Africa: United Nations Environment Programme Upgraded to Universal Membership Following Rio+20 Summit

press release

New York / Nairobi — Another step forward to the 'Future We Want' was put in place today with a decision by the General Assembly of the United Nations to 'strengthen and upgrade' the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and establish universal membership of its governing body.

The landmark resolution, aimed at increasing the role of UNEP as the leading environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, was adopted 40 years after UNEP was established by the General Assembly, following the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.

The General Assembly resolution also provides for UNEP to receive secure, stable and increased financial resources from the regular budget of the UN, and calls for other UNEP donors to increase their voluntary funding.

The decision allows full participation of all 193 UN member states at the UNEP Governing Council in February 2013, and follows commitments by world leaders at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) last June to improve the institutional framework for sustainable development.

The provisions contained in the resolution are among the first practical steps by the UN General Assembly to implement the outcomes of Rio+20.

"The decision by the General Assembly to strengthen and upgrade UNEP is a watershed moment. Universal membership of UNEP's Governing Council establishes a new, fully-representative platform to strengthen the environmental dimension of sustainable development, and provides all governments with an equal voice on the decisions and action needed to support the global environment, and ensure a fairer share of the world's resources for all," said United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"The resolution reaffirms UNEP's role as the UN's authority on the environment, and provides the mandate to enhance our ongoing work on bringing the latest science to policy-makers, directly supporting national and regional environmental efforts, improving access to technology, and other key areas. For UNEP and the environmental community, this is a truly historic day," added Mr. Steiner.

Improved governance for the global environment

In the forty years since UNEP was established, the environmental challenges facing communities around the world - from diminishing water resources and desertification, to climate change and hazardous chemicals - have increased in number and complexity.

Yet international responses to such challenges are often fragmented and weak.

The latest edition of UNEP's Global Environment Outlook report, released in June 2012, assessed 90 of the most important environmental goals agreed by the international community, and found that significant progress had only been made in four.

The report warns that if current trends continue, several critical thresholds may be exceeded, beyond which irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet could occur.

The General Assembly decision reflects the commitment of member states to improve global cooperation on the environment in order to meet such challenges, and to promote the integration of the social, economic, and environmental pillars of sustainable development, as well as improving coordination within the UN system.

Prior to the new resolution, UNEP's Governing Council consisted of 58 members only. Previous efforts to ensure wider representation in the running of UNEP resulted in the creation of the Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF), which brought together the world's environment ministers for high-level meetings in parallel with the Governing Council.

Member states will have the role of implementing the provisions of the General Assembly resolution - including arrangements for the future of the GMEF - at the first meeting of the newly-enlarged Governing Council at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi on 18-22 February 2013. The meeting will be held under the theme 'Rio+20: From Outcome to Implementation'.

The General Assembly also stressed the important role of UNEP in providing the international community with comprehensive, science-based, policy-relevant global environmental assessments, such as the Global Environment Outlook (GEO) series, and others.

By endorsing the Rio+20 outcome document 'The Future We Want' in July 2012, and adopting the new resolution on UNEP, the General Assembly underlined the need for UNEP to work more closely with non-governmental organizations, youth, women, indigenous peoples, local governments, business, and other interest groups, and to formalize their participation at the UNEP Governing Council and in global environmental decision-making overall.

UNEP is also tasked with further strengthening the vital link between policy-makers and the scientific community.

In a separate resolution relating to another Rio+20 outcome, the General Assembly welcomed the adoption of the ten-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns (10YFP), to which UNEP provides the secretariat.

The 10YFP is a global framework of action to enhance international cooperation on accelerating the shift towards sustainable consumption and production in developed and developing countries. The framework will support capacity building, and provide technical and financial assistance to developing countries.

The General Assembly also tasked UNEP with establishing a trust fund for sustainable consumption and production programmes in order to mobilize voluntary contributions from donors, the private sector and other sources, including foundations.

40 Years of UNEP

The General Assembly resolution marks the first major structural change to UNEP in its four-decade history.

The first UN agency to be headquartered in a developing country, UNEP is the voice of the environment in the UN system. Its mandate is to coordinate the development of environmental policy consensus by keeping the global environment under review, and bringing emerging issues to the attention of governments and the international community for action.

UNEP also administers many multilateral environmental agreements and conventions, including the Ozone Secretariat and the Montreal Protocol's Multilateral Fund, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and a growing family of chemicals-related agreements, among others.

Major UNEP landmarks and achievements over the past forty years include:

1979: Bonn Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) established. The agreement involves 116 member states and has overseen binding agreements and action plans to protect 120 migratory species.

1987: Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer established. One of the most successful multilateral agreements in UN history, the protocol has overseen a 98 per cent reduction of controlled ozone depleting substances, and delivered multiple health benefits, including millions of avoided cases of cancer and eye cataracts.

1988 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization. The panel delivers the world's most influential, comprehensive and scientifically-reviewed reports on climate change.

1995: Basel Ban Amendment barring export of hazardous wastes adopted. Ratified by 70 countries and the EU, the agreement established a regime for minimization of health and environmental impacts of waste.

2002: Launch of Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles. Among other activities, the project has assisted countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to successfully phase out or begin the phase-out of leaded fuel. Associated health savings for the continent are estimated at US$92 billion per year.

2012: Launch of Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants:  Voluntary initiative to reduce emissions of black carbon, methane, low-level ozone, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and other short-lived climate pollutants (SCLPs), to tackle climate change and improve human health. In less than 12 months, some 25 governments and additional partners have joined the coalition.

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