Opening remarks of the UNEA President

Opening remarks of the UNEA President, Norwegian Minister of Climate and Environment Mr. Espen Barth Eide, at the Opening Plenary of the Fifth Session of the UN Environment Assembly.

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Honourable ministers, Excellencies, distinguished delegates,

On June 6th, 1972, the Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr. Olof Palme, addressed the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.

In his opening statement, Mr. Palme reflected on the essential challenges to mankind. He spoke about the limits to what our environment can tolerate and about the perils of ecocide.

Palme spoke about the need for responsible growth, circularity and clean energy.

In the establishment of UNEP, the foundation was built for what was to develop into the concept of sustainable development.

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Half a century has passed by.

Much has been achieved. Let us not forget that.

Let us just for a moment consider where humanity would have been had no UNEP - or similar body - been created.

When I was young, one of our primary worries was the rapid depletion of the ozone layer. We feared that we would all be fried by unfiltered solar radiation.

Science told us that the main source was our use of CFCs and halons.

International cooperation gave us the Montreal Protocol.

Member states abode by its regulations and changed their habits.
Research and technology helped us develop alternative technologies for refrigeration.

Then, too, there were people protesting, claiming that regulating CFCs would undermine their business model.

But friends, last time I checked, the food in my refrigerator was still cold.

And the ozone layer is still there.

We established the IPCC, which helped us understand the climate crisis and spur climate action.

The IPBES made us grasp the paramount importance of our ecosystems for our very lives.

We got Stockholm, Basel and Minamata. And many more.

Science has brought us irrefutable knowledge about the drivers of environmental degradation.

Loss of biodiversity, increased pollution and global warming: We are no longer in doubt. They are all driven by human activity.

It is time to act for nature to achieve the sustainable development goals.

There is a growing sense of urgency, all around the world.

This is particularly true for the young generation, who are raising their voices ever more loudly.

Dear delegates, the young are absolutely right.

They read the science, and they understood what it said.

It is up to us to deliver.

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The global pandemic has taken its toll on life, health and our economies.

As we recover, we should strive do so in a way that is more just, more renewable, and more circular.

It has shown us the power of cooperation on finding solutions, like the record speed in the development of vaccines.

But it also reminded us that we have a fundamentally unequal world with respect to the distribution of these.

The pandemic has also been felt in preparing for this meeting.

I am grateful to everyone here, who despite of these difficult conditions, have been working together get the job done.

In particular, I deeply acknowledge all those of you who have been working digitally, at impossible hours, at times with crying kids and barking dogs joining the choir from the home office.

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But friends,

Our Assembly gathers at a moment of severe geopolitical turmoil.

I am acutely aware of how this dark backdrop is in the minds of many, and that we even in this room, have people who are personally affected.

In times like these, the responsibility bestowed upon us is even greater.

More than ever, we must demonstrate that multilateral diplomacy can deliver.

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Half a century has passed since Stockholm.

Climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution have finally reached the top of the agenda for governments, businesses and civil society alike.

We have made great strides. Much of what has already been achieved is the fruit of decisions made by people like us, in halls like these, who worked late hours to get to where we are today. Their hard work improved people’s lives.

Like them, we are here to steer and catalyze intergovernmental action.

Because we understand, just as Palme said it back then, and I quote:

The air we breathe is not the property of any one nation - we share it. What is asked of us is not to relinquish our national sovereignty, but to use it to further the common good.

We have several important topics on our agenda this week. Among these, is the noble mission to end plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic of its own. In fact, it is a rather new acquaintance: My grandparents did not use plastics at all in their youth, and my parents had to become adults before plastics became commonplace. In my life, it has been everywhere. Paradoxically, plastics are among the most long-lasting products we humans have made – and frequently, we still just throw it away.

This weekend, the Executive Director, Ms. Inger Andersen and I, visited the Dandora landfill here in Nairobi.

It was declared full a decade and a half ago- Still, 3000 tons of waste arrives daily. Just under half of that is plastics. It was a stark reminder of the magnitude of the challenge. Plastic leaks into nature, eventually it ends up in rivers, that then take it into the oceans and into the air we breathe. Thus, plastic pollution becomes a shared, global problem. The plastic that we see is one thing. Even worse is when it breaks into smaller pieces and turn into microplastics.

Preparing for this meeting, I wanted to see if I could find it in my own body. I had a leading institute back in Norway take a sample of my own blood to find out.

And the verdict was – yes indeed, they found traces of plastic-related chemicals in my blood. This included phthalates, a substance that is used to soften plastic products. These are toxic substances that we know can cause serious harm to human health.

The origins of the plastics in by body can be from close to me or from faraway lands. It doesn’t matter: the oceans and the air moves it all around.

And make no mistake – it is not that my blod is unique. We all have it. The plastic cup you disposed of years ago might be one of the sources.

After visiting Dandora, however, we also saw a glimmer of hope. We went on to visit two model facilities that deals with recycling of plastics into new products.

Both were led by inspiring, young Kenyan entrepreneurs.

They demonstrate that plastic is a product that can used again, and then over and over again, if we move it into a circular economy. One of them, Gjenge, is turning plastic and glass into bricks, with which we can build houses. But they can do more than bricks – indeed, they presented this assembly with this beautiful new gavel, made from plastic waste collected at Dandora. I hope this very gavel can be used to confirm the success of our endeavors here.

The recycling entrepreneurs here in Nairobi reminded me of a truly important insight: not all plastics can be recycled, even if you collect it. To have a lifecycle-approach to the problem, we also need to design to recycle in the first place.

And as we would not want to recycle hazardous substances, we also need to be much more aware of what we put into the plastic that we will still use.

I am convinced that the time has come for a legally binding treaty to end plastic pollution. I look forward to working with you on that and on all the other issues on our agenda. It is our turn now to confront these shared challenges of humanity.

Before closing, I want to appreciate all the work done to get us to where we are today.

I want to thank the Executive Director, Ms. Inger Andersen, and her very able UNEP secretariat, who worked hard to prepare this gathering.

I thank Ambassador Louisa Fragoso, the Chair of the Committee of Permanent Representatives, for steering us all trough the OECPR last week. I thank my fellow bureau members and those of the CPR bureau, and I thank all of you who worked long hours bringing negotiations so much ahead. Some even worked through the informal informals all into the early hours of today, and as I understand, with very promising results.

Ministers, excellencies, distinguished delegates, and representatives of civil society;

I very much look forward to working with you all this week and I thank you all for the attention.