The fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) is scheduled to take place during the last week of February 2021, in Nairobi, Kenya. After a series of consultations with Member States, civil society organizations and other stakeholders, the theme selected for UNEA 5 is “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
What are UNEP and UNEA?
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP or UN Environment) is the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system, and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.
The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) is convened every two years. It is mandated to take strategic decisions on environmental sustainability issues, particularly in terms of addressing emerging environmental challenges; providing political guidance in the work of UNEP; and promoting a strong science-policy interface. Within UNEA, there are frequent discussions of issues that can potentially impact animal protection interests. Some areas where UNEP’s work intersects with animal protection interests include biodiversity and ecosystems (including habitats, wildlife and wildlife trade); seas and oceans (including marine life); climate change, pollution and environmental impacts (with animal production and consumption being a primary cause; and affecting terrestrial and marine life); and environmental legislation.
UNEP uses the term “Major Groups and Stakeholders” (MGS) to refer to not-for-profit, non-governmental organizations, accredited and not accredited to UNEP.
The Road to the Theme Selection for UNEA 5
UN Environment had initially identified three potential themes for 2021 as “thought starters”, which included the below suggestions:
- Thematic Area 1: Scaling-up/Implementing Nature-Based Solutions (NBS) for a clean environment and sustainable development;
- Thematic Area 2: Blue Planet: Transformative actions to protect our freshwater and oceans; and
- Thematic Area 3: Addressing the water–energy–food interlinkages for sustainability.
World Animal Net (WAN) submitted an initial input into this first round of themes in which we expressed our preference for Thematic Areas 2 and 3 and our concerns about Thematic Area 1. We flagged that “Nature-Based Solutions (NBS), while in some cases useful and effective actions to address environmental challenges, have the potential to become“band-aid” solutions that fail to address the underlying root causes of issues.” We stressed that if this area were to be selected that “The conservation of nature, biodiversity and ecosystems, rather than the appropriation of nature for capital, [be] clearly and unequivocally articulated as a key goal of NBS” and that NBS needed to be clearly and universally defined.
With a majority of Member States expressing their support for a theme related to NBS, WAN later submitted an updated second round of input, as did Brighter Green, Compassion in World Farming and World Animal Protection. WAN’s amended input clarified our concerns about NBS and suggested ways in which these could be tackled. We again highlighted that UNEA had to agree on a tighter, well-considered definition for NBS, and that it should introduce safeguards to ensure its effective and productive implementation.
Final Theme and its implications
The final agreed upon theme is “Strengthening Actions for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.” While NBS are no longer explicitly mentioned in the theme, the final choice of theme is still very much tied to NBS.
UNEA states that “the feedback from the consultations and inputs signal a strong preference from Member States for a theme that upholds the vital role of nature and the solutions nature provide for our ability to reach the Sustainable Development Goals in its three complementary dimensions (social, economic and environmental).”
The inputs from stakeholders however were not ignored. UNEA acknowledged the need to build a practical understanding regarding "nature-based solutions". The note on the chosen theme proposes a “Non-exhaustive list of possible areas that could be formulated with a strong implementation focus under this theme.” These areas include, among others:
- Promoting pathways to prevent land degradation and desertification, and achieve sustainable land use;
- Means of implementation for nature-based solutions;
- Considering further measures for the sustainable management, use and conservation of natural resources; and
- Facilitating the implementation of the post 2020 biodiversity framework.
In its Position Statement on Nature Based Solutions, UNEP asserts that “Unsustainable human activities, from farming and mining to industry and infrastructure, are undermining the productivity of vast areas of farmland, forests and other ecosystems” and that “What is required is an urgent, massive investment effort to conserve and restore biodiversity and ecosystems, and drastic change in the way we interact with and depend on nature, to unlock its full potential. [...] In other words, we need to explore and invest in what nature does best: self-healing. This is what we call nature-based solutions.”
With UNEP acknowledging that an urgent change is needed to farming practices, there is scope for animal protection organizations (APOs) to advocate for the promotion and support of small-scale, regenerative, agroecological farming practices as viable nature-based solutions. In stark contrast to large-scale industrial animal agriculture, agro-ecological practices can be respectful of local communities and their environment, and are more humane towards animals. In addition, APOs must continue pushing for governments to incentivize a shift in production and consumption patterns to further promote and support predominantly plant-based diets.
Participation by Animal Protection Organizations
It will be important for APOs to collaborate and begin their advocacy in the lead up to UNEA 2021, and in setting its agenda, as soon as possible in order to ensure that animal protection and welfare issues are represented within UNEA’s sphere of activities. This can be done by attending regional consultations and preparatory meetings taking place in 2020. One important meeting will be the one held exclusively for the Major Groups and Other Stakeholders (MGS) in Norway in June 2020. This consultation aims to “Provide a platform for Major Groups and Stakeholders to discuss the UNEA theme, and to develop their input and positions with a view to contribute to the outcome of UNEA 5.” The timeline below illustrates the roadmap for engagement towards UNEA 5. More details can also be found here.
Some meetings of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR) based at UNEP, Nairobi, may further consider UNEA 5. There is an opportunity for accredited APOs to attend, either in person or remotely. More information about these meetings can be found here.
WAN produced a guidance document about UNEA in 2018, and attended UNEA 3 in 2017 and UNEA 4 in 2019. We plan on attending the next session in 2021 and look forward to coordinating our advocacy along with other APOs in order to forge ahead with vital animal protection messages.