UN Environment Assembly Advances Ambitious Environmental Policy Agenda

4th UN Environment Assembly

The world’s highest-level decision-making body on environmental policy the Fourth Session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) met in Nairobi, Kenya, from March 11 – 15 under the overarching theme “Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production”. A record number of 5,000 delegates from 179 countries, NGOs and business attended. Many stayed on for the 2nd round of deliberations on a proposed UN Global Pact for Environment (GPE) from March 18 -20.

USCIB members, including the American Chemistry Council, Croplife, IBM, 3M and Novozymes, and USCIB staff were involved in several events during and alongside the UNEA4 conference and subsequent GPE deliberations.

USCIB worked closely with the U.S. government delegation attending the meeting, and held a roundtable for members in Nairobi with Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Marcia Bernicat and other administration officials.

Speaking at a high-level dinner for government delegations convened by Global Business Alliance for the Environment (GBA4E), Norine Kennedy, USCIB vice president for environment, energy and strategic international engagement, stated that U.S. business regards the 17 SDGs as the blueprint of integrated objectives for environment, social, development, and economic policy and actions.

“It will take ‘out of box’ thinking by governments and business  to implement systems-thinking and systems-doing approaches on environmental protection,” said Kennedy.

The 2nd substantive deliberations on a proposed UN Global Pact for the Environment (GPE) continued member state consideration of the substance and form of a possible Pact, intended to:

  • address “gaps” in international environmental law,
  • reach consistency on existing (such as “polluter pays” and “precautionary” principles) and new (such as “planetary boundaries” and “rights of mother earth”) “soft law” environmental principles
  • improve coordination across existing multilateral agreements and environment related instruments.

Although UNEA4 reviewed options for policy cooperation and action on a wide range of environmental matters, the main political momentum focussed solidly on addressing plastic waste, especially in the form of marine debris and/or single-use plastics.  Governments proposed three separate resolutions on marine debris, and India added a fourth resolution on single-use plastics.  Numerous NGOs on hand also targeted plastic waste and called for a treaty and ban on plastics, citing environmental impact and its indirect link to climate change through petro-chemicals.  The eventual outcomes of UNEA4 stopped short of launching a legally binding treaty negotiation on these matters, but expectations that political pressure will continue to build behind these challenges remains high.

UNEA4 received and reviewed two major international environmental agenda-setting reports: the 6th Global Environmental Outlook (GEO6) and the Report of the International Resources Panel (IRP). These will likely drive international policymakers’ attention, much as the IPCC findings are significant rationale for climate policy. Other science-policy connections discussed at UNEA-4 included attention to big data and geo-observation. The 2 reports present scientific expert analysis relating to resource scarcity and health impacts of environmental degradation, and highlight priorities that will surely be considered in further international policy discussions. The IRP report considers the possibility of Science Based Targets for finite resources, applicable to business.

Government deliberations on proposed UN Global Pact for Environment concluded with a wide range of views and little evident consensus, beyond general support for the importance of strengthening implementation of international environmental law.  Government delegations continued to discuss different definitions of what constituted “gaps” and “challenges” relating to international environmental law.  Delegates considered different forms a Pact might take, including a declaration of the UN General Assembly, or additional mandated activity in UNEnvironment, or a legally binding instrument, or some combination of those and other outcomes.

The GPE deliberations resume from May 20 – 22, again in Nairobi.

The next UN Environment Assembly (UNEA5) takes place in February 2021.

At B20, Robinson Stresses Need for International Cooperation

Peter Robinson at the B20 in Japan

USCIB President and CEO Peter Robinson was in Japan the week of March 11 for the B20 Summit, alongside other business leaders such as John Denton, secretary general and Paul Polman, chair of the International Chamber of CommercePhil O’Reilly, chair and Russell Mills, secretary general of Business at OECD, as well as Erol Kiresepi, chairman of the International Organization of Employers.

Robinson spoke on a panel titled, “Global Economy for All: International Cooperation for Global Governance.” In his remarks, Robinson proposed looking at international cooperation from two perspectives: strengthening global institutions and rules, while also encouraging bottom-up approaches and a general spirit of cooperation, rather than confrontation, in international economic relations.

“For the foreseeable future, we will need to accept that many electorates and governments view the world through a more nationalistic, mercantilist lens,” said Robinson. “We need to demonstrate the value in international cooperation, not just through new binding rules and official structures, but through voluntary, bottom-up initiatives. Efforts such as the Paris Climate Agreement, or the plurilateral agreements being pursued by WTO members on several issues including digital trade, should be welcomed and encouraged.”

Throughout the course of the panel, Robinson also touched upon trade conflicts with China, WTO modernization, and the need to radically reform education, job training and retraining approaches around the world.

Robinson also called out climate change as being a crucial long-term global challenge. “Climate impacts everything – economic growth, jobs, health care, where people live,” stressed Robinson. “We therefore need to view climate and energy policy in a more holistic manner.”

The Japan Times covered the B20 and quoted Robinson in their piece, “At B20 in Tokyo, World Business Leaders Urge Stronger Cooperation on Looming Challenges.” The Japan Times quoted Robinson emphasizing that “The American business community still believes in open trade, globalization and multilateralism.”

Robinson also applauded the B20’s prioritization of adoption and dissemination of artificial intelligence to ensure that AI development deployment remains “human-centric”. This issue will be a big focus of the digital economy conference that USCIB is organizing with Business at OECD (BIAC) and the OECD on March 25 in Washington, DC.