By Alfred Nyakinda

The fourth United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) held in Nairobi ended with very bold declarations made on the environment.

Delegates from over 170 United Nations Member States adopted 23 resolutions and three decisions at the conference. Among the resolutions adopted was the first universal commitment on the reduction of plastics, as well as resolutions on sustainable mobility and the protection of marine environments.

Joyce Msuya and Siim Kisler in a photo session during UNEA


“I feel that the future UNEAs should also strengthen the legal basis of these agreements,” said UNEA president Siim Kiisler, “Everyone should have the right to demand that there are common principles for environmental governance all over the world.”

He further stated that due to the ambition of the resolutions, it was necessary to take into account the readiness of different member states and pay greater attention to their needs.

Two concrete timelines were agreed upon at the assembly, the first for the development of a global environmental data strategy through the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) by 2025, and the second for the significant reduction of single use plastic products by 2030.

The collection of comparable data for future planning was one of the major issues at the conference. According to the UN, environmental statistics is still in an early stage of development in many countries and data are often sparse.

Currently, the United Nations Statistics Department (UNSD) disseminates global environment statistics on ten indicator themes. The statistics on waste and water are based on official figures from national statistics offices or ministries of environment, while statistics on other themes are compiled by the UNSD from international sources.

The assembly also adopted a resolution to achieve sustainable consumption and production. In doing so it acknowledged the benefits of a circular economy approach, whereby the entire life cycle of products is taken into consideration. It would involve promoting reusable products, avoiding or minimizing generation of waste and hazardous materials as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Efforts made in environmental conservation at the grassroots level were also recognized by the assembly. In the ministerial declaration, the world’s environment ministers stated that they respect indigenous and local knowledge on environmentally friendly practices, and promote the engagement of indigenous people and local communities.

“From our side we will be guided by what comes out of these meetings,” said UN Environment Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya. “What will happen immediately, two or three things – one is looking at the guidance that comes from member states and translating that into action whilst working with member countries within what we call the program of work.”

The member states, however, failed to reach a consensus on a resolution on geo-engineering proposed by the Swiss delegation with support from Burkina Faso, the Federated States of Micronesia, Mali, Mexico and Niger.The draft resolution sought to request UNEP to assess technologies that could artificially alter the earth’s climate through measures such as limiting the amount of sunlight or extracting carbon from the atmosphere.

The draft raised concerns about the potential global risks and adverse impacts of geo-engineering on the environment and sustainable development, noting the lack of multilateral control and oversight. It further noted that geo-engineering should not be seen as an alternative to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The main problem was that different member states had a very different approach,” said Kiisler, “some of the member states wanted to link it with a very strong message about climate change and others wanted to discuss the technology part of it.”

According to Jorge Laguna-Celis, director of the governance affairs office at UN Environment, the theme of the next UNEA to be held in China in 2020 is yet to be decided on, with the resolutions being prepared in a secure process.