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The Executive Director’s Statement to the 150th Meeting of the Committee of Permanent Representatives

H.E. Mr. Fernando Coimbra, Chair of the Committee of Permanent Representatives

Ambassadors and Excellencies, colleagues

In these unusual and tragic times, I am indeed grateful that we are able to connect virtually to continue the business of environmental governance. While the efforts of all your capitals are correctly focused on preventing human suffering, as parts of the world move slowly towards recovery, the environmental agenda remains one of our most powerful insurance policies in preventing future global pandemics like COVID-19.  

The “Great Lockdown” has unraveled our way of life

My deepest sympathies to Member States and people bearing the brunt of this pandemic which is proving to be a crisis like no other. In the last eight weeks, COVID-19 has unraveled our way of life. Billions of people are on lockdown as millions more slide into poverty. The International Monetary Fund has called it the “Great Lockdown”, the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Despite such turmoil, I am deeply proud that UNEP is very much “open-for-business”. Our staff have swiftly adapted, working virtually as we continue to deliver on our mandate for Member States. The well-being of personnel has been of paramount importance at this time and I assure you that we have left no stone unturned in supporting our outstanding colleagues in UNEP offices around the world. As the Quarterly Report you have before you outlines, we have continued to make progress on our Programme of Work, albeit with some inevitable delays in view of the pandemic.

One roadmap to recovery – the SDGs and the Paris Agreement

For many countries, it might seem premature at this moment in time, to be talking about recovery. But the reality is that once the immediate medical emergency has passed, the engines of growth must rev up to alleviate the suffering caused by this global tragedy. Agenda 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change remain our ONLY option for a durable recovery.

As we seek solutions, it is critical that we remain committed to the countless environmental victories our Member States have scripted over the decades. We have learnt the hard way that environmental protection is not a luxury, but central to sustainable and inclusive growth, and to protect the most vulnerable of populations, whether against COVID-19, biodiversity loss, pollution or climate change.

As noted in the UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-economic Response to COVID-19 released earlier this week, the current pandemic is a reminder of the intimate relationship between humans, animals and the environment.

We have, of course, shaped the response to COVID-19 firmly within the framework of UNEP’s Programme of Work.

Our response is to support Member States in addressing immediate challenges from the medical emergency, such as strengthening waste management systems.

Our response is to work to deliver stronger science and policies that back a healthier planet.

And our response is to stimulate green opportunities in the long-run – whether renewable energy, smart cities and infrastructure, green jobs, or sustainable consumption and production.

Allow me to elaborate.

One, COVID-19 response requires effective waste (including plastics) management

COVID-19, a medical emergency like none other, is resulting in a rapid increase in medical and hazardous waste. Reports from Wuhan, for example, pointed to a six-fold increase in waste generation at the height of the pandemic. Our colleagues at the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions have urged governments to treat waste management, including medical, household and other hazardous waste, as an urgent and essential public service.

Within the lens of our framework, Towards a Pollution-free Planet agreed at the Fourth UN Environment Assembly, UNEP support to Member States will address capacity gaps in medical waste systems through capacity assessments, and promote environmentally-sound waste management technologies and methods, with a view to minimize possible secondary impacts on health and the environment.

Two, it is time to review our relationship with nature

In 2016, UNEP’s prescient Frontiers Report[1] sounded the alarm. It reported that 60 per cent of all known infectious diseases in humans and 75 per cent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic.  COVID-19 is just one of many diseases now known to have crossed between animals and humans, although transmission pathways are still not fully understood.

To better understand the science of disturbance and risk, UNEP is mapping the links between deteriorating ecosystem health, habitat and biodiversity loss, and over-exploitation of species. Such a mapping, as part of our mandate to keep the environment under review, will give our Member States a clearer understanding of zoonotic transmission pathways and enable us to identify ways to interrupt these pathways. This is closely linked to a better articulation of policy responses that can deliver a “safe operating space” for nature, so that such pandemics may be prevented in the future.

Backing human health requires that we all double down in support of global policy frameworks to safeguard our environmental support systems. And it is for precisely this reason that progress on the many milestones we had expected to reach this year on biodiversity, chemicals management, or climate change, still matters greatly. UNEP is deeply committed to efforts to arrive at an ambitious, measurable and inclusive Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework, as well as The Beyond 2020 Chemicals and Waste Management Framework, because both play a central role in keeping nature, intact, diverse and flourishing. The stronger our planet’s life support systems are, the better human health will be.

The postponement of UNFCCC COP26 will delay the submission of new Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but this should be seen as an opportunity to strengthen NDCs even further by weaving in recovery efforts and climate-friendly investments that can stimulate economies, build resilience and create green and sustainable job opportunities.


Three, build back better

COVID-19 has revealed our collective vulnerability. Multiple economic, social and institutional drivers have converged to amplify environmental risks – with tragic consequences for health services. It is critical that recovery efforts be green, resilient, inclusive and sustainable.

Stimulus packages must offer the opportunity to “flip the switch green”, whether through investments in renewable energy, improvements in industrial production, waste management or infrastructure. Recovery can be transformational AND green – guided by sustainable consumption and production. Sustainable, resource efficient, resilient and inclusive value chains are central to delivering Agenda 2030 and at the core of UNEP’s post-COVID strategy.

Five design principles drive UNEP’s work in support of Member States, on green fiscal stimulus packages and financing: 1) the centrality of “green and decent” jobs and income; 2) investments in public wealth and social and ecological infrastructure; 3) circularity to advance sustainable consumption and production; 4) responsible finance for climate stability and ecosystems integrity; and 5) socially inclusive outcomes

The UN Framework for the Immediate Socio-economic Response to COVID-19 in fact calls on the UN Development System to mobilize the  Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE) to provide integrated support on green jobs, economic and environmental issues. PAGE is operational in 20 countries worldwide and could be used as a vehicle to support peer learning and knowl­edge transfer on policies that stimulate growth and recovery in the wake of COVID-19.

Four, new ways of working can enhance environmental diplomacy

And we are seeking ways by which new modalities of working can inform, and in some cases perhaps enhance, environmental diplomacy even when physical meetings are not possible. As the proud “docking station” for 15 Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), UNEP continues to support MEAs in this effort. Many are already developing impressive and innovative ways to keep environmental governance on track. In doing so, we will continue to review the legal, logistical, environmental and political implications, and also opportunities to modernize environmental governance and multilateralism.  

Through COVID-19, the planet has delivered its strongest warning yet that we must change

As the UN Secretary-General has noted, “In an interconnected world, none of us is safe until all of us are safe. COVID-19 respects no borders.  COVID-19 anywhere is a threat to people everywhere.”  

Through COVID-19, the planet has delivered its strongest warning yet that we must change. Stories and visuals abound of visible environmental benefits such as penguins on the streets of Cape Town, turtles returning to beaches, or cleaner skies across the world. A global lockdown is not the way to improve environmental outcomes, but it has shown people a glimpse of an alternate future. However, these benefits will not endure unless we build economies that work with nature, not against it.

And unfortunately, even as we seek to overcome the global pandemic, climate change has not paused. The reality is that the future of our planet in a 3-4°C scenario takes us to an entirely different level of uncertainty than presented by the current COVID-19 crisis.

We must take decisive action to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate change. And we must do this together, because as we are learning, in a pandemic, there are no individual solutions, just global solutions.

UNEP stands with Member States as we embark on the difficult road ahead.

In solidarity with people and opportunity, everywhere.

To ensure we do not reverse decades of progress in the fight against poverty.

To ensure that what we build back is stronger and more resilient than before.

To ensure that we protect planetary health.

And in doing so, protect the health of all.


Inger Andersen was appointed Executive Director of the UNEP by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in February 2019.

Between 2015 and 2019, Ms. Andersen was the Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Ms Andersen brings a passion for conservation and sustainable development with more than 30 years of experience in international development economics, environmental sustainability and policy-making, as well as in designing and implementing projects and generating on-the-ground impact. She has played a key role in supporting riparian countries on international water management and hydro diplomacy.

Prior to joining IUCN, Ms Andersen held various leadership roles at the World Bank and United Nations. Most recently, she was Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank, and previous to that Vice President for Sustainable Development and Head of the CGIAR Fund Council. Throughout Ms Andersen’s 15-year career at the World Bank, her managerial roles focused on water, environment, and sustainable development with special emphasis on Africa and the Middle East. Previous to the World Bank, Ms. Andersen worked at the United Nations for 12 years, starting in the UN Sudano-Sahelian Office working on drought and desertification issues, and was then appointed UNDP’s Water and Environment Coordinator for the Arab Region.

Ms Andersen’s educational background includes a BA from London Metropolitan University North and a MA degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London with specialisation in development economics.


Position: Co -Founder of ENGAGE,a new social venture for the promotion of volunteerism and service and Ideator of Sharing4Good

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