by IISD's SDG Knowledge Hub,

The UN Environment Assembly made history at its resumed fifth meeting, through decisions to undertake negotiations on two critical processes: an internationally legal binding instrument by 2024 to end plastic pollution and an agreement to establish a science-policy panel on chemicals and waste and to prevent pollution. The science body would be similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).  

UNEA is made up of the 193 UN Member States. The session known as UNEA 5.2 convened in Nairobi, Kenya from 28 February-2 March 2022, a year after the fifth Assembly took place virtually in February 2021 (UNEA 5.1). 

The Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported from UNEA 5.2 in Nairobi, saying that amid a news cycle focused on war in Ukraine, the ongoing pandemic, and new IPCC findings on the impacts of climate change, clouds finally gave way on 2 March 2022 as a “jubilant UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) closing plenary transmitted a joyous beam far beyond Nairobi.”

During that closing session, governments adopted a resolution titled, ‘End Plastic Pollution: Towards an internationally legally binding instrument.’ By this resolution the Assembly agrees to set up an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to draft a legally binding agreement by 2024. The agreement is expected to address the full lifecycle of plastics, including production, design, and disposal, as well as the design of reusable and recyclable products and materials.

As a first step, the UNEP Executive Director will convene a meeting in the first half of 2022 to prepare for the INC’s work and determine its timetable. Governments must also decide on the rules for the negotiation, such as a definition of “plastic.” The subsequent process will include:

  • UNEP will convene a forum by the end of 2022 to share knowledge and best practices in different parts of the world. This forum will mark the first session of the INC.
  • The INC will report to UNEA on progress during the next two years.
  • UNEP will convene a diplomatic conference to adopt the INC’s outcome and open the treaty for signature by national governments.

UNEP notes that the timeline for drafting the treaty is very short (approximately two years), while most global treaties require five to ten years of negotiation.

According to UNEA-5 President Espen Barth Eide, the agreement puts the world “on track for a cure” to the plastic pollution epidemic. UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen said the resulting MEA will be “the most important instrument since the Paris Agreement.”

The UNEA agreement on creating a science-policy panel on chemicals and waste, meanwhile, will aim to fill the gap between science and policy. The body will ensure informed scientific input on all three aspects of the “triple planetary crisis,” complementing science-policy efforts on climate change and biodiversity. An Ad Hoc Open-ended Working Group will be charged with agreeing on the panel’s governance, scope, and mandate. Providing context for this agreement, the Ministerial Declaration notes that the threat of chemicals and waste pollution has been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic through widespread use of single-use plastics and disinfectant chemicals.

Governments also adopted resolutions on nature-based solutions, animal welfare, circular economy, sustainable lake management, post-COVID-19 recovery, biodiversity and health, sustainable nitrogen management, minerals and metals, and sustainable and resilient infrastructure. 

Following UNEA 5.2, a special session convened from 3-4 March to commemorate UNEP’s 50th anniversary, where it adopted a political declaration. ENB reports that discussions reflected on the difference between 2022 and 1972, when UNEP was established. At that time “the environment was a fringe issue.” UNEP pursued a vision guided by science and “by the certainty that a healthy environment benefits everyone, everywhere,” the ENB recalls. Now, the environment is center stage, with climate change “at the top of everyone’s agenda,” and over 100 countries having enshrined the right to a safe and healthy environment in their constitutions.

Looking to the future, the ENB notes that the next ten years will be pivotal for life on this planet, and discussions at UNEA 5.2 signaled the need to address this by transitioning to economic models based on “recovery rather than irresponsible exploitation.” UNEP’s strategic approach to this transition is expected to focus on the environment as an enabler for the SDGs. [Earth Negotiations Bulletin meeting coverage] [UNEP press release on INC] [UNEP press release on UNEA 5.2 outcomes]