Reflections at the opening of the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi


This year’s UN General Assembly, starting in September, takes on special significance for UNEP — and for the urgency of accelerating sustainable development — as member states begin to act on the decisions of June’s Rio+20 summit, contained in the Future We Want.

A key area of focus will be defining and establishing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that can bring developed and developing nations into a new era of cooperative action. UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon recently announced the Sustainable Development Solutions Network — a new independent global network of research centres, universities and technical institutions — to provide ideas and solutions. This will support a High-Level Panel, which will report next year on the post-2015 development agenda.

Other potentially positive outcomes of Rio+20 include a ten-year framework on sustainable consumption and production covering fields from tourism to ‘agri- food’ (including food waste and losses) and sustainable procurement.

Across the OECD group of countries, public procurement totals over US $4,700 billion annually, close to 20 per cent of GDP. In developing countries the proportion can be slightly higher. In India, for example, government procurement is worth about US $300 billion and is expected to grow by more than 10 per cent annually.

During Rio+20 over 30 governments and institutions — including Brazil, Denmark, Switzerland and UNEP — announced a new global International Sustainable Public Procurement Initiative (SPPI), aimed at scaling-up the level of public spending on goods and services that maximize environmental and social benefits.

Several countries — including Brazil, Colombia, Germany, India and the United Kingdom — have carried out national assessments of the value of their ‘natural assets’ — or are doing so — drawing on work done globally by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, hosted by UNEP. And Inclusive Wealth — based on the World Bank’s Adjusted Net Saving indicator — is developing a more inclusive indicator of national wealth, covering not only produced capital, human capital, and natural capital, but also critical ecosystems.

Rio+20 also encouraged governments to push forward on requiring companies to report their environmental, social and governance footprints: this builds on the work of the UNEP Finance Initiative and the Global Reporting Initiative-co-founded by UNEP.

Meanwhile, the World Congress on Justice, Governance, and Law for Environmental Sustainability — hosted by the Brazilian Supreme Court and UNEP in partnership with a number of international organizations — committed to use international and national laws to advance sustainability, human and environmental rights and implementation of environmental treaties.

Strengthening and upgrading the environment programme of the UN, including its financial resources, will also be an important upcoming issue — not least for those nations backing a transition towards an inclusive Green Economy as an important pathway to a sustainable century.

Rio+20 also agreed that UNEP should have universal membership and a more active role at the regional and national level; and that it should build on its science-policy interface — including through its flagship Global Environment Outlook process — and on mechanisms to better engage civil society ranging from farmers and women to indigenous peoples, business, scientists and local authorities.

The outcome of Rio+20 fell short of many expectations: in the light of scientific realities, people’s day-to-day struggle simply to survive, the analysis of where development is heading for seven billion people, and the inordinate opportunity that exists for a different trajectory.

However, if nations, companies, cities and communities can move forward on the positive elements of the Summit’s outcome at the General Assembly this may assist in realizing one day the Future We Want.

Another decision — to work towards a new global indicator of wealth that goes beyond GDP’s narrowness — requests the UN Statistical Commission to work with other UN bodies, including UNEP, to identify new approaches for measuring progress. Its work will draw on a range of assessments and pilot projects ongoing across the globe.

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