The attitude in the assembly hall in Nairobi, Kenya during deliberations was one of excitement and determination. U.N. delegates fumbled with their microphones, translators orated like wild winds, and a captivated Georgetown Environmental Future(s) Initiative observed the calculated madness.
As undergraduate members of the Environmental Future(s) Initiative, we had the opportunity to attend the second United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA II) in Nairobi, Kenya. In late May, we traveled with faculty member Randall Amster to this bi-annual conference organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This branch of the UN coordinates global environmental policy through consensus between U.N. member states, civil society groups, and representatives of the private sector.
The UNEA convention was authorized at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, and the first session of UNEA convened in Nairobi in June 2014. 17 resolutions were passed, focusing on topics including illegal wildlife trade, air quality, and chemicals and waste management.
This year’s convention—UNEA II—centered on the theme, “Delivering on the environmental dimension of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” Topics for discussion included implementation of the Paris Agreement, sustainable consumption and production, food waste, the safeguarding of ecosystems, illegal wildlife trade, management of natural capital, biodiversity, air quality, protecting the environment in areas of conflict, marine litter, and waste management. UNEA II concluded on May 28 with the adoption of 25 resolutions after five days of events, speeches, and deliberations.
Our delegation was organized in partnership with UNEP officials by the newly formed Environmental Future(s) Initiative, an organization of passionate students and faculty members with the mission of expanding opportunities for the Georgetown community to engage on global environmental issues.
With this mission in mind, we attended various panels featuring environmentalists from the political, non-governmental, and activist sectors. We were allowed unique insight into different approaches for the preservation of a sustainable planet for our future, with ideas ranging from new clean energy technologies to the intersection of environmental justice and human rights. Through participation in these discussions, we were able to connect with professionals and build on the knowledge that we have gained through our experiences at Georgetown.
Just a few weeks before our arrival in Nairobi, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta announced his intention to close the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, which house approximately 400,000 people. For this reason, the UNEA II symposium called “Environment and Displacement: Root causes and implications” was especially powerful. Hearing ministers and attendees highlight the need for sustainable support for refugees while also listening to our friend and taxi driver Joseph explain how many Kenyans feel overburdened by the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps, we were exposed to both the high-level goals that may dictate governmental action and the on-the-ground implications and attitudes that such goals may precipitate.
With a predicted increase to 200 million environmentally displaced people by the year 2050, the world needs to work on a new approach to displacement that upholds dignity for all people. That goal, of displacement and sustainability with dignity, was evident in the speeches of Anote Tong, the former President of the Republic of Kiribati. We were particularly struck by the humility in both his speeches and personal conversations and his honest desire to pursue betterment for islands nations. It is easy to assume that an individual in charge of a country that is threatened by imminent rising sea levels would be angry; however President Tong, while acknowledging that frustration, remained focused on potential solutions to the problem. During simultaneous panels, people from the Republic of Maldives were looking toward collaborations, asking questions, and talking through ideas; while a presenter from the Republic of Seychelles focused on frankness, openness and the degree to which they’re looking for solutions any way they can. Such solutions include, but are not limited to, restructuring debt, investing, reaching out to countries and corporations, and cleaning oceans and reefs.
Our experience at UNEA II demonstrated to us that environmentalism is all encompassing – the ultimate equalizer. We share this world in its totality, and now is the time to take meaningful steps towards building a sustainable future for all people. It was inspiring to be surrounded by people who had real power to shape our future in a sustainable fashion, who gathered together to demonstrate their dedication to confronting the difficult issues facing the global community. These topics of environment, equity and justice align perfectly with our goals as students of Georgetown University, as young professionals, and as citizens of the world.
Without the support of the Environmental Future(s) Initiative, the School of Foreign Service, and others at and beyond Georgetown, this amazing experience would not have been possible. If you would like to know more about the delegation and the Environmental Future(s) Initiative, please contact Aaron Silberman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Sara Carioscia (email@example.com).