NAIROBI, Kenya, March 11, 2019 (ENS) – The world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment opened in Nairobi today with a moment of silence for the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines ET302 accident, which happened Sunday morning.

Assembly

UN Environment Assembly attendees stand for a moment of silence to honor those killed in the crash of Ethiopian Airlines plane on Sunday carrying UN staffers. Mar. 11, 2019 (Photo courtesy Joyce Msuya via Twitter)

The UN flag was flown at half-mast at UN Environment headquarters in Nairobi as the Fourth UN Environment Assembly began today, while colorful country flags were removed in honor of the 157 people of 35 nationalities who lost their lives in the crash. Twenty-two were UN staff members, many on their way to the UN Environment Assembly.

UN Environment said Sunday in a statement, “We are deeply saddened to announce the loss of Victor Shangai Tsang, who was a passenger on the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines plane which crashed on the morning of 10 March 2019 near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.”

“Victor’s death is a devastating loss, not just for UN Environment, but for the United Nations as a whole. He was a great ambassador for the organization, embodying and upholding its spirit and ideals.”

Tsang

UN staffer Victor Tsang was one of the victims of the Ethiopian Airlines accident. (Photo courtesy UN Environment)

A native of Hong Kong, China, Victor joined the World Food Programme as an intern in 2011. He joined the UN Environment Programme in 2015, working as a program officer in the Gender and Safeguards Unit, striving to make all projects fully gender-sensitive. Due to his work, the UN Environment Gender Marker System became integrated into the REDD+ and Global Environment Facility programs.

“In what turned out to be his last, and greatly appreciated contribution to our work,” said UN Environment, “Victor marshalled a team of interns and experienced staffers to promote the SDG [Sustainable Development Goals] Innovation Talks at the UN Environment Assembly taking place this week in Nairobi.”

“Victor embodied the United Nations Global Goals, in particular that of gender equality. His work defined him as an individual, and he in turn helped define our own work,” UN Environment said. “He will be remembered with great affection by all colleagues whose lives he touched. He represented the best in all of us, and we will miss him terribly.”

Assembly Will Address Many Issues

More than 4,700 delegates from 170 countries, including almost 100 ministers of the environment, have gathered in Nairobi for the week-long UN Environment Assembly.

The Fourth Environment Assembly is the largest gathering in the Assembly’s history. Prominent world leaders will attend, including the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, and the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, as well as CEOs of major corporations.

“In the wake of this tragedy, it has been difficult to navigate how to proceed without showing disrespect to the many lives lost yesterday,” said Maimunah Sharif, acting director-general of the UN Office in Nairobi and executive director of UN-Habitat. “I want to assure you all however, that as the day and week unfolds, and the world’s global environmental leaders meet to discuss the future of our planet, we will not forget this tragedy, nor those that perished with it.”

The Assembly will focus on innovative solutions for environmental challenges and how humans can consume and produce sustainably. Bold decisions and outcomes are expected as the delegates negotiate late into the night over five days.

Resolutions are on the table to push harder for sustainable consumption and production patterns, commit to the protection of the marine environment from plastic pollution, reduce food waste, and advance technological innovation that combats climate change, and reduces resource use and biodiversity loss.

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Siim Kiisler, Estonia’s environment minister, now also serves as UN Environment Assembly president, 2017 (Photo courtesy Government of Estonia)

UN Environment Assembly President and Estonia’s Environment Minister Siim Kiisler asked delegates to define ambitious national targets for reducing waste, increasing the reuse of products and reducing single-use plastics by 2030.

Kiisler pointed out that two billion people worldwide still lack access to solid waste collection services, while 64 million people are directly affected by uncontrolled dumping and open burning at dumpsites.

“Unless we act now, we will not be able to reverse these mega-trends, thereby protecting human and environmental health and maintaining current and future integrity of global ecosystems. Consequently, many of the Sustainable Development Goals will not be met,” Kissler said.

The Estonian minister also asked for member states to improve their environmental monitoring systems to fill current data gaps, explaining that open access scientific data would better guide policymakers on what needs to be done across all environmental areas.

He asked UN Environment to develop a global environmental data strategy by 2025.

Joyce Msuya, acting executive director of the UN Environment, asked delegates to be “optimistic and bold” and quickly move the world to a low carbon economy, which by 2050 would have reduced fossil fuel use by 80 percent.

Msuya

Joyce Msuya, assistant secretary general and UN Environment acting executive director at the opening plenary of the 4th UN Environment Assembly, Nairobi, Kenya, Mar. 11, 2019 (Photo by Cyril Villemain courtesy UNEP)

Msuya emphasized the need to achieve a near zero waste economy by 2050.

“We have grown at the expense of nature. We have compelling science that lays out the urgency with which we must act,” said Msuya. “We can no longer grow now, and clean up later. We have reached the planet’s limits.”

Msuya said there are already many examples of people, governments, enterprises and civil society around the world who are acting to protect people and the planet.

In Cameroon, for instance, farmers are using solar-powered driers to dry the cassava crop, which means they can store the cassava for longer.

And in Sri Lanka affordable electric conversion kits are being sold, aimed at transforming the traditional, beloved Tuk Tuk, a three-wheeled motorized taxi, into an electric vehicle.

Keriako Tobiko, Kenya’s minister for environment, underlined that the uptake of technology is urgently needed to ensure sustainable use of the environment. He said that Kenya is taking actions to address challenges in solid waste management, such as capturing landfill methane gas for electric power generation.

In her closing remarks Acting Director Msuya chose to use the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres regarding the work needed to address the planet’s environmental crisis.

“In this fast-changing world, standing still means falling further behind,” Msuya said. “So let’s move ahead!”

Andersen Takes Charge

In late February the UN General Assembly appointed economist and environmentalist Inger Andersen of Denmark as the executive director of UN Environment, and now she will take over from Msuya.

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UN Environment Executive Director Designate Inger Andersen, left, and UN Environment Acting Director Joyce Msuya communicate at the opening of the 4th UN Environment Assembly, Nairobi, Kenya, Mar. 11, 2019 (Photo by Cyril Villemain courtesy UNEP)

Since 2015 Andersen has been serving as director general of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, overseeing its 50+ offices around the world and its trademark Red List of Threatened Species.

“Andersen has held various leadership positions at the World Bank and United Nations, most recently as Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa Region at the World Bank (2011-2015) and Vice President for Sustainable Development and Head of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research Fund Council (2010-2011),” UN Environment said in the statement.

IUCN President Zhang Xinsheng said, “IUCN is proud that its current director general, Inger Andersen, has been appointed to head the United Nations Environment Programme, UNEP. She is a very qualified candidate whose leadership and talent have made a valuable contribution to IUCN during her tenure here.”

“This nomination is demonstrative of Inger’s dedication to natural conservation of the world but also of IUCN’s importance as the world’s most influential conservation union,” said Zhang, “and it is excellent news for UNEP.”

Ahead of the meeting, Msuya appealed to nations to step up and start delivering real change. “Time is running short,”she wrote in a policy letter. “We are past pledging and politicking. We are past commitments with little accountability. What’s at stake is life, and society, as the majority of us know it and enjoy it today.”

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