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International Issues

Multilateral relations - United Nations

1. Historical Background

Environmental concerns did not figure on the international agenda when the UN was created. This explains the absence of a UN role in environmental protection in the UN Charter. However, with increasing evidence of deterioration of the environment scale in the following decades, the UN became a leading advocate for environmental concerns and sustainable development.

Following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established as the main UN body in the field of environment. In the post-Stockholm years, mounting concern over continuing environmental degradation led the UNGA to convene the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983. The report of the Commission (the Brundtland Report) was a catalyst for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCCD), also known as the Earth Summit. Among other outcomes, the Summit adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of action for addressing both environment and development goals in the 21st century and the Rio Declaration.

To ensure effective follow-up of Agenda 21 and UNCED as a whole, the General Assembly established in 1992 the Commission on Sustainable Development as a functional commission of the ECOSOC.

The Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 was another landmark event for the development of global environmental governance.

In the Outcome Document "The Future We Want", the international community reaffirmed "the need to strengthen international environmental governance within the context of the institutional framework for sustainable development, in order to promote a balanced integration of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development as well as coordination within the United Nations system."

One major outcome of the Conference, strongly supported by the EU, was the commitment to "strengthening the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations".

Implementing the Rio+20 mandate, the 27th UNEP Governing Council in 2013 agreed on a number of institutional reforms, including the creation of the UN Environment Assembly as the new governing body with universal membership (Decision GC 27/2).

Increased financial resources, empowerment of UNEP to lead efforts to formulate UN system-wide strategies on the environment, and strengthened stakeholder participation will make UNEP a stronger voice for the environment and an even stronger partner for the EU.

Furthermore, at Rio+20, in the context of launching the process for developing sustainable development goals for the post-2015 agenda, the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development was created, replacing the Commission on Sustainable Development

2. The UN Environment Assembly (UNEA)

The UN Environment Assembly, which replaces the former UNEP Governing Council, was created in 2013. It meets every two years in Nairobi.

The first meeting in 2014 with over a thousand participants took place from 23 to 27 June 2014. For the EU, the Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potočnik, participated in the meeting.

UNEA 1 adopted resolutions on a large range of global environmental issues, including illegal wildlife trade, chemicals and waste, a UN system wide strategy, the science policy interface, marine litter, air quality, eco-system based adaptation, and alternative approaches to green economy,  as well as on the programme of work and budget for UNEP for 2014-15 and 2016-17.

In the High Level Segment, Ministers debated Sustainable Development Goals and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, including sustainable consumption and production, and had a dialogue on illegal trade in wildlife.

The outcome of the High Level Segment discussions is reflected in an agreed Ministerial Outcome Document.

The EU participates alongside its Member States in the meetings of the UN Environment Assembly in line with UNGA Resolution A/65/276. The EU, represented through the EU Delegation in Nairobi, is also a member of the Committee of Permanent Representatives at UNEP.  

Further information and documents relating to the UN Environment Assembly can be found here.

3. European Commission and UN Cooperation on the Environment

The European Commission and UNEP entered into a more structured cooperation in 2004 with the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). This MoU is implemented through an annual Policy Dialogue in the form of a High Level Meeting. The Policy Dialogue is underpinned by technical and financial cooperation. The MoU was revised in June 2014, and an Annex is currently being developed to specify the specific areas for cooperation.

See Press release.

In terms of financial cooperation, the EU is UNEP's main supporter for voluntary contributions to its work programme, mainly from the EU's research & innovation and from development cooperation programmes. This includes support for actions at global and regional level in areas of common interest such as: transforming environmental governance, resource efficiency and green economy, sound management of chemicals and wastes, ecosystems services and natural capital, as well as the science-policy interface. Strategic cooperation agreements were signed between UNEP and the Commission in 2011 and 2014 for over €75 million to support the work of UNEP and UNEP-administered Multilateral Environmental Agreements (e.g. biodiversity, chemicals, and waste conventions). This cooperation is part of the EU's thematic programme for environment and natural resources (2011-2013) and the global public goods and challenges (2014-2017) of the development cooperation instrument.

3. Links on the general relations between the EU and the UN

There is a comprehensive website on the EU at the UN, This contains extensive links, a description of EU policies at the UN, EU Statements, EU priorities for each General Assembly, EU publications on UN issues, etc. Specific information about the European Commission's environmental policy of global relevance, statements and speeches on the environment and sustainable development can be found the above-mentioned website.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) has created a webpage on the EU's relations with the UN, including an overview of relations between the two bodies, useful links and publication.