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UN Environment Assembly highlights rising global role of UNECE Multilateral Environmental Agreements to address triple planetary crisis   

UN Environment Assembly highlights rising global role of UNECE Multilateral Environmental Agreements to address triple planetary crisis   


Faced with increasing impacts of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, which together constitute the “triple planetary crisis”, no country can act alone. Like nature itself, these challenges know no borders, which makes international cooperation a crucial part of action to address them.  

With this recognition, the role of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) – including those negotiated at UNECE – emerged as a key feature of discussions at the world’s highest decision-making body on the environment, the United Nations Environment Assembly, which held its sixth session (UNEA-6) on 26 February-1 March in Nairobi, Kenya.  

UNECE Executive Secretary Tatiana Molcean stated “For over 50 years, UNECE has fostered environmental protection and sustainable development across Europe, North America, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Its MEAs provide powerful tools to promote sustainable development and prevent, control and reduce pollution, particularly in cross-border contexts. The expansion of many of these agreements to other regions, and the increasing use of their experience and practical resources worldwide, provide an important opportunity to strengthen global environmental governance.” 

Tools to tackle environmental challenges across borders  

Air pollution – the greatest environmental health threat, responsible for 7 million annual deaths worldwide – is a clear example where cooperation across borders both saves lives and protects the environment. A UNEA-6 resolution on promoting regional cooperation to improve air quality globally acknowledged the progress achieved over 45 years of the 1979 Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution (Air Convention) and its Protocols. This unique treaty fosters regional cooperation on clean air and establishes emission reduction targets for key pollutants. In addition to important benefits for climate and ecosystems, including the halting of acid rain and recovery of forest soils and lakes, emission reductions have led to an increase in average life expectancy of 1 year and avoids 600,000 premature deaths annually in Europe. In a high-level dialogue on “MEAs day” at UNEA-6, the Executive Secretary highlighted the science-policy interface under the Air Convention as a successful example of how robust research and evidence-based findings have been translated into policymaking. The adoption of the Air Convention at the height of the Cold War by Parties including the US, European countries and the Soviet Union is also testament to the ability of multilateral cooperation on environmental issues to prevail even in times of geopolitical tension. 

As further stressed in a Ministerial session at UNEA-6 led by the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, the Air Convention remains the only binding regional treaty on air pollution anywhere on earth. While regional action is crucial in this area, science has also shown that inter-regional cooperation is also needed – a dimension being put into practice through the International Task Force for International Cooperation on Air Pollution established under the Convention. This experience should make an important contribution to increased regional cooperation, with UNEP, MEAs, UN Regional Commissions and other entities, as called for by the UNEA-6 resolution.  

Cooperation on transboundary waters is another key case where working together across borders is crucial for the sustainable management of shared resources, as reflected in a UNEA-6 resolution calling on Member States and other stakeholders to “Implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate”. The 1992 Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (Water Convention) helps countries cooperate on transboundary rivers, lakes and groundwater, resulting in improved water quality and enhanced biodiversity. As highlighted in an official UNEA side event on Transboundary Ecosystem Restoration co-organized by UNECE, thanks to cooperation driven by the Water Convention, pollution of phosphorous has been reduced by 50% in the Danube River, Lake Geneva  and Lake Peipsi Basins.  

Building on its successes in Europe, resulting in the negotiation of over 100 water agreements, the Convention has been open for accession by all UN Member States since 2016. 11 countries from Africa – where momentum is particularly strong –, in the Middle East and Latin America have already joined this treaty, and some 20 more worldwide are in the accession process.  

The Convention’s 1999 Protocol on Water and Health supports access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all, and helps reduce discharges of pollutants in water resources, coastal areas and other ecosystems. 

Highlighting MEAs as tools to help future-proof countries’ development, the 1991 Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context (Espoo Convention) and its 2003 Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment are unique UN treaties that ensure environmental considerations are integrated in the development of plans, programmes and projects at the earliest stages, covering areas from agriculture, energy, mining, construction, infrastructure and beyond. The Espoo Convention, which enables assessment across national borders, has been applied over 1,000 times to date, and is anticipated to become open to accession to all UN Member States within the next two years. Its Protocol has been open to all UN Member States from the outset. 

Human rights must underpin environmental action  

Environmental protection is not only the reserve of governments: the right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment is universal, and we all have a responsibility to make it a reality. Helping to do just that, the 1998 Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) empowers the public with rights to participate in decision-making and to access to information and justice regarding the environment at all levels, from local and regional projects, to national policy and international processes such as the UN Climate Change COPs. A key tool for the public (which has submitted 94% of all cases received by the Convention’s Compliance Committee) and NGOs to hold governments accountable, the Convention supports greater transparency in how environmental projects are planned and executed. Its vital work is supported since 2022 by the first Special Rapporteur on Environmental Defenders under the Aarhus Convention, Michel Forst. 

Signalling its global relevance, Guinea-Bissau joined the Aarhus Convention in 2022, opening up new horizons for environmental democracy in Africa and worldwide. The Convention also inspired the adoption of the Escazú Agreement strengthening environmental rights in Latin America and the Caribbean.   

Its 2003 Protocol on Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers further enhances public access to information on pollution sources and greenhouse gas emissions, which encourages pollution reduction, as no company wants to be identified as among the biggest polluters. Both these instruments are open for accession by all UN Member States.  

Improving environmental standards 

MEAs also drive the development and continuous improvement of environmental standards. A good example is how the 1992 Convention on the Transboundary Effects of Industrial Accidents strengthens industrial safety and reduces the risk and impact of accidental pollution, safeguarding populations, the environment and economic assets from potentially disastrous consequences. The Convention fosters a culture of preparedness and quick response, significantly minimizing the potential for transboundary environmental harm, for example through its Industrial Accident Notification System. 

Comprehensive guidelines and practical tools, developed under the Convention continue to enhance safety measures in critical areas such as tailings management facilities, pipelines, oil terminals, and land-use planning.  UNECE has also supported UNEP on the implementation of UNEA Resolution 5/12 on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals management, sharing its knowledge and tools in all five regional consultations and the global consultation, as reflected in UNEP’s Knowledge Gaps report in relation to the environmental aspects of tailings management. Tools in this area also include the UN Framework Classification for Resources and UN Resource Management System – used by the European Commission, African Union Commission and a growing number of countries worldwide. These globally applicable instruments can support the implementation of the UNEA-6 resolution on the environmental aspects of minerals and metals. 

UNECE stands ready to support countries in all regions to benefit from its proven tools, and to continue cooperation with UNEP and partners to maximise their impact. 

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Information Unit

Tel.: +41 (0) 22 917 12 34

Email: [email protected]

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