Everything, everywhere, all as one: how the UN Environment Assembly can steer the world to a sustainable future

This year, we are inviting the multilateral environmental agreements, nations and indeed every actor to come together and find new ways of working together towards a common goal

By Inger Andersen
Published: Saturday 17 February 2024
Inger Andersen (in pink), speaks at an event. Photo credit: @andersen_inger / X

The world does not have an environmental to-do list. The world has an environmental must-do list — for 2024 and for decades into the future. We must slow and adapt to climate change, protect and restore nature and biodiversity, reverse land degradation and desertification, and end pollution and waste. Get it right, and we can build a future that works for the many, not just the few — a principle that is at the heart of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Nations at all stages of development have committed to work towards this sustainable future under dozens of multilateral environmental agreements. In times of geopolitical crisis and shifting political landscapes, this is no mean feat. Action on the environment is a powerful force for unity.

There are global deals that set agreed goals and targets, such as the Paris Agreement, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework and the Global Framework on Chemicals. Many businesses and investors are promising to align their models and capital with low-carbon and nature-positive aspirations. International banks and organisations of all shades and stripes are making environmental action a core part of their objectives. The scientific community is increasingly moving from sounding the alarm to signposting solutions.

However, progress on turning commitments into transformative action must accelerate rapidly. Last year was the warmest on record, with resultant heatwaves, storms and droughts causing havoc. Millions of people died from pollution of the air, land and water. Rainforests continued to shrink and populations of species crucial to ecosystem health dwindled. Every day, every week, every month this continues, humanity digs itself into a deeper hole that will take longer to climb out from.


However, it isn’t just about working harder; it’s about working smarter. With so many agreements in play, there is a growing risk of fragmentation. This is a challenge we need to address by ensuring that work on each commitment dovetails with and amplifies the work of the others. After all, we are essentially facing one single global challenge: what we at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) call the triple planetary crisis: namely the crisis of climate change, the crisis of nature and biodiversity loss and the crisis of pollution and waste. The core drivers of every environmental challenge are often the same: unsustainable consumption and production chief among them. The best solutions to deploy are those that hit multiple challenges at once.

This is where the United Nations Environment Assembly, known as UNEA, comes in. The Assembly, the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment, unites nations every two years to look not just at isolated issues, but everything, everywhere, all as one.

The sixth gathering of the Assembly is taking place this month in Nairobi, Kenya at the home of UNEP — which hosts the secretariats of over two dozen agreements, regional conventions and scientific panels. This year, we are inviting the multilateral environmental agreements, nations and indeed every actor to come together and find new ways of working together towards a common goal.

I am not saying this will be simple. There are dozens of bodies, covering hundreds of goals and targets. The Paris Agreement targets limiting global temperature rise to well below 2°C or 1.5°C. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework foresees the protection, restoration and sustainable management of Earth’s lands, oceans, coastal areas and inland waters. Nations are aiming for land degradation neutrality under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The Montreal Protocol continues to protect the ozone layer and is contributing to climate action. We have other agreements to do everything from protecting species to shielding people and the planet from harmful chemicals and waste. A new instrument to end plastic pollution is also in the final stages. Meanwhile, nations will step up at UNEA-6 with new resolutions aimed at tackling the triple planetary crisis.

With so much going on, it sometimes feels like we are all in one boat aiming for the same port, operating dozens of different wheelhouses connected to different rudders. We are not taking the fastest, most direct route to the destination. At UNEA-6, everyone must strive to find new ways to coordinate the wheelhouses. To learn from each other and apply lessons of the past to the future. And to start delivering on the many commitments that will make the planet, and humanity, whole and healthy.

Inger Andersen is Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth 

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