February 2019: The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has published the pre-edited version of the summary for policymakers (SPM) of the first comprehensive assessment of the global environment to be released in almost seven years, the ‘Sixth Global Environmental Outlook’ (GEO-6). The SPM and the underlying report will be launched at the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-4).

Themed ‘Healthy Planet, Healthy People,’ GEO-6 aims to provide a sound evidence-based source of environmental information to help policymakers and the society at large to achieve the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and internationally agreed environmental goals and implement multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). It does so by assessing recent scientific information and data, analyzing current and past environmental policies and identifying future options to achieve sustainable development by 2050.

In particular, GEO-6 highlights the main global drivers of environmental change, the condition of the environment, the scale and effectiveness of policy responses, the potential pathways for achieving the SDGs in an increasingly complex world, and the data and information needs and opportunities that can support decision making towards achieving the SDGs.

The SPM acknowledges population pressure and economic development as the primary drivers of environmental change, with rapid urbanization and accelerating technological innovation as additional influences. It also recognizes wide disparities across the world in the consumption and production patterns behind these drivers.

GEO-6 concludes that unsustainable human activities globally have degraded the Earth’s ecosystems, endangering the ecological foundations of society. Urgent action at an unprecedented scale is necessary to arrest and reverse this situation, thereby protecting human and environmental health and maintaining current and future integrity of global ecosystems.

The report details the state of the global environment with regard to: air pollution and climate change; species, ecosystem and genetic diversity loss; ocean pollution, warming and acidification, and its increased use for food production, resource extraction and energy production, among other purposes; land degradation and desertification; and freshwater scarcity and pollution.

Successful models of environmental governance should be built upon well-designed policies, their implementation, compliance and enforcement.

Several issues are identified as cutting across all environmental themes. Some, such as human health, gender, urbanization and education, relate to people and livelihoods. Others, such as climate change, polar regions, mountains and environmental disasters, are concerned with changing environments. Others yet, such as use of resources, solid waste disposal, energy, chemicals and the food system, reflect the use of resources and materials.

Acknowledging that most countries have introduced environmental policies and established relevant governance structure and that there are now hundreds of MEAs in existence, Part B of GEO-6 addresses the question: “How effective have these policy innovations and governance approaches been in addressing the problems and achieving the agreed targets?” The analysis combines an evaluation of case studies on implemented policies with an indicator-based approach covering a diversity of policy approaches from various levels in the thematic areas of the report, including the following:

  • Provision of information: for example, access to data on air quality or coral reefs;
  • Voluntary agreements: for example, voluntary reporting on the use of water, voluntary guidelines for sustainable soil management or standard setting for best management practice and sustainability reporting;
  • Economic incentives and market-based instruments: for example, free water allowances, individual transferable quotas for fishers, or payments for ecosystem services;
  • Planning for the environment: for example, adaptive water management and urban biodiversity management;
  • Promotion of innovation: for example, innovation for sustainable agriculture or financing for clean cookstoves;
  • Regulatory approaches: for example, car exhaust emission standards or regulating wildlife trade through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES); and
  • Governance approaches that include communities and private sector and civil society actors: for example, city actions to limit food waste or community-based conservation.

GEO-6 concludes that to pursue the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs and achieve the internationally agreed environmental goals on pollution control, clean-up and efficiency improvements will not be sufficient. Instead, transformative change, in the sense of reconfiguration of basic social and production systems and structures, including their institutional frameworks, social practices, cultural norms and values, is necessary. Transformative change enables and combines visionary, strategic and integrated policy making with the enabling of bottom-up social, technological and institutional innovation and the systematic use of experience drawn from such experimentation. Successful models of environmental governance should be built upon well-designed policies, their implementation, compliance and enforcement. Such models, the report finds, should pay close attention to early signals from science and society and ensure adequate oversight capacity and investment in knowledge systems, such as data, indicators, assessments, policy evaluation, and sharing platforms.

The GEO is a series of studies that inform environmental decision making for governments and stakeholders. It is the result of a consultative and participatory process to prepare an independent assessment of the state of the environment, the effectiveness of the policy response to address environmental challenges, and the possible pathways to achieve various internationally agreed environmental goals.

UNEA-4 will convene from 11-15 March 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya, on the theme, ‘Innovative Solutions for Environmental Challenges and Sustainable Consumption and Production.’ It will focus on food systems, resource efficiency through life-cycle approaches and sustainable business development. It is preceded by the fourth meeting of the Open-Ended Committee of Permanent Representatives to UNEP (OECPR 4), taking place from 4-8 March 2019. [Summary for Policymakers: Sixth Global Environment Outlook][IISD RS coverage of negotiations on GEO-6 SPM] [GEO Website] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on GEO-6 Regional Assessments] [UNEA-4 Documents] [IISD RS Coverage of UNEA-4]