The Third United Nations Environment Assembly: a growing marketplace for the private sector

Isis Alvarez, Colombia (Global Environments Summer Academy 2013 participant)

While most other UN conventions/treaties have been ongoing for several years, UNEA is a relatively ‘new’ process emerging from decisions at Rio+20. As it unfolds, it gains more global attention and begins to be recognized as an important driver of the environmental pillar of sustainable development, key for the accomplishment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the heart of the UN’s General Assembly Agenda 2030.

Four of the adopted Resolutions at UNEA-3 are directly related to the SDGs/HLPF, while a Resolution on Mainstreaming Biodiversity made a clear link with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Certainly, such synergies are very urgently needed in the multilateral policy agenda. However, a similarity is evident in many of these environment-related UN policy fora: the so-called ‘corporate take-over’ of the UN, which goes in hand with the closing space for civil society engagement. And UNEA is not an exception.

Despite some important aspects of pollution acknowledged during UNEA-3 and its associated events, it is clear that the final outcomes will not be ‘beating pollution’ anytime soon. The Resolution’s weak language and voluntary nature leaves an open door for dirty businesses to continue to pollute. For instance, the Resolution on soil pollution management includes a reference to ‘improper’ use of pesticides but beating pollution in a short time span, would require ALL pesticides to be phased out and pest management – and overall industrial agricultural models – would need to transform towards more environmentally and socially friendly practices that do not include harmful chemicals and that takes into consideration human rights and living in harmony with nature, including a shift towards organic farming.

If beating pollution would be a priority for UN Member States, efforts to address it would focus on tackling the source of man-made pollution but profit-making, unfortunately, has beaten environmental health and human rights. At this round of UNEA, it was clearer that it has become a new niche for businesses looking to increase revenues at the expense of people and xthe planet, running the risk of turning into what the climate (talks) marketplace has become.

Mr. Erik Solheim – UNEP’s new Executive Director – is a strong supporter of private companies to the point that he even quoted Shell & Walmart as ‘good examples’ of businesses doing the ‘right thing’. In the meantime, at the opening plenary of the preparatory meeting of UNEA-3, Mr. Solheim linked civil society groups to ISIS terrorists. These unfortunate declarations were met with disappointment and full rejection from a wide range of civil society organizations that have been following different UN processes and dedicating their lives to making the world a better place. Many of the organizations that are accredited to the different UN bodies, work directly with people who have been murdered and/or criminalized for defending an environmental cause. Such declarations can only put this people in more danger and help delegitimize their right to defend their land, resources, health and livelihoods. Not only did he ignore what is the role of Major Groups and Stakeholders in this Assembly (and other UN multilateral processes) but he also failed to recognize that it is not just up to businesses to #BeatPollution.

Unfortunately for UNEP, its track record as the lead environment authority has been dampened. Previous EDs at UNEP had a clear scientific and policy background that put UNEP’s work in the spotlight and helped the agency gained some reputation with remarkable achievements such as the Montreal Protocol – the historic 1987 agreement to protect the ozone layer, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which addresses issue of genetically modified organisms, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. As rightfully pointed out by a member of civil society that has been engaged with UNEP for several years, all those years of efforts placed in the evolution of the policy-science interface seem to have been replaced with a reductionist and weakening view where no social scientists are involved and where policy is only left to governments forgetting where policies really come from.

In 2006 when Achim Steiner took office, he changed the course of UNEP strongly focusing its work around the ‘Green Economy’. He received numerous awards but failed to keep up to the integral achievements from his predecessors. The Green Economy was supposed to be his flagship & “save nature “ project but at its core it promoted the principle that: to value nature, you needed to put a price on it which was used as a basis to establish baselines for new markets of nature. Blue carbon, brown carbon and even the seeds of climate smart agriculture all came from there. Thus, he opened the way for the private sector to influence UNEP. A good example was during the Science & Policy Forum around UNEA-2, when members of civil society were shocked when the Women in Science Award went to a professor well-known for her work on genetically modified maize varieties, and with strong links with Transnational Corporation Monsanto.

Certainly, in beating pollution the private sector needs to play an important role but not in taking over the role of an institution whose mandate doesn’t fall in the promotion of private companies escorting them from being held accountable from the numerous environmental and social disasters they have caused due to their unsustainable practices. Ignoring the key role of civil society condemns us to continue to drown in our own man-made pollution and excluding us from solutions; indigenous peoples, local communities, women’s and youth groups, citizens initiatives, among others, have shown the power of the people and deliberately leaving us ‘outside the room’ is irrational. It seems like the new normal in all UN institutions is to let businesses rule the fate of humanity exempted from any social and environmental responsibility.

Note: The assembly also passed 13 non-binding resolutions and three decisions. Among them were moves to address marine litter and microplastics, prevent and reduce air pollution, cut out lead poisoning from paint and batteries, protect water-based ecosystems from pollution, deal with soil pollution, and manage pollution in areas hit by conflict and terrorism.

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