Q&A: UN Environment Assembly Kicks Off With a Call to Make Peace with Nature

Joyce Msuya, the Deputy Executive Director for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), says environmental issues are development issues and therefore are everybody’s issues. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

Joyce Msuya, the Deputy Executive Director for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), says environmental issues are development issues and therefore are everybody’s issues. Credit: Isaiah Esipisu/IPS

By Isaiah Esipisu
NAIROBI, Feb 22 2021 – Its time for the world to radically change our ways if we are to make peace with the planet and create the environmental conditions so that all of humanity can thrive, delegates attending the Fifth Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) heard this morning.

The assembly, world’s top environmental decision-making body attended by government leaders, businesses, civil society and environmental activists, met virtually today under a theme “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. It concludes Feb. 23.

Ahead of the assembly, IPS interviewed Joyce Msuya, the Deputy Executive Director for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), to find out what to expect from the two-day event.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Inter Press Service (IPS): What outcome should African countries expect from the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA)?

Joyce Msuya (JM): UNEA is the highest international authority on environmental issues, and is focusing on nature and Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

In terms of African countries, I will put three things on the table.  One is Action. Science has already spoken. Climate change is an issue, and biodiversity loss is happening at a faster rate than ever before, and lastly, pollution, especially plastic pollution is a big problem. So what we need is to bring the African voices and leadership to UNEA, to collectively see what African countries plan to do in terms of actions in delivering around these three planetary crises.

The second thing is partnerships. Environmental issues are development issues and they are everybody’s issues. Citizens can make little changes in their households, communities can make little changes for example on waste management, and those who live around the oceans can take care of the blue economy. So we need to see how the governments work together with the private sector, indigenous communities, with the youth and even children to address the environmental changes.

The third issue is the support to the UNEP. UNEP is the only United Nations largest entity located in the Southern Hemisphere. So this is the time it needs to be supported not just by the government of Kenya, but by African governments.

IPS: How is the COVID-19 situation going to affect these outcomes?

JM: COVID-19 has already impacted and is still going to impact the meeting in three ways. The pandemic has actually shown us the interconnectedness of environment as well as of human health. Last June for example, UNEP released a study on zoonotics to show the connection between nature and viruses.

In terms of the impact on the meeting, this is the first virtual meeting with over 100 countries participating online. This virtual connectivity was driven by COVID-19.

Thirdly, because of the virtual connectivity, countries and member states that are not represented in Nairobi will be able to join through internet connectivity. So the inclusive multilateralism will also be showcased as part of the meeting. 

IPS: What informed the choice of UNEA-5’s theme, ‘Strengthening Actions for Nature to achieve the 2020 agenda on SDGs’?

JM: The design and the agreement of the theme was grounded on a consultative process. For example in Africa, there was the African ministerial meeting looking at environmental issues. The theme was proposed for member states consideration and so they debated for its relevance, it’s implication for different countries and they collectively decided on this theme. It is a timely theme for the nature, but also for the SDGs. We are nine years away for the 2030 deadline for the SDGs.

As the UN Secretary General has already said, this is the UN decade for action when it comes to agenda 2030.

IPS: The UN Secretary General has also said that this is the year he is pushing for commitments from all member states for zero emissions by 2050, and the COP is the most appropriate forum where this should materialize. What does the UNEP want to see in terms of commitments?

JM: We work under various teams under the Secretary General and what he said is actually what has been guiding our work. We work very closely with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) on the upcoming Conference of Parties (COP) on climate change and we are providing science to help the discussions. As well, we should not forget about the COP on biodiversity, which will be hosted by China because nature and climate change go hand in hand.

In addition, we are providing science to inform for example businesses. Recently we launched the Global Environmental Outlook for Business to provide data and science to help businesses understand what role they can play in reducing the impact of climate change.

IPS: In many African countries, people have invaded wetlands with buildings being constructed in such areas especially in urban areas to accommodate the surging population. Is this a concern to you? If so, how can it be addressed?

JM: In UNEP we believe that wetlands are important in maintaining micro-climates in the areas where they occur, as well as releasing moisture into the atmosphere through evaporation.

At the global level we advocate for the preservation of the wetlands. We have worked with a number of countries in sharing experiences that are working very well on preservation of wetlands  from one country to another. Our science also helps inform how wetlands can be preserved and in Kenya here for example, we work with the government at their request to provide technical assistance and science to support their efforts in protecting the wetlands.

Overall in many African countries, we are starting a discussion with ministries of environment where we are advocating for the preservation of wetlands.

IPS: What kind of policies do we need to put in place to reverse the biodiversity loss across the world?

JM: One of the places where UNEP has been working with the Biodiversity Secretariat is on the post 2020 Biodiversity Framework. Parties, member states and the environment community have been looking at the lessons learned from previous studies. And now there is a new biodiversity framework that will be discussed at the COP.

So, one, is providing substantive support to the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The second, for example in Kenya, we are working with the Ministry of Interior on tree planting. The government has set out a goal of planting millions of trees over the next two years, and through our Africa department. We are supporting those efforts. We have had some of our staff members join hands with local communities to plant trees.

Then third area is on partnerships. Trees are important not only for the environment, but also for the agriculture sector. So we are joining hands with other parts of the UN to advocate and support tree planting.

IPS: How has COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns impacted on climate action globally?

JM: That is a very interesting question. From the time the pandemic came in place almost a year ago, a number of countries shut down including offices and economic activities. What anecdotal evidence seems to suggest is that air pollution has been addressed. This is because there were no many cars in the streets, and there was no much pollution into the air.

However, we should not forget that the pandemic is still a humanitarian problem and a crisis because people have lost jobs and many more have lost lives. We have been working with the World Health Organisation for example to try and understand the link between nature and health.

We are also mindful that this is also an economic problem, and we are seeing a number of countries now rebuilding their economies.

But the post COVID-19 era provides us with an opportunity for a green reconstruction of our economies. So the pandemic has been a reflecting time, but it has also shown that UNEP, member states and multilateralism can still function virtually.

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