The United Nations Environment Assembly has been called the“Parliament of the Environment.” The highest level of authority on the environment in the United Nations system, it is a unique and inclusive body that brings together high-level decision makers, civil society, experts, business representatives and others from all countries of the world to find solutions to the most pressing environmental problems. It is so much more than just another United Nations body. It has the potential to be a global coalition of institutions and organizations, supported by individuals united in combating environmental deterioration and pollution for the sake of future generations.
I became President of the Assembly on 23 May 2016 with a commitment to three key priorities: strengthening its role and visibility: implementing a vision for a pollution-free planet; and working towards clean seas. Fortunately, I was not alone in my work. Preparing for this 2017 Assembly was a collective effort of member states and the Committee of Permanent Representatives, supported by the UN Environment Secretariat and stakeholders from civil society and the private sector. I have participated in a number of significant international meetings and global events to give the Assembly visibility and we strengthened the role of regional ministerial fora in the lead up to it.
I wish to pay tribute to my colleagues from the Committee of Permanent Representatives and the members of the Assembly Bureau: many personally took the lead in preparing their regions' contributions to the Assembly. The two bodies have worked together in an innovative way, complementing each other’s work since the Assembly decided to elect its Bureau at the end of its meetings so as to enable it to play a bigger role in preparing its sessions.
The 2017 Assembly has as its theme “pollution”, a single environmental challenge that affects everyone, no matter whether rich or poor, no matter whether in Africa, Asia, Europe or the Americas. Though the issue has been addressed by decision makers for decades – including through multi-lateral agreements and the spending a lot of funds – there has, as yet, been no great breakthrough. Air pollution alone shortens the life span of up to 7 million people every year. We need new approaches and new partnerships if we are to reduce pollution considerably. The Assembly is where such new approaches can be presented, developed and initiated and where new, unconventional partnerships can be created.
The 2017 Assembly is expected to close with a ministerial declaration intended to speak not just to Ministers, but to ordinary people, showing them that decision makers take the problems they face seriously, and calling for action. Like many other major problems, pollution can only be addressed if all parts of society commit and get engaged. A successful Assembly that helps protect the planet and improves the lives of ordinary people calls for nothing less than a solid partnership between governments, civil society and the private sector.
Over the years, our partners from major groups and stakeholders have invested much time in contributing to Assembly resolutions and declarations, in preparing the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum and in reaching out to societies, raising awareness about the Assembly and encouraging actions and commitments to combat pollution. Thus it was very important for me to help ensure the 2017 meeting will see more effective participation by civil society and the private sector than previous ones. While it was not possible to put in place a new Stakeholder Engagement Policy during my tenure, UN Environment is now, in practice, one of the most participatory and transparent organizations in the multi-lateral system – with doors open to everyone truly committed to engage.
The private sector recognises the Assembly's importance more than ever before, Events around it – such as the Science-Policy-Business Forum and the Sustainable Innovation Expo – provide attractive opportunities for companies to showcase their contribution to combating pollution and engage with decision makers.
Is the United Nations Environment Assembly now the authoritative voice on the environment we would like it to be? Is it the “Parliament of the Environment”? Maybe not yet, but we are on the right road. However, more needs to be done. Although it is getting more and more important, the environment tends to be seen as the least important pillar of sustainable development, behind economic and social issues. This results in increasing pollution – and needs to change.
Despite member states opening doors to the Assembly – and its uniqueness in bringing together many different stakeholders from governments, civil society, the private sector and others – much of this participation still seems to be cosmetic. The questions remain: Have we achieved true qualitative change? Has increased participation led to better decisions? Maybe not yet. Therefore it will be important that, in future, we strengthen UN Environment's ability to engage even better with the wide variety of stakeholders that are so important to us, both to make the best decisions and to help ensure that they are implemented and monitored.
The Assembly must be more than just a place where interesting debates take place, resulting in large numbers of resolutions on various issues that often do not really change the environment. We need to put in place new mechanisms which ensure we deliver on our promise to the people of this planet. And we must ensure that decisions and resolutions are followed by actions that change the lives of ordinary people for the better, protect our planet and the secure the heritage of future generations.
Only if we achieve this, will the United Nations Environment Assembly truly be the “Parliament of the Environment”.