This article is written by Harpreet Kaur of 7th Semester of University Institute of Legal Studies, Panjab University
The world witnessed the enthusiastic celebration of the 50th World Environment Day on the fifth day of this month. The World Environmental Day is the biggest and the most important landmark event relating to the issue of the Environment and related matters. This edition of the event was hosted by Côte d’Ivoire in partnership with the Netherlands. Carrying the message of saving the environment, this year it was thematically focused on finding and discussing the existing and possible solutions to plastic pollution. As millions of people and organisations worldwide get together and join the hashtag #BeatPlasticPollution, let us take a broader look at the principal United Nations Organisation responsible for dealing with the environment and its preservation, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The United Nations Environment Programme is the leading environmental authority in the United Nations Framework. It works towards proposing, enhancing, and strengthening environmental standards and practices while helping implement environmental obligations at the national, local, and global levels. UNEP as a supervising and advisory body plays an integral role, on a global level when it comes to the issues of environmental degradation and protection, as the nations cannot be allowed absolute autonomy in these world-affecting realms.
Keywords: Environment, United Nations, Preservation, Pollution, Environmental Degradation, Climate Change, World Environment Day, United Nations Environment Programme.
It has been known that human being is a social creature. However, not stressed enough, is the fact that a human being is an environmental creature as well, feeding, at all times from his surroundings at a physical, mental, and emotional level. That being stated, it becomes necessary to ensure the upkeep and well-being of the environment.
Since time immemorial, humans have positively and negatively affected the environment. At times, they have even worshipped it in numerous forms and figures. In our world today, with the sea levels rising and the water table falling, average temperatures increasing, and wildlife diversity hitting new lows, it becomes more important than ever to put safeguards in place.
For this reason, over 50 years ago, the United Nations Environment Programme was established under the leadership of Maurice Strong, who went on to become the programme’s first director. It came into existence after the United Nations Conference on Human Environment held back in 1972 in Stockholm. The subject matter within the scope of the UNEP is wide-ranging. Its work perimeter includes the preservation of the forest cover, investigation, and measures to control climate change, protecting and maintaining marine and terrestrial ecosystems, and proposals to further sustainable growth. It also works for the formulation and execution of international agreements and treaties to sow the seeds of environmental safekeeping on a global stage.
The current work is intended to look into the origin and objectives of the United Nations Environment Programme; its major areas of concentration, its relevance in India and the legal framework thereof; the significance of World Environment Day, 2023 and the issue of Plastic Pollution.
United Nations Environment Programme
Headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, the UNEP has proved to be an instrumental element in bringing eyes and ears to the issues of environmental degradation and preservation. For more than 50 years, the programme has worked hand-in-hand with various national and international organisations and governments towards humanity’s most pressing issues such as protecting and restoring the ozone layer, preserving the oceans, and promoting overall greener and cleaner foundations of world economies while in keeping with the 17 sustainable development goals set by the United Nations Organisation.
In its deliberative capacity, it provides a platform for elaborate ground-level discussions in relation to the environmental challenges facing the Earth, and in its authoritative capacity, it works as a streamlining channel for the formulation of multilateral agreements such as
- The Minamata Convention on Mercury (MCM),
- The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES),
- The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS),
- The Convention on Biological Diversity, and
- Others such as the Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions.
The UNEP, in association with the World Meteorological Organisation, established the Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, which has been instrumental as a global forum for generating meaningful discourse on global and national environmental issues relating to climate change by publishing its periodical assessments on changing patterns of the environmental behaviour of the planet, along with the adverse effects that it brings.
Origin of the UNEP
In the late twentieth century, the national governments worldwide had not become accustomed to having global supervisory and advisory authorities, standing on top of their precious sovereign autonomy. Most countries were reluctant to the establishment of an environmental agency that could regulate and dictate their activities, in the name of preserving the environment.
Later, however, when due to pressing circumstances, the United Nations Organisation came into being as a successor of the League of Nations in 1945, several fields of both national and international importance came into the working subject matter of the UN automatically by necessary implication of its powers and functions. This, in turn, triggered the establishment of various other organs under the UNO such as The International Labour Organisation (ILO), The World Health Organisation (WHO), and The Food and Agriculture Association (FAO), among numerous others.
The developing nations still showed reluctance to the idea of the UNEP as it was argued that there are more pressing considerations for a developing nation than the preservation of the environment. It has been credited to the effective advocacy of Prof. Maurice Strong, that in the early 1970s, a shift was seen in the opinions of the governments and they became convinced that a specialised and focused parent body was needed to look over the field of environment as well. Nigerian professor Adebayo Adedeji said, “Mr Strong, through the sincerity of his advocacy, soon made it clear that all of us, irrespective of the stage of our development, have a large stake in the matter.”
As a result, The United Nations Environmental Programme was established after deliberations at the Stockholm Convention of 1972. Since then, it has been working step-by-step towards developing a green sustainable pathway for the world economies to prosper.
Six Key Areas of Concentration
The United Nations Environment Programme aims to ‘inspire, inform, and enable nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.’ It works to counter the triple planetary crisis of major environmental challenges i.e., climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution. It embodies and propagates the principles that
- ‘Healthy ecosystems often provide natural defences’ and
- ‘Degraded ecosystems reduce community resilience’ (UNEP, 2005)
For this purpose, it has assigned its focused concentration to six major areas of environmental concern. These are as follows:
- Climate Change UNEP:
The Climate Change UNEP lays down guidelines for nations to prevent, mitigate and to some extent, prevent climate change. It also deliberates upon the development of research in order to set up new forms of technology to effectively tackle this pressing global challenge.
- Post-Conflict and Disaster Management UNEP:
It provides post-conflict assessment to conflict-ridden nations and provides them with measures of potential environmental emancipation. Such assessments have proven instrumental in the cases of Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Sudan.
- Ecosystem Management UNEP:
It smoothens the process of management, maintenance and preservation of the ecosystems by laying down effective measures consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- Harmful Substances UNEP:
It seeks to explore and apply measures to sustainably dispose of the hazardous waste and harmful materials which accumulate over time and prove to have menacing and adverse effects on human and ecological health. One example is the Minamata Convention on Mercury wherein, the effects of mercury as a toxic substance were discussed and the potential solutions were explored.
- Environmental Governance UNEP:
It aids and assists national governments to lay down rules, regulations, and legislations to bring their economic governance in line with the current ecological requirements. It also provides measures to formulate and strengthen the abovementioned guidelines from time to time.
- Resource Efficiency UNEP:
It focuses on efforts to bring about maximum resource utilisation with a minimum negative effect on the ecological balance of a nation by bringing measures to minimise the wastage of unutilised or underutilised resources.
-Application in the Indian Scenario
1. Odisha, Bihar, and Gujarat
A major component of UNEP’s Eco-DRR project based in India takes focuses on the states of Gujarat, Bihar, and Odisha. The project majorly concentrates on the ‘restoration and protection of wetlands, rejuvenation of village ponds, and waterbody conservation.’
Another such project focuses on one of the largest cast-for-work schemes in the world, the MGNREGS or the ‘Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme’. In association with the Kerala Institute for Local Administration and the National Institute for Disaster Management, it works to link the aim of resource management of the scheme to its environmental potential by employing strategies to streamline the workforce into ecologically benefitting tasks.
3. Environmental Laws in India
In addition to the above, there have been significant enactments in India concerning the environment, both in the pre-constitution and post-constitution eras. Some of these are mentioned as follows:
- Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974
- Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1974
- Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1977
- Forest Conservation Act, 1980
- Environmental Protection Act, 1986
- Public Liability Insurance Act 1991
- Biological Diversity Act, 2002
- Wildlife Protection Act, 1972
- Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA)
Further, several judicial pronouncements have also been delivered by the courts of law to protect the environmental rights of the citizens. Some of these are:
- Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum v. Union of India, AIR 1996 SC 2005
The Court observed that these Tanneries in India are major foreign export earners and also provide jobs to several thousands of people. But also, on the other hand, they destroy the environment and pose health adversity to everyone. The court, acting with environmental conviction, imposed a pre-restart condition upon the tanneries to install the required equipment.
- M. C. Mehta v. Union of India, (1997) 2 SCC 353 (The Ganga River Case)
The court observed that the contents of iron and manganese were higher than the ISI limits of river water which was found to be very harmful for consumption. The court ordered the Tanneries which did not appear before the court should halt their functioning and restart, they must install pre-treatment machinery for trade effluents.
- Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board v. M. V. Nayadu, AIR 1999 SC 812
“The uncertainty of the scientific opinion, specifically in the environmental field has created problems for the courts. Uncertainty becomes a glaring issue when scientific knowledge is institutionalized in policy-making by courts and agencies.”
- Goa Foundation v. Konkan Railways Corporation, AIR 1992 BOM 471
The Courts are supposed to take into consideration the positive hardship that the public will undergo as a result of this public utility work being stalled further. No development is possible without some adverse effect on the ecology and the environment but the benefit of these projects must be weighed against the ecological damage and the method of minimum ecological friction should be chosen. An appropriate balance has to be struck between these two interests and this exercise must be left to the persons who are experts in the field.
World Environment Day, 2023
The World Environmental Day is the biggest and the most important landmark event relating to the issue of the Environment and related matters. This edition of the event was hosted by Côte d’Ivoire in partnership with the Netherlands. Carrying the message of saving the environment, this year it was thematically focused on finding and discussing the existing and possible solutions to plastic pollution.
#BeatPlasticPollution: Theme for the year
“It is a stark reminder that people’s actions on plastic pollution matter a lot. The steps which governments and businesses are taking to deal with plastic pollution are the apparent consequences of this action.”
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in his message, on World Environment Day (June 5th, 2023) aptly stated that plastic manufacture involves heavy use of fossil fuels, and when we burn fossil fuels, we contribute to ecological pollution. It is a major reason that plastic pollution needs to be countered with an iron fist.
Vivianne Heijnen, Netherlands’ Minister for the Environment further said that the element of plastic pollution should be highlighted as a significant matter of concern, as it is a major component contributing to all three facets of the triple planetary crisis being climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
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