UNEA-4 adopts language on conflicts and environmental security

Attendance by France’s President Macron was a sign of UNEA’s growing influence. But the forum still has some way to go if it is to become the much needed driving force for global environmental change. Credit: Natalia Mroz/UNEP

Even without a dedicated resolution on the environmental dimensions of armed conflicts, the Fourth UN Environment Assembly has this week adopted language on conflict debris, minerals and farmer-herder conflicts. States have agreed to improve data collection on environmental risks from conflicts, and environmental security themes featured in several resolutions. With the Assembly coming to an end, Doug Weir takes a look at what was achieved, and considers the potential of the forum for future progress on conflict and the environment.

A challenging week in Nairobi

The Fourth meeting of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) concluded today. With its broad and unwieldy theme of “Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production”, UNEA-4 had seen a deluge of draft resolutions tabled by states, and on everything from food waste to geoengineering. Negotiating and finding agreement on them all was always going to be a major undertaking. And so it proved. Add to this the increasingly regressive environmental views held by some influential states and it was no surprise that the successful conclusion of UNEA itself would become yet another environmental challenge. Unlike at UNEA-2 and UNEA-3, there was no dedicated conflict resolution on the table but as many of the topics on the agenda were also of relevance to conflicts, or to environmental security, there was hope that useful language would emerge in the resolutions.

Beyond the resolutions, which are reviewed below, there was also the Ministerial Outcome Document – the pledge by all states present at UNEA-4 to carry forward work beyond this week. Together with partners, we had encouraged the inclusion of a reference to environmental security in the document during the consultation process prior to UNEA-4. And, ahead of the meeting, CEOBS provided policy advice to states after the term proved too contentious for some, with Ukraine and Norway advocating for its inclusion. As the overarching focus of the document was innovation, the final consensus language focused on how data could help better address environmental risks from conflicts:

We will promote the use of data analysis models to develop environment foresights, support evidence-based decision making and improve national and local preparedness and responses to mitigate environmental degradation and risks from disasters and conflicts in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

The several states that lined up to object to environmental security in the negotiations on the Outcome Document argued that the term wasn’t defined by the UN. It wasn’t clear whether they would also object to any attempt to define it within another UN forum but it seemed as if this would be likely. Curiously, environmental security did survive the negotiations on a US-sponsored resolution on the process for UN Environment’s next Global Environmental Outlook, and for its wider data strategy.

“Accelerating efforts to assist Member States, to develop their national environmental data management capacities and their environmental monitoring systems for air and water quality, deforestation, marine litter, and environmental security, as well as their ability to use data analysis to support evidence-based decision making.”

This in spite of the fact that Brazil – one of the states that was most vocal in its opposition to the term in the Outcome Document – also played an active role in negotiating the US’s resolution. Evidently red lines can fade when it is expedient for them to do so. Indeed, the entire paragraph was uncannily similar to the formulation initially proposed – and then rejected – in the Outcome Document.

It was the year of big data at UNEA, with UN Environment releasing a discussion paper on The case for a digital ecosystem for the environment – a strategy that would, if realised, include monitoring global environmental security risks. However, while it was hard to go anywhere at UNEA without being buzzed by big data, what was often lacking was discussion over how civil society organisations and affected communities could be involved in what is currently a largely technocratic and top-down debate.

Conflicts in the negotiations, and in the resolutions

With this many resolutions on the table, it was inevitable that some attendees would question their value. For some, UNEA is still its predecessor – UNEP’s Governing Council – and the resolutions are all about UN Environment and its programme of work. Similarly, for many states, the resolutions are rooted in promoting their national interests and encouraging financial or technical support for particular domestic causes. And there was no shortage of resolutions that simply repeated work being done elsewhere in the UN system. But if UNEA is to reach its full potential, and if its resolutions are to add value, states must be more selective. Priority must be given to emerging issues, neglected issues and on a focus on normative language that sets the global agenda, and which catalyses progress across the UN system. Such topics were in short supply this year.

The environmental dimensions of conflicts fit this brief well, particularly given their relatively low visibility. Proof of this could be seen in two flagship reports released during the week. The Global Chemicals Outlook, and the report of the Global Resources Outlook, neither of which addressed the link between conflicts and pollution, or resources, in a meaningful way. More positive was the Sixth Global Environment Outlook, which was launched during UNEA-4. Its 700 pages thankfully feature numerous references to the environmental dimensions of conflicts and security.

It’s understandable that states facing a tidal wave of resolutions might argue that conflicts and security are too controversial and difficult. But this view risks creating a self-sustaining silence that hampers efforts to raise awareness of the environmental costs and consequences of conflicts; with implications for policy development and behavioural change.

In the end, two resolutions danced around the issue of environmental security while avoiding naming it. The preamble of Innovations on biodiversity and land degradation established the connection between Climate Change, land degradation, biodiversity loss and human security, and the need to address these problems collaboratively at the national, regional, and global level – five elements of environmental security. The Environment poverty nexus took a similar approach, linking environmental change with poverty, and poverty with displacement and increased pressure on natural resources. States agreed that UN Environment should provide support to countries seeking assistance in adapting and increasing their resilience to these threats.

Meanwhile the EU resolution on Deforestation and agricultural commodity supply chains seemed a good opportunity to draw attention to the relationships between conflicts and forest loss. However, it ultimately became mired in disagreements over international obligations to protect forests, disputes over the relationship between agriculture and deforestation, and tensions over the sovereignty of natural resources. The resolution was eventually withdrawn after states failed to reach consensus. Another resolution that fell without agreement related to geoengineering governance. This too had a conflict perspective as it’s not inconceivable that geoengineering technology could be abused as a weapon of war. One of the arguments of those opposed to the text was that the topic was too novel for UNEA. Yet this is precisely the kind of emerging issue that an intergovernmental assembly dedicated to environmental leadership should have on its agenda.

The references to conflicts

Thankfully, other resolutions were more explicit in highlighting conflict perspectives. The Arab Group’s resolution on the Environmentally sound management of waste makes direct reference to the problems that conflict-affected states face with solid waste management. Instructing UN Environment to: “Coordinate with member states and relevant UN and humanitarian agencies to incorporate, as appropriate and feasible, waste management in humanitarian recovery and response plans “building back better”.”

The resolution on Innovations in Sustainable Rangelands and Pastoralism notes that, because of the “…frequent occurrence of natural hazards such as drought, rangeland resources are becoming scarce resulting in conflict episodes between pastoralists and farmers over natural resources, grazing land and water.” The resolution requested that as part of requests for assistance, UN Environment should “…promote sensitive development interventions specific to resolving disputes and supporting traditional governance.”

The resolution on Mineral resource governance encourages all stakeholders to promote due diligence best practices along the mineral supply chain, and included conflict-related risks alongside environmental, human rights and labour assessments, as well as transparency and anti-corruption measures. It was unclear who proposed the welcome inclusion of conflict risks at the last-minute but it was perhaps symptomatic of the low profile of conflicts that it didn’t feature from the outset.

Finally, UNEA-4 adopted two resolutions of relevance to the conflict texts adopted at UNEA-2 and UNEA-3. One seeks to create a much-needed internal review system to oversee their implementation, and the other adopted the Pollution Free Planet implementation plan that will – hopefully – address the implementation of UNEA-3’s conflict pollution resolution.

Setting UN Environment’s agenda, or setting the global environmental agenda?

There were signs this week that UNEA is maturing. For example, for the first time UN Environment posted budget estimates for the costs they would face to implement all of the draft resolutions. But with states debating nearly $100m worth of work, it was less clear where this money would come from.

Of perhaps more concern was the lack of ambition and urgency among many states. In spite of the findings of the flagship reports published this week, all of which highlight the scale of the environmental crisis that the world is facing, some governments seemed determined to go backwards on their commitments. Such were the examples of states seeking to undermine agreed language, that many civil society campaigners concluded that their role had mostly been damage limitation.

The conflict between whether UNEA is just a governing council for UN Environment, or an agenda-setting global “parliament for the environment”, has implications for efforts to address the environmental dimensions of conflicts. Unlike chemicals, Climate Change, biodiversity or desertification, conflict and the environment does not have a platform created by a multilateral agreement. It does not benefit from an intergovernmental process, review conferences or national implementation plans. This means that UNEA could play a unique and critical role in raising awareness, in norm development, and in forcing states to confront, debate and develop positions on the environmental dimensions of conflicts.

But a UNEA that primarily looks inwards, focusing only on UN Environment’s programme of work, seems unlikely to ever be able to become that force for change. People and planet need a UNEA that is permitted by states to drive forward the global environmental agenda. However, whether UNEA or its member states can become mature enough to move in this direction remains to be seen. Norway hold the presidency of UNEA-5 in two years time – could this be an opportunity to help the Assembly move towards reaching its potential?


Doug Weir is CEOBS’ Research and Policy Director. This blog is dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the Ethiopian Airlines disaster, their families, friends and colleagues.

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