UNEA-3 "Towards a Pollution-Free Planet"

By Minu Hemmati, member of GenderCC's Steering Committee

UNEA-3 was convened at the UN Office in Nairobi, Kenya, from 4-6 December 2017, and over 4300 delegates gathered, including about 1200 from 170 member states and over 700 representatives of major groups and other stakeholders.The week prior to UNEA-3 saw the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum, as well as continued preparatory negotiations of the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives, preparing resolutions and the Ministerial Declaration (a first for UNEA).

With 11 resolutions and the Ministerial Declaration finally adopted, and a number of events alongside UNEA-3 itself, there's no way to provide a summary in 1 page (see the concise ENB summary of the event). As always in life, and in the UN, there were good bits and less good bits. Among the positive was communications: UNEA-3 succeeded in focusing attention, including public and media attention, by focusing and communicating one theme – beating pollution. The #BeatPollution pledge campaign garnered nearly 2.5 million pledges from individuals across the world. While such campaigns and the voluntary commitments they generate are in no way substitutes for the right political decisions and the implementation of regulations, they do help create attention, and public support for such decisions and policy-making.


Among the topics and resolutions under discussion, plastics and marine litter received a lot of attention. Latest research, successful campaigning and coalition building (notably the Plastic Pollution Coalition and the BreakFreeFromPlastic movement) as well as some governments' recent decisions (like Kenya's ban on single-use plastic bags) helped create a push towards addressing the issues. Much discussion focused on what mechanism to establish and what it would be tasked to do – for example, with the expected differences regarding how much consideration of possibly legally binding instruments to include. In any case, governments resolved to create an Ad Hoc Open Ended Expert Group to examine options to combat marine litter and microplastics from all sources – a significant development also because considerations in this Expert Group will not exclude global legally binding mechanisms.


Another topic with positive developments is the goal to further combat silos and silo-thinking within the intergovernmental system through promoting and deepening linkages with the SDG process in New York, notably the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). In 2017, the president of UNEA-3 (President Edgar Gutiérrez-Espeleta) was not able to speak at HLPF 2017 in his president role (but only as the Environment Minister of Costa Rica). UNEA-3 adopted a resolution on UNEA’s contribution to the HLPF, identifying a number of avenues of engagement using UNEP and other organisations, bodies and processes.


On the downside, I want to highlight a few things that really left me worried – and that we can hopefully do something about in the future. The four, each 90-minute 'Leadership Dialogues' at UNEA-3 had very little civil society participation but were dominated by government Ministers, and representatives from international bodies, business and finance, academia and technology. In events alongside UNEA-3, e.g. the Science-Policy Business Forum and Innovation Expo, business largely dominated, including the financing of the event, held on UN premises. Since attending Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996, I have participated in many UN Conferences of various kinds. I have never seen the kind of business presence that characterized UNEA-3 or its satellite events.

Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, seems to have trouble finding a balanced way relating to stakeholders. He remarked at the negotiations during the week before UNEAA-3, that "we must not give in to the demands of civil society" (see ENB summary), talked at UNEA-3 about how NGOs included "good aplles and bad apples", remarked that terrorist groups could also be NGOs – these and other remarks caused much discussion among and with NGOs and other Major Groups, followed by private meetings between NGO coordinators and the Executive Director, letters, twitter campaigns, etc.

His words to business, in a different forum, included "we want you to make money saving the planet" – he went on to say that we (meaning the UN, I guess) don't want business to make money destroying the environment. But back to the initial statement, wanting business to make money saving the planet: really? Is that the depth of reflection of how we need to transform (meaning fundamentally change) our current, unsustainable and unjust system, including our economic system? Where is the forward thinking about production and consumption in a circular economy, the demystifying of growth, developing cultures of sufficiency?

Back in Brasilia in February 2017, at the 1st Intersessional Meeting of the SAICM Beyond 2020 process, he stated "I love business. I love business. I love business." And went on to explain how he admired the innovative power of companies, and the abilities of the private sector to invest. While that may be find and good, and even useful, it reflects a lack of understanding of the multiplicity and diversity of stakeholders in societies, and a very unbalanced, and hopefully soon outdated approach to sustainable development thinking and strategy.


There's been progress regarding gender & environment issues, including more and high-quality expertise being brought into the institutions and discussions, publications like the Global Gender and Environment Outlook. Several events at UNEA-3 highlighted women's issues as well as global women’s rights and human rights campaigns, including in support of environmental defenders (also see the tracker by The Guardian & Global Witness). Gender analysis of environmental issues, challenges and strategies needs further deepening. For example, recognizing sex differences like different physical and physiological vulnerabilities to chemicals exposure, is extremely important and needs more research, more political attention and will, and more resources in order to develop and implement more and better regulations and policies. In addition, however, gender, as a social category, is linked to gender-specific norms of behaviour, roles in society as well as the development of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ identities, which in turn influence people’s behaviour, including their impact on the environment, their affectedness by environmental degradation, and their access to and power over resources. And finally, and importantly, gender analysis allows to ask questions that help us understand and unpack root causes of unsustainable behaviour and societies, and hence have a transformational potential. Or, as the GGEO put it: “A transformative agenda recognizes gender equality as a driver of social change” (ibid., p.188). We need to tap into this potential in order to bring about sustainable development, justice and peace (also see Hemmati et al., 2017).


UNEA-4 will be held March 11-15 2019 in Nairobi, under the Presidency of Siim Kissler, Minister of Environment, Estonia.