Under an African Sky: Reflections on Plurality, Partnerships and Pathways at the second UN Environment Assembly

Blog by Steven Stone, Chief of UNEP's Economy and Trade branch (ETB).

As I started my day on Friday, May 27th – the last day of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-2) in Nairobi – with a run through the Karura Forest Reserve, just behind the UN compound, I marveled at the broad African sky and all that bustled into life underneath it.

It had been an incredible week.  Little noticed in the press as President Obama made his way to Hiroshima, marking 70 years since that inflection point in our history, ministers from around the world descended on Nairobi for a very different conversation: how to address the common challenge of delivering on environmental sustainability, and in particular its central and underpinning role in the newly adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Much as a kaleidoscope pointed to the sun, a colourful array of policy issues and challenges - ostensibly environmental in the first instance but ranging from finance and economics to behavioral and hard sciences that play out upon the environment - moved and shifted and rearranged to provide policy champions, thought leaders and the world media a chance to interact and cast new light on the pressing challenges of the day.  And perhaps more importantly, to share and exchange an equally impressive and diverse array of solutions coming to light that can be deployed in advancing the Sustainability Agenda.

First among them, was the principle of plurality, or the recognition that different approaches, tools and visions can peacefully coexist among Member States, leading to a diversity of pathways towards sustainability. 

Enshrined in Resolution 10 of the first UN Environment Assembly, this concept was again front and center in Nairobi, as Member States stressed that in the common undertaking of improving and enhancing environmental sustainability, there are many different and equally valid ways of approaching and framing the issue, whether called mother earth, harmony with nature, gross national happiness, living well, or any number of other approaches.  

Side by side with China's Environmental Protection Minister, Chen Jining, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)'s outgoing Executive Director Achim Steiner, launched two reports that captured this plurality, and demonstrates the leadership that is emerging around the world to tackle common problems in ways that are culturally and nationally relevant and determined in ways that are unique to each country, and that taken together present a tapestry of local and national solutions capable of retaking the sustainability challenge. 

From Left: Yu Hai, Deputy Director, PRCEE; Chen Jining, Minister of Env., China; Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director; Sheng Fulai, UNEP

Turning the kaleidoscope slightly, and emerging from this plurality of approaches, a number of new and promising partnerships were showcased in Nairobi, and welcomingly, their ability to act together and join to form a mosaic of institutions and intellectual and financial resources joining together to support policy champions from around the world.  PAGE, GGKP, UNEP FI, UN-REDD, the 10YFP and GGGI, to name a few, teamed up to engage in a high level policy dialogue to examine the foundations of effective partnerships, how to reduce transactions cost and build "collective impact". Moderated by Amina J. Mohamed, former UN Special Advisor to the Secretary General on the 2030 Agenda, and currently Minister of Environment for Nigeria, this panel of leading lights came to the unsurprising but highly contemporary conclusion that, paraphrasing an African proverb, if we want to go far, we must go together.

Finally, against this backdrop of colors and diversity of players and approaches, emerged a growing sense of cohesion that can bring together formerly disparate and sometimes contradictory sign-posts for discerning our way forward. 

Showcased in UNEP's new report "Uncovering Pathways to an Inclusive Green Economy", a number of new and innovative approaches that stitch together the concepts of sustainable consumption and lifestyles, ecological red-lining, and resource efficiency are drawn together to emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of the challenges that face us – and the integrated nature of the solutions that are coming to light.  They also illustrate a growing ability to see a greater common interest that binds us when it comes to sustainability, beyond our narrow self and national interest, that will enable us to reach the sustainable development goals and have enabled important milestones such as the Paris Climate agreement.

One of the more important pathways to resurface at UNEA was the concept of market prices and environmental costs.  While hardly novel, new evidence is emerging that together with a growing awareness is making what once seemed an obscure economic concept a commonsense reality.

Take food pricing for example.  At UNEA, the study leads of TEEB AgriFood presented a growing body of evidence that while food prices may appear cheap - and particularly so in the current commodity price slump - the actual cost of cheap food may be hidden and distributed across the food chain: externalized costs on the farm in terms of soil erosion and aquifer contamination; externalized costs for the consumer and the public as human health costs from diabetes and obesity reach the hundreds of billions of dollars, prompting countries such the UK to propose "sugar taxes" to offset some of these social and externalized costs.

Looking farther upstream, and as these externalized, public costs grow, there is every indication that they will feedback through other pricing mechanisms as Mother Nature's invoices arrive on our doorstep. 

Another study launched at UNEA –
ERISC Phase II – looked at sovereign credit ratings and ecological integrity, and the possible impact of increased climate variation and its transmission through price shocks in basic agricultural goods, with important consequences and messages for "biodiversity poor" countries:  ecosystems integrity is eroding, and this can have important spill over on economic performance, and even impact on borrowing costs for sovereign states.

Which leads us back into the terrain, again, of the central role of financing and capital markets, and how they are responding to the price signals, missing or otherwise, cascading through our economies.  The Symposium on Financing for Sustainable Development offered a chance for policy makers from central banks, ministries and the private sector to look at how to unlock financing and investments in the economy of tomorrow.

Which turns out to be a non-trivial point.  As our economies and societies are so full of inertia - behavioral, institutional, physical - it turns out that we cannot only point out the hidden costs that are slowly creeping up, un-ignorable, in other parts of the economy; but rather look to the investments and opportunities that a cleaner and greener economy could bring.  To engage proactively with those policy and business entrepreneurs who will shape and form the economies of tomorrow.  And, if needed, challenge the vested interests and status quo that is holding it back.

From Left: Eric Usher, UNEP FI; Jeremy Ngunze, 
CEO of Kenya Commercial Bank of Africa Ltd; Davaakhuu Tumurkhuu, Vice President Mongolian Bankers Association & CEO of Arig Bank; Bernard Osawa, Director, Frontier Investment Management, Kenya; Raymond Carlsen, CEO, Scatec Solar, Norway

Because as we reach mid-way in 2016, we have a golden opportunity: to build on the landscape change agreements of 2015 - in particular from Paris and the freshly minted 2030 agenda - to reexamine how we operate our markets and economies, and rethink the rules of the game for making them fit for purpose and vehicles to deliver on sustainability.

In this, we are fortunate to hear the call of Germany, which at a media event to welcome new partner countries to PAGE – the Partnership for Action on Green Economy - announced its intention to host the next gathering of policy champions in Berlin, this coming March 2017, as their presidency to the G20 kicks off the year. Making our economies motors of productivity and value, of shared prosperity. There are more than one way to do so - multiple pathways, in fact - but uncovering them has become and urgent and common undertaking. 

And we have the partnerships and platforms to carry them forward, linking and strengthening policy champions from around the globe, and reinforcing the sense of opportunity that lies ahead through shared and common purpose.

From Left: Mr. Karmenu Vella, Commissioner for the Environment, EC; Nik Sekhran, UNDP; Mr. Kwang-Hee NAM, Ministry of Environment, Republic of Korea; Elliot Harris, UNEP; H.E. Bomo Edna Molewa, Env. Minister, South Africa; H.E. Denis Lowe, Env. Minister, Barbados; Daniar Imanaliev, Dep. Minister of Economy, Kyrgyz Republic; Pavan Sukhdev, UNEP Goodwill Ambassador; H.E. Dr Thani bin Ahmed Al-Zeyoudi, Env. Minister, UAE; Mr. Jochen Flasbarth, State Secretary, Federal Ministry for the Envv, Germany 

There is strength and optimism under the skies of Africa - an old continent, from where our humanity emerged thousands of years ago.

And from whence, new points of inflection, new points of light, coalesce to form a rainbow of approaches and solutions to the environmental challenges before us.

As I ran through the Karura Forest Reserve in the pre-dawn light, I couldn’t help but feel that under this wide African sky, there is room for all, and that we have the ability to partner and forge ahead effectively, uncovering the pathways that exist before us but call out to be discovered, as we make our way forward into an unknown and unknowable future, but one that is now well marked with clearly defined goals and sign posts for measuring our progress along the way.

As Achim Steiner said during his remarks during UNEA-2, and captured in a recently released video tracing the evolution of the Green Economy Initiative: “Join us on this journey". 

Together, we can go far.