Illegal wildlife trade, post-2015 process in focus at inaugural global environmental assembly

2 July 2014

The largest global gathering of environment ministers in the last two years took place last week in Nairobi, with the Kenyan capital playing host to the first-ever universal UN Environment Assembly (UNEA).

The five-day long meet, held under the auspices of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), resulted in 16 decisions and resolutions on major environmental issues such as illegal wildlife trade, climate change, biodiversity loss, marine plastic debris, and the post-2015 development agenda.

The inaugural event was attended by 1200 participants from 160 UN member and observer states, as well as a number of stakeholders and civil society groups. The decision to convene the Assembly in the context of boosting UNEP’s role in the UN system was one of the outcomes of the pivotal Rio+20 sustainable development conference in June 2012, a follow-up event to the 1992 summit in the same city.

"The resolutions agreed by Member States at UNEA will help shape the global environmental agenda into the future and will determine collaborative action on priority issues," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner at the event’s closing session on Friday.

The ministerial outcome document featured calls to accelerate and support efforts towards sustainable consumption and production patterns, among other decisions. Ministers also urged the full implementation of existing multilateral environmental agreements, as well as other international and regional environmental commitments.

Fostering the development of partnerships to address the particular environmental challenges faced by small island developing states (SIDS) was also raised, ahead of the upcoming UN SIDS conference this September in Apia, Samoa.

The process of accepting a final document did hit some hurdles, however, according to Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB). During the latter stages of the event, a few delegates reportedly sought the explicit mention of the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) – beyond the broad reaffirmation of countries’ commitment to all the Rio principles on sustainable development. The latter were a key outcome of the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit. 

The second half of the week also included a high-level segment where ministers discussed the formulation of a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs), along with the escalation of poaching and related wildlife crime. In addition, the meeting featured two symposiums on environmental rule of law and financing a green economy.

“We need to act decisively to change humanity’s relationship with our planet,” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday. “This is just the beginning. Change is in the air. Solutions exist. We are now poised for the next phase of human development,” he continued.

Fighting illegal wildlife trade

In the ministerial outcome document, delegates urged countries to prevent, combat, and eradicate illegal trade in wildlife products, recognising the severe economic, social, and environmental damage wrought by the illicit commerce.

According to a new joint UNEP-INTERPOL report launched last week, global environmental crime – which encompasses illegal logging, poaching, and trafficking of wildlife, illegal fishing and mining, as well as the dumping of toxic waste – may be worth up to US$213 billion annually and threatens to throttle sustainable development in many nations.

The UNEA decisions called for, among other actions, the implementation of country and regional commitments on fighting illegal wildlife trade, targeted actions to tackle both the supply and demand sides of the challenge, and the promotion of zero tolerance policies. Environment ministers also said the issue should be addressed in the context of the post-2015 development agenda.

In order to help spur further action on the wildlife trafficking crisis, delegates asked UNEP to produce analysis on the environmental impacts of the illegal trade for the next UNEA meeting, scheduled to be held in two years’ time. The UN environment body was also asked to support governments in developing and implementing environmental rule of law mechanisms at the national level. 

During the high-level ministerial dialogue on the issue, a number of countries reportedly stressed the link between illegal wildlife trade and poverty. Some delegates also suggested that efforts should be made to strengthen synergies between the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ­ ­­– the body responsible for regulating trade in over 35,000 listed species – and other multilateral environmental agreements.

Several participants, however, said that the challenge posed by illegal wildlife trade might be better addressed by internal security ministers or equivalent. Others reportedly said that – notwithstanding the importance of a strong message from environment ministers on the issue – UNEP would be best placed to support ongoing initiatives, as opposed to launching new platforms.

Meanwhile, Thursday saw government representatives from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania announce their intention to work together alongside relevant UN agencies and INTERPOL to clamp down on East Africa’s devastating illegal timber trade. All three nations face severe challenges both within their borders but also as transit countries for stolen wood.

According to UNEP, the costs to the global economy from illegal logging are estimated to be between US$30-100 billion, with ecosystem services from tropical forests valued on average to be worth US$6120 per hectare each year. Forests cover around 675 million hectares or 23 percent of the African continent.

Calls for climate action, renewables trade growth

Addressing air pollution was identified as a top priority by delegates, with ministers adopting a resolution encouraging governments to take action across all sectors to improve air quality, as well as to formulate action plans and establish national air quality standards. Recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that air pollution is responsible for around 7 million deaths annually.

The ministerial outcome document also called for an ambitious outcome in the ongoing negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to seal a global climate deal by the end of next year’s Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris. An informal working dinner held last Wednesday during the UNEA week – attended by approximately 200 delegates and 70 ministers – discussed ways to speed up and ensure a successful outcome in the climate talks. 

At their latest UNFCCC inter-sessional meeting in Bonn, Germany last month, climate delegates appeared to shift into negotiating mode on some of the substantive details that will need to be worked out over the next 18 months, including around what information countries will need to provide in their national contributions to tackling the global climate challenge. (See BioRes, 17 June 2014)

UNEP also unveiled new research last week analysing trade flows in renewable energy products between countries in the global South, as developing countries­ are often termed. The study finds that between the years 2004-2011 South-South trade in goods such as solar photovoltaic (PV) cells and modules, wind-powered generating sets, and hydraulic turbines grew faster than global trade in the same sectors, excluding intra-EU trade.

The findings also suggest that in 2007, developing countries moved from being net importers to net exporters of green goods, a trend driven by particularly dynamic growth in trade in solar PV and related products, an area where China has become one of the top exporters.

The report calls for further South-South cooperation in this sector, including by establishing favourable trade policies and agreements.

“The [environmental goods and services] market – which is expected to grow to around US$1.9 trillion by 2020 – offers developing countries an unprecedented opportunity to drive the green economy transition,” said UNEP’s Steiner at the report’s launch.

Post-2015 development agenda

During the 2012 Rio meet, governments decided to develop a series of SDGs that would replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015. These SDGs, they said at that time, would balance and integrate the economic, social, and environmental pillars of development, as well as being an agenda for universal action.

UN members have since been meeting in New York under the auspices of an Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG), with a view to agreeing upon SDG recommendations for the UN General Assembly to consider this autumn. The OWG’s final session is scheduled for later this month and earlier this week the group’s co-chairs released a revised version of a zero draft text for consideration on that occasion.

In line with the overarching theme of last week’s Nairobi meet – the post-2015 development agenda – a full day was devoted to a ministerial plenary regarding the new development framework. Macharia Kamau, OWG co-chair, attended the meeting last Thursday to brief delegates on the process underway in New York and also to gather environment ministers’ views on the new goals.

Scepticism had reportedly been expressed from some corners ahead of the UNEA gathering about the Assembly’s ability to shape the process in New York. However, several delegates told ENB that while the UN environment body should not attempt to pre-judge the working group’s outcomes, UNEP might provide a number of useful tools to ensure that environmental considerations are fully integrated across the new framework.

The UNEA outcome document called on the international community to achieve an ambitious and balanced post-2015 development agenda, with a full integration of the environment dimension.

“UNEA is a historic event for all of us, set to define not only the future of UNEP, but to support further the institutional framework and programmatic platform for sustainable development and set the environmental agenda for the world to follow,” said UNEA’s President and Mongolian environment minister Dr. Oyun Sanjaasuren at the closing session.

The beginning of the UNEA week also saw the launch of the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) annual World Investment Report, with a special focus this year on financing and the SDGs. According to the report, developing countries currently face an annual investment gap of around US$2.5 trillion in SDG-relevant sectors. Investment in areas such as basic infrastructure, food security, and climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries will require between US$3.3 trillion and $4.5 trillion per year, according to further estimates.

In order to meet these investment needs, the report provides a framework to understand and enhance the role of private sector contributions, with a range of policy options to address the challenges these present.

Discussions on sustainable development financing – a historically difficult area in international negotiations – are currently underway at UN headquarters. These talks have been held through an intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, which has highlighted among other considerations, the important role that a well-regulated international trade system can play in this area. (See BioRes, 24 June 2014).

ICTSD reporting; “Summary of the First UN Environment Assembly of the UN Environment Programme,” ENB, IISD Reporting Services, 30 June 2014

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