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UNEP/Canadian-Media: The last year has been anything but normal for the global environmental movement, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said.
Cool Coalition. Image credit: Website
COVID-19 has scotched more than a half-dozen high-level summits, where, in non-pandemic times, government officials, international organizations, scientists and activists would have gathered in person to work out policies and plans for challenges facing people and the planet. Important discussions still took place online.
While some headline-grabbing conferences were postponed, COVID-19 hasn’t slowed the work of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), said the organization’s head as it looks ahead to 2021.
“COVID-19 underscores the urgency of our work and forced us to be even more diligent in combating threats to the Earth,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP’s Executive Director. “The pandemic is a symptom of humanity’s fractured relationship with the natural world – and we don’t have long to repair that bond.”
The Earth is facing an unprecedented set of threats, including climate change, rampant pollution and mass extinction of wildlife. In 2020, UNEP staff worked hard, often behind the scenes, to address those challenges, said Andersen.
Here are just a few selected examples.
In July, UNEP released a landmark report on zoonotic diseases, animal-borne pathogens, like COVID-19, that transmit between animals and humans. It found that unless countries made dramatic changes to their economies, forest management and healthcare systems, pandemics will become increasingly common.
The pandemic has led to a surge in medical waste, including single-use plastics, masks, gloves, disinfectants, and anti-microbial solutions Work on an upcoming UNEP report on waste management during COVID-19 is underway, which is expected to identify best practices that can be used to manage this waste across different countries and local conditions.
“While COVID-19 has hit us hard, it has also underscored the urgency of meeting global goals. This pandemic, like others before it, is closely linked to the way humanity treats nature as a commodity that is gobbled up to fuel our economies. We urgently need to step up ambition and action on the three planetary crises of climate change, nature loss and pollution to head off further pandemics and other, potentially far graver, shocks.”
The roll out of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 is a light at the end of the tunnel, but getting it into the hands (or the arms) of billions will be a challenge, especially in low-income countries that lack the cold chain infrastructure to store and distribute the jab.
The vaccine also provides an opportunity to revolutionize cold chains. UNEP is working with the governments of Rwanda, the United Kingdom, and a consortium of universities on a new Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain, which will develop cold chain solutions for urban and rural areas on the continent. Meanwhile, the UNEP-led Cool Coalition brings together academics and industry experts to develop sustainable cold chains fit for both vaccines and agricultural produce.
Despite the pandemic, UNEP continued a decades-long push to limit air pollution, which kills 7 million people a year – four times the total of COVID-19 to date. In September, the agency launched the inaugural International Day of Clean Air for blue skies to raise awareness about worsening air quality.
UNEP also helped African states develop stricter regulations for the trade in heavily polluting used vehicles, which find a second home in low-income countries, but at great environmental cost, according to a major UNEP report.
The agency also worked with governments in Latin America and the Caribbean to close some of the region’s most toxic dumps.
The launch of the Global Industry Standard on Tailings Management was an important milestone towards the ambition of zero harm to people and the environment when it comes to mining. Underpinned by an integrated approach to tailings management, the Standard aims to prevent catastrophic failure and enhance the safety of mine tailings facilities across the globe.
Restoration takes centre stage
With many ecosystems under extreme duress, UNEP partnered with local communities around the world from the mountains of El Salvador to the forests of Madagascar, to revive natural spaces lost to development. Those efforts came amid a stark warning from United Nations Secretary General António Guterres during a landmark speech in December.
“The state of the planet is broken,” Guterres said. “Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal. Nature always fights back and it is doing so with growing force and fury.”
His comments come on the eve of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a global push to revive forests, savannahs and other natural spaces lost to development. The campaign is part of a busy 2021 environmental calendar, which includes key summits postponed due to COVID-19.
“We’re at a turning point when it comes to the environment,” said Andersen. “The next year is going to be critical in determining whether we can stop and reverse the destruction of the planet. And, ultimately, that will dictate our future as a species.”
In December, UNEP announced the Champions of the Earth and Young Champions of the Earth. This cohort of inspirational trail blazers and young environmentalists is a reminder of the solutions, the knowledge, and the technology to limit climate change and avoid ecological collapse.
Additional highlights of UNEP’s work were outlined by Andersen in her remarks to UNEP’s Committee of Permanent Representatives in November.