IPS interviews JOYCE MSUYA, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), to find out what to expect at the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5).
Joyce Msuya, the deputy executive director of the UN Environment Program (UNEP), says environmental problems are development problems and therefore everyone’s problems. Photo credit: Isaiah Esipisu / IPS
NAIROBI, February 22, 2021 (IPS) – It is time for the world to radically change our paths if we are to make peace with the planet and create the environmental conditions so that all of humanity can flourish, Delegates, attending the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) heard about it this morning.
The assembly, the world’s leading environmental decision-making body, attended by government leaders, businesses, civil society and environmental activists, practically entered today under the Theme “Strengthening the Measures for Nature to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”. It ends on February 23rd.
Before the gathering, IPS interviewed Joyce Msuya, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to find out what to expect from the two-day event.
Inter Press Service ( IPS): What outcome should African countries expect from the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA)?
Joyce Msuya (JM): The UNEA is the highest international agency for environmental issues and focuses on the goals for nature and sustainable development (SDG).
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With regard to African countries, I will put three things on the table. One is action. Science has already spoken. Climate change is a problem, and biodiversity loss is happening faster than ever, and finally, pollution, especially plastic pollution, is a big problem. So we need to bring the African voices and leadership to the UNEA to see together what the African countries are up to in terms of action to deal with these three planetary crises.
The second is partnerships. Environmental problems are development problems, and they are everyone’s problems. Citizens can hardly make changes in their households, municipalities can hardly make changes to things like waste management, and those who live near the oceans can take care of the blue economy. So we have to see how governments work with the private sector, indigenous communities, youth and even children to address environmental change.
The third problem is support for UNEP. UNEP is the only largest unit of the United Nations in the southern hemisphere. So this is the time when it needs to be supported not only by the Kenyan government but also by African governments.
JM: COVID-19 is already affecting the meeting and will continue to affect it in three ways. The pandemic has indeed shown us the interconnectedness of the environment and human health. For example, in June last year, UNEP published a study on zoonotics to show the link between nature and viruses.
In terms of impact on the meeting, this will be the first virtual meeting with over 100 countries participating online. This virtual connectivity was controlled by COVID-19.
Third, countries and member states not represented in Nairobi can join due to the virtual connectivity via an internet connection. Therefore, integrative multilateralism will also be presented at the meeting.
IPS: What influenced the choice of the UNEA-5 topic “Strengthening measures for nature to achieve the SDG Agenda 2020”?
JM : The design and consistency of the theme was based on a consultation process. For example, in Africa there was the African ministerial meeting that dealt with environmental issues. The subject has been proposed for consideration by the Member States. Therefore, they discussed its relevance, its impact on different countries and decided together on this topic. It is a topical issue for nature, but also for the SDGs. We are nine years away from the 2030 deadline for the SDGs.
As the UN Secretary-General said, this is the UN decade for action when it comes to the 2030 Agenda.
IPS: The The UN Secretary-General has also said that this is the year he is pushing for pledges from all member states not to cause emissions by 2050 and the COP is the most appropriate forum in which that should happen. What does UNEP want to see in terms of commitments?
JM: We work in different teams under the Secretary General and what he said is actually what has guided our work. We are working very closely with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP) on climate change and we are providing science to support the discussions. We should also not forget the COP on Biodiversity, which is hosted by China, as nature and climate change go hand in hand.
We also offer science, for example to inform companies. We recently released the Global Environmental Outlook for Business to provide data and scientific evidence that businesses can use to understand the role they can play in reducing the effects of climate change.
IPS: In many African countries people have invaded wetlands and buildings have been erected in such areas, especially in urban areas, to accommodate the growing population. Is that a concern for you? If so, how can it be addressed?
JM: At UNEP we believe that wetlands are important in maintaining the microclimate in the areas where they occur and in releasing moisture into the atmosphere through evaporation.
On a global level, we are committed to the preservation of wetlands. We have worked with a number of countries to share experiences that go very well in maintaining wetlands from one country to another. Our science also helps educate people about how to conserve wetlands, and in Kenya, for example, we work with the government to provide technical assistance and science to support their efforts to protect the wetlands.
All in all, we are starting a discussion with environmental ministries in many African countries, in which we advocate the conservation of wetlands.
IPS: What action must we take to reverse biodiversity loss around the world?
JM: One of the places where UNEP has worked with the Biodiversity Secretariat is on the post-2020 biodiversity framework. Parties, Member States and the environmental community have looked at lessons from previous studies. And now there is a new framework for biodiversity that is being discussed at COP.
On the one hand, the work of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is supported in terms of content. Second, in Kenya, for example, we are working with the Interior Ministry on tree planting. The government’s goal is to plant millions of trees over the next two years through our Africa division. We support these efforts. Some of our employees have teamed up with local communities to plant trees.
Then the third area is about partnerships. Trees are not only important for the environment, but also for agriculture. That is why we are working with other parts of the United Nations to advocate and support tree planting.
JM: That’s a very interesting question. Since the pandemic almost a year ago, some countries have closed, including offices and economic activities. Anecdotes seem to suggest that air pollution has been addressed. This is because there weren’t many cars on the roads and there wasn’t a lot of air pollution.
However, let’s not forget that the pandemic is still a humanitarian problem and crisis because people have lost jobs and many more Have lost human life. For example, we’ve worked with the World Health Organization to understand the relationship between nature and health.
We also recognize that this is also an economic problem, and we’re seeing a number of countries that are now having their economies again However, the post-COVID-19 era offers us the opportunity to rebuild our economies in an environmentally friendly manner. So the pandemic was a reflective time, but it also showed that UNEP, member states and multilateralism can still function virtually.
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