastation. Humanity itself is threatened. We cannot simply respond with some nice-sounding principles without any real impact,” President Macron said.
President Kenyatta also said that the world needed to act now to address record levels of environmental degradation, food insecurity, poverty and unemployment.
“Current global statistics are indeed quite sobering and projections for the future generations are dire and demand urgent action from governments, communities, businesses and individuals,” he said.