What Did UNEA-4 Do for the Environment?


The UN Environment Assembly was created in 2012 by decisions of the Rio+20 conference and the UN General Assembly. It was envisaged to be “the world’s parliament on the environment.” This Policy Brief presents an overview and commentary on decisions taken at the fourth session of UNEA, and concludes with a few thoughts on the implications for the world’s environment.

  UNEA resolutions are not legally binding, and the content may be repetitive from one session to the next. Nevertheless, they represent the joint aspirations of the international community, frame consensus around actions to be taken, and help coordinate development aid and technical assistance.

Here s a few key point covered by UNEA 4


Resource Efficiency, Chemicals and Waste: UNEA-4 adopted resolutions on strengthening global governance on marine plastic litter and microplastics, solid waste management, sound management of chemicals and waste, addressing single-use plastics pollution, and sustainable nitrogen management. The plastics resolutions required protracted negotiations as some countries opposed setting targets for phasing out single-use plastics, while others were ready to adopt national bans. 

On marine litter, some countries would have preferred stronger language; nevertheless, the resolution allows for scientific review, expert meetings, and stakeholder engagement on the issue. Disappointingly for some, UNEA did not establish an Open-ended Working Group but only renewed the mandate of the Ad Hoc Expert Group on Marine Litter, a temporary entity.

 Biodiversity and Ecosystems: This group of eight resolutions achieved quick consensus on issue areas in which international programmes or initiatives are already well developed. The resolution on protection of the marine environment from land-based activities, for example, builds on work done by the long-standing Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, and lays a foundation for future work that the EU has expressed willingness to support. Resolutions on mangroves, sustainable coral reefs management and peatlands were agreed by the end of the first week of discussion, and on rangelands and pastoralism shortly afterwards.

A draft resolution on deforestation and agricultural commodity supply chains was strongly opposed by some developing countries that felt unfairly targeted in the mention of specific products, such as palm oil and soy. The wide-ranging resolution on biodiversity and land degradation gives a boost to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity and to the land degradation neutrality target in the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, also highlighting the need for Member States to engage in developing a strong post-2020 global biodiversity framework. The resolution requests UNEA to take action on many issues that are also addressed in SDG 14 (life under water) and SDG 15 (life on land)

Environmental Governance: A resolution on gender equality, human rights and the empowerment of women and girls in environmental governance requests UNEP to facilitate the collection of disaggregated data on progress made in achieving gender equality in environmental policies and prorammes, and to report back to UNEA-5. It also invites Member States to strengthen and implement policies aimed at increasing the participation and leadership of women in environmental decision making and to recognize their role as managers of natural resources and agents of change in safeguarding the environment

Other resolutions and decisions adopted in this cluster are: the implementation plan ‘Towards a Pollution-free Planet’; implementation and follow-up of UNEA resolutions and related activities; endorsement of the Global Environment Outlook. 

By any measure, UNEA-4 was an extremely busy meeting, with more than 30 draft resolutions put forward initially, some of which were eventually merged with others. In many cases, the adopted resolutions help to strengthen the international framework or mandate of UNEP to take action, in collaboration with others. However, while UNEA-4 somewhat advanced a policy agenda in areas where global governance is still lacking, such as on marine plastics and geoengineering, it did not achieve the necessary consensus for action. On many resolutions, some countries preferred not to refer explicitly to SDG targets, while others warned against backsliding from commitments to achieve the SDGs.

Despite these issues, UNEA has tremendous convening power, demonstrated by the continued presence of the world’s environment ministers and by the proliferation of parallel meetings, side events and exhibitions held in its margins.