The exterior of the United Nations Environment Assembly 5 venue in Nairobi, Kenya

The United Nations Environment Assembly’s Role as a Governance Architect

As the resumed Fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) gets underway, what can we learn about its role as a coordinator and catalyst for international environmental action?

By Lynn Wagner, Jennifer Allan on February 28, 2022

Once called “the world’s parliament on the environment,” the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) has a unique role in global environmental governance. The meeting is high level and universal—the only forum for stakeholders from all countries to discuss the environmental challenges we face. Rescheduled and split into two parts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the resumed fifth edition of UNEA is currently underway in Nairobi, and the developments seen there will showcase how these meetings help shape environmental policy-making on the international stage.

UNEA is an initiator or catalyst. It starts negotiations for new treaties or bodies, but it doesn’t finish these negotiations. It identifies emerging issues and (hopefully) agrees to the next steps for learning about and addressing these issues.

It is also a coordinator. It oversees the work of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and was created in 2012, during the Rio+20 negotiations, with the objective of strengthening and upgrading UNEP. In less than 10 years, UNEA has become a central body for identifying, prioritizing, and coordinating global responses to environmental issues. 

UNEA was born into a world already full of environmental treaties and bodies, each with its own mandate.

UNEA was born into a world already full of environmental treaties and bodies, each with its own mandate. In its initiator and coordinator roles, it must consider carefully existing mandates and avoid adding to already overlapping sets of rules. While doing this, UNEA has emerged as a body that can help clarify where those overlaps lie as a first step to coordinating environmental governance beyond UNEP.

UNEA at Work

UNEA negotiations are unlike talks at any other environmental body. Delegates at UNEA meetings do not negotiate new treaties. Instead, country representatives put forward resolutions. Sometimes, multiple countries put forward a resolution on the same issue. These resolutions outline the nature of the problem and potential solutions, as the proponents see them.

Immediately before UNEA, the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives (OECPR) meets to debate these resolutions. By this time, proponents have often worked together to merge multiple resolutions into one joint resolution. Negotiators then refineor reworkthe ideas and text therein.

After OECPR, UNEA convenes. Ideally, the OECPR has forwarded a clean, agreed text, yet sometimes outstanding issues will require the attention of higher-level UNEA delegates. UNEA members further discuss these resolutions and the Ministerial Declaration. High-level speeches help signal common interests and priorities. Finally, resolutions are (usually) adopted.

Yes, No, or Keep Talking

Some resolutions do not succeed. For example, India and supporters failed to realize a clear call at UNEA-4 to phase out single-use plastics, although the Ministerial Declaration calls for a phase-out by 2030. In 2019, Switzerland ultimately withdrew its proposed resolution on geoengineering, following questions about what technologies count as “geoengineering” and concerns about veering into climate issues, given the established bodies and rules for reducing emissions and building resilience to climate change. Others argued that UNEP should get ahead of the geoengineering experiments and assess these technologies’ potential benefits and drawbacks before their extensive deployment.

Some resolutions are passed and lead directly to implementation actions. This route tends to happen under two scenarios. The first scenario is when there are established bodies in place to take up further actions. UNEA identifies additional actions and sends an important signal on the need to do more. The resolution on nitrogen management, for example, highlights linkages to a range of issues, including climate change, and identifies other organizations that could better coordinate, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  

The second scenario is when parties struggle to reach agreement on the mandate for further work. A resolution may then be adopted asking the UNEP Executive Director to work with existing institutions or regions to strengthen a response. For example, UNEA-3 struggled with the scope of a resolution on air quality first proposed by Canada and the African Group, with delegates debating whether to take a regional or local focus on air pollution’s impacts or instead stress its transboundary and global effects. The resolution calls for member states to consider joining regional and global initiatives and for the UNEP Executive Director to examine how to strengthen these efforts.

Other resolutions trigger a progression of work, particularly when there is a gap in global governance. Marine plastics is a prime example. Since 2014, the issue progressed from identification as a global threat to a proposal to begin negotiations for a global treaty. Since then, the Basel Convention, which regulates the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes, adopted two decisions on plastics. Shipments of certain plastics now require the prior informed consent of the importing country. At the same time, there was a growing consensus in the Ad Hoc Open-Ended Expert Working Group on marine litter established by UNEA that a global treaty might be necessary. 

The resumed UNEA-5 meeting will consider establishing negotiations for a marine plastics treaty and will likely hotly debate its scope. Reaching this stage has not been easy.

The resumed UNEA-5 meeting will consider establishing negotiations for a marine plastics treaty and will likely hotly debate its scope. Reaching this stage has not been easy. There was pushback against establishing the Working Group at UNEA-4, and its role was scaled back to a stocktake of existing efforts and consideration of options.

Strengthening Scientific Input

UNEA is tasked with including stakeholders’ access and participation in global environmental governance at the highest levels. Before UNEA meetings, major groups and stakeholders get together to coordinate their responses and input from civil society. The Youth Environment Assembly has become a recurring event organized by youth, for youth.

Among these stakeholders and views, science is singled out in UNEA’s mandate. Sciencepolicy interfaces play a crucial role in environmental governance. They provide timely information, sound the alarm, and assess the effectiveness of current efforts. UNEA is tasked with continuing to strengthen the scientific foundations of environmental action.

UNEA oversees the work of the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO), a report on the state of the global environment that has been produced six times since 1997. The GEO has been multi-issue, unlike the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), or the Global Chemicals Outlook. Past GEOs have also sought to build capacity for integrated environmental assessments through providing information on the state, trends, and outlook of the environment. Like the IPCC and IPBES, the GEO-6 Summary for Policymakers was discussed by member states to distill the main messages from the overall report.

The role of GEO, amid all the issue-specific and other scientific outlets, will be discussed at the resumed UNEA5. How can the GEO remain UNEP’s authoritative flagship report, while respecting the vast work undertaken by other sciencepolicy interfaces? Again, the congestion of environmental bodies may influence UNEA decisions and the GEO moving forward.

How can the GEO remain UNEP’s authoritative flagship report while respecting the vast work undertaken by other sciencepolicy interfaces?

At the same time, some UNEA delegates support the resolution calling for establishing a sciencepolicy interface devoted to chemicals issues. This type of an “IPCC for Chemicals” poses interesting questions on the varied roles of these interfaces. Beyond providing expert advice, they tend to raise awareness of environmental issuessomething sorely needed for chemical pollution. But this is an added, unintentional benefit of these bodies. Given the unique characteristics of the chemicals scientific community, the resources required to establish this interface, and existing bodies doing similar work, some have questioned whether this is truly required.

Coordinating Congestion

By design, UNEA is a body aimed at drawing linkages among issues and efforts. We know more about all the varied multilateral and regional environmental agreements and initiatives than before the advent of UNEA. UNEA resolutions often acknowledge the scope of work undertaken across existing agreements.

Working within a crowded space brings challenges. All the existing agreements resulted from carefully crafted compromises. With equal care, UNEA must adeptly avoid upsetting these negotiated solutions. But UNEA is also meant to bring high-level attention to environmental issues and push for greater ambition. It has to walk a delicate line in catalyzing and coordinating action amid a growing body of global environmental law.