One of the major existential crisis for human survival which is fast reaching unreasonable standards of threat is the deteriorating direction of climate change. Movements have started across the world to combat this threat and to encourage countries to stop causing more damage.
One of the major stakeholders in this regard is the United Nations Organization. UN Secretary-General António Guterres is holding the Climate Action Summit on 23rd September 2019. At this juncture, here is an overview of the UN body specially created to set the global environmental agenda and promote Sustainable Development – The United Nations Environment Program.
The United Nations Environment Program, often called UNEP or UN Environment was created on 5th June 1972 by Maurice Strong, its first chairman. It was the result of the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, 1972, popularly called the Stockholm Conference. Its headquarters are in Nairobi, Kenya and Inger Andersen currently heads it.
It was called the environmental conscience of the UN system. In The Earth Summit in 1992, the mandate and role in sustainable development were greatly expanded. The UNEP, today, on the eve of its 50th anniversary, works towards combating climate change and helping countries meet environmental standards and obligations through recommending global best practices.
The 1960’s was a very challenging time for the world. Slowly but steadily, the countries of the world were comprehending the damages caused to the environment in the race of industrial revolution and development.
On the other hand, many countries had just gained independence and were trying to get themselves on the path of development, even at the cost of the environment. During these situations, some countries had refused to acknowledge the fact that environmental degradation would mean the end of us all.
At this point, the UN decided to create a program to not only improve environmental awareness but also to educate countries on sustainable development. Hence, UNEP was created. Its mission statement clearly explains its importance – “To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve quality of life without compromising that of future generations.”
Scope of UNEP
The UNEP has six broad areas of functioning along whose lines it assess environmental trends at various levels and develops international agreements and national level environmental instruments along with strengthening institutions for environmental management. They are as follows:
- Climate Change: UNEP plays a vital role in aiding countries to develop potential to combat climate change and integrate climate change responses. It provides leadership in dealing with issues of mitigation, technology, adaptation, and finance. Currently, UNEP is working towards transition into low carbon society, creating awareness on climate change and the development of renewable energy.
- Post Conflict and Disaster Management: Be it man-made conflicts like war or natural disasters like earthquake, both have an adverse impact on both humans and the environment alike. UNEP conducts an environmental assessment in such countries and guides the authorities on how to formulae effective framework for environment management
- Ecosystem Management: UNEP plays an important role in ecosystem management, assisting and taking leadership in facilities management and restoration of the ecosystem in a manner consistent with Sustainable Development. It also promotes ecosystem services — examples: Global Programme of Action (GPA) for the Protection of the Marine Environment.
- Environmental Governance: It is important to help nations across the world understand their various needs, environmental issues, present resources, future predictions, and establish a framework to strengthen environmental laws. UNEP dons this hat and supports the government in creating and implementing such policies, ideas, laws, and programs at a national, regional, and institutional level.
- Harmful Substances: Hazardous substances, radioactive material, and improper extraction of natural resources are detrimental to the environment. UNEP champions the role of minimizing the impact of such harmful substances and waste through instigating proper techniques of management of such substances and providing ways to reduce its production. UNEP has also launched negotiations for a global agreement on mercury and the Strategic Approach to International Chemical Management.
- Sustainable Consumption and Production: Sustainable development has been a concept which has been given a lot of prominence in recent times. UNEP focuses on regional and global efforts to ensure natural resources are not only produced and processed efficiently but also consumed in an environmental friendly way. It further creates Frameworks for countries to move towards sustainable development.
UNEP undertakes various activities and initiatives in fields like Green Economy, Fresh Water, Biosafety, and many others which come under its mandate. Some significant actions by the program are as follows:
UNEP Finance Initiative
UNEP started working with forward-looking financial institutions in the 1990s as it was convinced that the financial sector had a lot to offer towards the environment while maintaining its profitability. In 1991, commercial banks like HSBC, Royal Bank of Canada, Westpac joined the UNEP to launch the UNEP Finance Initiative and to catalyze the banking industry’s awareness of the environmental agenda. The initiative had two objectives:
- To integrate environmental considerations into all aspects in the financial sector’s operations and
- to foster private sector investment in environmentally sound technologies.
One Planet Network
The One Planet network is an initiative by the UNEP to encourage countries and organizations along with all stakeholders alike to enter into an open partnership where they can actively engage in contributing to sustainable development. The One Planet Network’s objective for the period 2018-22 is as follows: “to be recognized as the lead mechanism to support and accelerate the shift to sustainable consumption and production patterns, becoming the leading implementation mechanism for Goal 12 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” A major contribution of OPN was the creation of Good life Goals. The good life goals are a set of personal actions which people around the world can engage in for supporting the Sustainable Development Goals.
Environmental Information Systems
By keeping the environment under review through various Environment Information Systems, UNEP undertakes environmental assessments. This has proved to be a real match winner to provide early warning on emerging environmental issues of global importance. Further, such information is used to enhance the capacities of countries across the world to generate access, analyze, use, and communicate environmental information and knowledge. UNEP engages in something called the country- need assessment (exploring needs, resources, and priorities), which, because of its effectiveness, has become one of UNEP’s main functions.
The UNEP hosts the Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN) along with the UN Industrial Development Organization. This is one of UNEP’s important activities to combat climate change where developing countries are provided with technological solutions, capacity building ideas, and policy measures upon request. It further acts as a source of creation of access to information and knowledge on climate technology and fosters collaboration of various stakeholders like private investors, academicians, inventors, research institutions and the public to deliberate, integrate and create climate solutions.
SDG Goal 14: Life below Water
The UNEP takes important actions for the protection of ocean life, all of which can come under the banner of the 14th SDG. It works towards protecting marine life from harmful human activities on land. UNEP also helps countries to protect and sustainably manage their marine and coastal environment. The protection of the world’s coral reefs from human activity and climate change is one of UNEP’s important activities. It highlights the problem of marine litter and works towards tackling it through initiatives like #CleanSeas.
🌊 feed us
🌊 regulate our climate
🌊 generate most of our oxygen
🌊 serve as foundation for much of the world’s economy
— United Nations (@UN) August 8, 2019
UNEP in India
India, being a developing country, has always had constant support from UNEP, and due to this, they share a close relationship and work together on various environmental projects. India also has a permanent representative to the UNEP. Some of the projects in which UNEP has collaborated with India are Solar Loan Project, Montreal Protocol, Project Surya, CSO Network, Atmospheric brown cloud, etc.
The powers and resources provided to the UNEP are not sufficient to handle an issue with as huge a range as that of the global environment.
UNEP has time and again failed to bring the conversation in the mainstream UN communication system towards the environment
The UNEP, when created, was burdened with a lot of expectations but not given the bandwidth to fulfill it. It was expected to be the factor coordinating between development and the environment. Further, it was expected to be the one having an intervention with the developing countries in a world where this topic has already led to a sensitive relationship.
When UNEP recognized its growing irrelevance, another discovery was made. Reforms at the UNEP secretariat level was not the solution to the problem. Any major breakthrough in this regard requires political steps and decisions from the countries in the world that all have varied opinions.
Neither does UNEP has any institutional authority, nor does it have sufficient financial resources. It is endowed with a small secretariat and draws from funds the UN budget.
Various environmental conventions and treaties have been formulated without the direct influence of the UNEP, and it has failed to bring global environmental efforts under one banner.
Several countries have proposed to make UNEP a specialized body to make it more effective and relevant. But this has been refused by some countries fearing harm to its own economic endeavors. Nevertheless, UNEP aims to be the global environmental leader by the end of this decade. Various plans have been instigated and formulated to integrate environmental effort. The Paris Agreement, the Sustainable Development Goals, and the Sendai Framework represent its path. Collaborative action with other UN bodies like WHO, WMO, etc. are also being constructed. UNEP represents hope for not only greener but also a sustainable world.