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UNEA 2014: Ground-Breaking Platform for Global Environmental Sustainability

Written by Grace Eunhye Lee


Following the Rio+20 Earth Summit’s decision to strengthen the UNEP’s role as the leading global environmental authority to fulfill its coordination mandate among multilateral environmental agreements, the first United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) was finally held on 23-27 June 2014. More than 1,065 participants, including delegates from 163 member states, ministers, stakeholders, media, NGOs, youth group and UNEP staff from all around the world gathered at the UN headquarters in Nairobi to discuss the key global environmental challenges, the post-2015 development agenda, and the UNEP’s programme of work for the upcoming years.

Participants expressed very high expectations with the Assembly, hoping to make a difference and come up with a solid foundation to tackle grave global environmental challenges by the end of this meeting. They also expected to set the ground work for the upcoming General Assembly on sustainable development goals (SDGs) which will be held in September this year in New York.

As an intern with the UNEP, I had a chance to attend the major sessions including ‘committee of the whole’ (CoW) and ministerial plenary meetings, and could spot some very interesting – and some disappointing – points made by different countries through their interventions. Here are some highlights from those sessions:

‘Committee of the Whole’

The CoW was a process of reaching a consensus on the draft resolutions/decisions with  heavy agenda items including: promoting air quality through the UNEP; marine plastic debris and microplastics; chemicals and waste, illegal trade in wildlife, Global Environmental Monitoring System (GEMS) Water, and so on. There were some issues around the language, just like the other international negotiations, such as the term ‘microplastics’, but countries were willing to work constructively with each other for further elaboration. All delegates who made interventions underscored the seriousness of the aforementioned environmental threats, and called for urgent action to address them at national, regional and global levels. Therefore, many delegations expressed their support for the draft resolutions/decisions.

On the other hand, some strong contentions were made during the CoW, for example, about the concept of ‘green economy’, which is the core agenda of sustainable development. One delegate strongly argued that green economy is not the only tool to ensure environmental sustainability, and it leaves poor countries out as the concept cannot fit into their national policies. Therefore, taking different visions, approaches, models and tools into account to achieve environmental sustainability in the context of poverty reduction is crucial.

Africa-China Ministerial Meeting

Among the other ministerial meetings, the Africa-China meeting caught the most attention by the media and the participants (as it was evident by the number of people who attended). This meeting was organised by the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) and China, and attended by African ministers from AMCEN member states, the Minister of Environment in China and the UNEP Executive Director. During the meeting, African ministers expressed strong concern regarding a number of issue areas on which Chinese intervention has already begun in Africa. Such issues include illegal wildlife trade, renewable energy, capacity-building and technology transfer, deforestation and desertification, and climate change. In respect to illegal wildlife trade, for example, African ministers requested China to rule out the cobra project in all African countries and curb poaching activities. On the climate change side, ministers highlighted that China’s activities in Africa are strong in infrastructure and mining, thereby contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. In spite of these worries, African countries in general were very active in engaging with China, with clear objectives and issue areas where their cooperation can be strengthened. Recognising Africa’s richness in natural resources and renewable energy, Africa requested new and increased support from China, and not to just give them fish, but teach them ‘how to catch the fish’. For China, this meeting was a platform to listen to different voices from Africa, and it provided guidelines and pathways for a greater partnership.

Ministerial plenary on SDGs and the post-2015 development agenda

As the moderator asked delegates to share their success stories in promoting sustainable development in their countries, the first plenary flowed with a series ofnarratives about national strategies for sustainable development. In general, there was a great diversity within countries’ strategies, focusing on from renewable energy (Nicaragua, Germany, Uruguay, among others) to marine ecosystems (New Zealand). Countries clearly demonstrated that they have already initiated and implemented strategies and policies to achieve sustainable development. Nevertheless, it was noted that some countries dealt poverty reduction and environmental sustainability separately, rather than addressing these two dimensions in an integrated way.

Recognizing this gap, the second plenary strongly emphasized the full integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development, namely environmental, social and economic dimensions. However, as an observer, it was disappointing to see how only the ‘integration’ part was emphasized, without providing more specific national visions and strategies on how to integrate them. Also, although the significance of integration should not be understated, the discussion would have been more fruitful if intra-generational and inter-generational equity were also considered by delegates, as these aspects are also important constituents of sustainable development.

Climate Change

Although climate change was not the main agenda of the meetings, the issue was constantly raised by delegates, particularly those from climate vulnerable countries. For example, many African countries stressed the impacts of climate change on their regions, such as desertification, and called upon the international community for its attention and support. Mainstreaming climate change into SDGs was also regarded as a key aspect. In terms of low-carbon development, African ministers noted that renewable energy, particularly solar PV and geothermal, could be better harnessed with cheaper technology and installation costs. As the current cost is too high, ministers urged more donor support.


Final session

In adopting draft resolutions and decisions on restructuring the Global Environment Facility, the biennial programme of work and budget for 2016-2017, and others, there was positive atmosphere with no objection raised by member states. Many countries fully endorsed the resolutions and decisions, and the majority welcomed the strengthening of the UNEP as a global authority in the field of environment, showing strong commitment to contribute financially through trust funds and earmarked contribution.

In reality, the process was much more complicated than what was shown on the surface. For instance, there was a heated debate during the last moments of the UNEA closing plenary, where some countries refused to accept the ministerial outcome document, arguing that the document neither includes ‘common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR)’, nor further consideration of developing countries’ needs and wants. The document was broad enough to embrace different member states’ opinions, but it was still controversial among divergent countries. The plenary was, therefore, somehow reminiscent of the long years of slow climate change negotiations.

Overall, UNEA was an omnibus meeting, covering diverse issues with ambitious targets. Some pointed out that the format of the Assembly was a problem, as there was less space to work through time-consuming issues (IISD, 2014). The Drafting Group of CoW had to work late into the night, the plenary on Wednesday evening was unable to finalize its work, and the final outcome document was also delayed on the closing session. Nevertheless, UNEA has made some important progress by adopting all draft resolutions and decisions. It also succeeded in bringing global membership and mainstreaming environmental issues as an international agenda. There is still a long way to go, but as the delegate from South Sudan said in the closing plenary, “the glass is half full, rather than half empty”.

© Grace Eunhye Lee

Suggested citing:

Lee, G.E. 2014.  UNEA 2014: Ground-Breaking Platform for Global Environmental Sustainability [Online]. Available at: [accessed + date when the website was accessed].


About Grace

Eun Hye is an intern with Division of Mitigation and Adaptation. She previously interned with UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi where she supported the preparation of COP-12 to the Convention on Biological Diversity and UNEP publication ‘State of Biodiversity in Africa’. She also undertook internship with UNEP New York Office, where she covered intergovernmental and interagency meetings held at UN Headquarters to follow up on the outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Eun Hye holds a Bachelor of International and Global Studies from the University of Sydney, Australia, and a Master’s degree in Climate Change and International Development from University of East Anglia, UK. A citizen of Korea, she speaks Korean, English and Spanish.

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