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International Issues

Multilateral relations - United Nations

1. Historical Background

Environmental concerns did not appear 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, increasing concern over continuing environmental degradation led the United Nations General Assembly (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 (UNCED), 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 (CSD) as a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (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 would 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 (HLPF), replacing the Commission on Sustainable Development, was established in June 2013 through a Resolution by the UN General Assembly as the main forum for sustainable development issues within the UN framework. The HLPF is mandated to provide political leadership and guidance; to address new and emerging sustainable development challenges; and to enhance the integration of economic, social and environmental dimensions of 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, Kenya. The first meeting with over a thousand participants took place from 23 to 27 June 2014. For the EU, the then Commissioner for the Environment, Janez Potočnik, participated in the meeting. UNEA-1 adopted resolutions and decisions 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 second UN Environment Assembly, UNEA-2, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya, from 23-27 May 2016 and was attended by over 2,500 delegates, convened under the theme ‘Delivering on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’. It concluded with the adoption of 25 resolutions and decisions, which can be found here. Some major areas of focus included: implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement, illegal trade in wildlife, and marine litter and debris. During the High-Level Segment of the meeting, which took place from 26-27 May, Ministers endorsed the draft Global Thematic Report on ‘Healthy Environment, Healthy People,’ but did not agree on a ministerial outcome document.

The third UN Environment Assembly, UNEA-3, took place in Nairobi, Kenya on 4-6 December 2017 under the overarching theme of pollution. It aimed to deliver a number of tangible commitments to end the pollution of our air, land, waterways and oceans, and to safely manage our chemicals and waste. These included a political declaration on pollution, linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, to signal that humanity can work together to eliminate the threat of pollution and the destruction of our planet; resolutions and decisions adopted by Member States to address specific dimensions of pollution; voluntary commitments by Governments, private sector entities and civil society organizations to address pollution; and The #BeatPollution Pledge, a collection of individual commitments to clean up the planet. The Ministerial Declaration, Resolutions and Decisions adopted at UNEA-3 "Towards a Pollution Free Planet" can be found here. This includes the EU-proposed Resolution on "Environment and Health".

The fourth UN Environment Assembly, UNEA-4, took place in Nairobi, Kenya, from 11 to 15 March 2019 under the theme “Innovative solutions for environmental challenges and sustainable consumption and production”. UNEA-4 registered a record number of participants and delegations, twice as much as UNEA-3 and five times as much as UNEA-1.Participants included 5,000 delegates from 179 countries, five Heads of State and Government (Kenya, France, Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Rwanda) and 157 ministers and deputy ministers. The Assembly included plenary sessions, leadership dialogues and a multi-stakeholder dialogue, and took place concurrently with a number of side events, two of which were organised by the EU (“Sustainable finance and the circular economy” and a “Ministerial breakfast on natural resource management”). In parallel with UNEA and convened by Presidents Macron (France) and Kenyatta (Kenya), the third One Planet Summit took place on 14 March, with a prominent focus on Africa. At the closing plenary on 15 March, the Assembly adopted a Ministerial Declaration, 23 resolutions and three decisions, addressing shared and emerging global environmental issues. A full list and complete texts of the agreed outcomes can be found here.

The fifth UN Environment Assembly (UNEA5) convened on 22 and 23 February 2021, under the overarching theme “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, UNEA5 had been split in two parts: the virtual session that was held on 22-23 February 2021 (UNEA5.1) and a presential session that will take place in Nairobi, Kenya, in February-March 2022 (UNEA5.2). UNEA 5.1 ended with overall good outcomes. The adopted UNEA5.1 political message expresses an urgent need for action to protect the planet, for a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and for making further progress in the upcoming multilateral fora, in particular the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the negotiations on a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), and the negotiations on the Strategic Approach and the sound management of chemicals and waste beyond 2020, as well as for the 2022 UNEA-5.2 session to address marine litter and plastic pollution. More than one hundred Ministers and high-level representatives participated in the Assembly’s various events, including the Plenary Session, the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum, the Youth Environment Assembly, the Science Policy Business Forum and the Leadership Dialogue. Most high-level representatives made strong political statements on the need to tackle the pressing planetary crisis and called for a fair green recovery. Many referred to the urgent need for action, a change in economic systems to align with climate neutrality, the preservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, the fight against pollution, and the promotion of nature-based solutions, sustainable food systems and circular economy. A large number of speakers, including the Youth representatives, called for UNEA5.2 to start negotiations on an international legally binding instrument on plastics. The flagship UNEP “Synthesis Report” (Making Peace with Nature), co-financed by the EU, was launched before UNEA by the UN Secretary-General. The EU, together with UNEP, UNIDO and several partner countries launched the Global Alliance on Circular Economy and Resource Efficiency (GACERE). At the adjournment plenary, President Kenyatta of Kenya kicked-off the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of UNEP.

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, Kenya, 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 the United Nations Environment Programme (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 a substantive Annex was signed in April 2015, spelling out a range of concrete work areas to be implemented jointly through to 2020. On 26 February 2021, the EC and UNEP signed a new Annex for the cooperation period 2021-2025, including a stronger focus on the promotion of circular economy, the protection of biodiversity and the fight against pollution. The new Annex was previously adopted by Commission Decision C(2021) 506 of 4 February 2021.

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.

The Evaluation Office of UN Environment commissioned in 2015 an evaluation study of the Strategic Cooperation Agreements (SCAs) between the European Commission and UNEP to answer the question whether the SCA approach provides an effective way of conducting EC-UNEP programmatic cooperation. The SCAs fall under the Thematic Programme for Environment and Sustainable Management of Natural Resources, including Energy (ENRTP) of the European Union Development Cooperation Instrument.

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

The European Union Delegation to the United Nations hosts a website which contains a well of information and EU statements and speeches of global relevance on the environment and sustainable development.

The European External Action Service (EEAS) has created a webpage on the EU relations with the UN with useful links and publications.