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Climate change, intensifying natural disasters, environmental pollution, and the extermination of entire species and ecosystems are realities that can no longer be ignored. The United Nations is dedicated to finding and implementing efficient, long-term solutions to tackle these urgent issues, working closely with its 193 Member States and stakeholders from all sectors.

Several UN agencies in Geneva have created programmes dedicated to addressing environmental challenges, working in areas such as shaping environmental policy; producing research and databases; investing in resilience and climate adaption; and much more. Together with partners from research and civil society, they formed the Geneva Environment Network, a hub in which the different entities combine their strength to change the international environment governance. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the strongest advocate for environmental protection in the UN system, advising governments on how to consider environment protection in their policies and the every-day life of their citizens. To this end, the UNEP Europe office in Geneva is in constant exchange with the governments it serves. 

Did you know...

environmental targets for 2030 are defined in several of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals

  • Goal 13, combatting climate change
  • Goal 14, conserving the oceans, seas and marine resources
  • Goal 15, protecting and restoring terrestrial ecosystems
  • Goal 7, ensuring access to affordable and reliable clean energy and to safe water sources for all
  • Goal 12, developing more sustainable production and consumption habits and norms.

Reducing pollution

Geneva hosts an array of international environmental agreements, namely the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions which deal with hazardous wastes, chemicals and pesticides, and organic pollutants, respectively. In addition, the Minamata Convention draws attention to the threat of mercury emissions. They all share the aim of protecting human health and the environment from hazardous residual products.

The Secretariats of these Conventions arrange meetings with Member States to track progress and address new developments in their areas. Additionally, they assist the States in translating their commitments into action at the national level. For example, Secretariat staff can provide technical support and training to help governments draft new legislation on hazardous materials. 

Example 1: Tackling plastic waste under the Basel Convention

The Basel Convention is currently the only international agreement covering plastic waste and its transportation across boundaries. Under its umbrella, a Plastic Waste Partnership was founded to bring together governments, businesses and civil society to reduce plastic waste and find new ways of recycling the existing waste. 

A pilot project, spearheaded by the Secretariat of the Basel Convention tackled the problem of plastic fishing nets in Ghana which are oftentimes left behind by their owners, polluting the seas, killing fish, and threatening the livelihoods of the local communities. The project invited community members to collect and return the plastic nets in exchange for a small payment. The nets were then recycled into textiles or other daily products. 

An illustration of half the face of each, a coloured woman and a man of color, with the line "Skin lightening products: potentially harmful ingredients".

Example 2: Dangerous beauty standards under review: the Minamata Convention

One example of work of the Minamata Convention is an awareness campaign, using slogans like: “True radiance comes from within, not from mercury”, or “Brightness is not in your skin, brightness is who you are”. 

Many skin lightening products use mercury which can cause anxiety and depression, damage to the skin, to the nervous and immune system. UNEP and the Minamata Convention raise awareness to try and overcome racist beauty standards prompting persons of colors to use these products. This topic has also been discussed during the most recent Conference of Parties of the Convention, in October 2023.  

Protecting species, restoring natural resources

The wide range of multilateral environmental agreements under the patronage of the UN Environment Programme spans several conventions on the conservation of plant and animal species and the protection of entire ecosystems. Two of these conventions have their secretariats located in Geneva: 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) oversees international trade on endangered plant and animal species to ensure their survival. Considering the immense value of rare animal products such as tiger teeth or ivory, but also plants, woods, or medical herbs, strong laws need to be put in place to contain their trade. In this respect, CITES protects more than 40,000 plant and animal species. States who have signed the Convention must translate its content into national law and restrict legal and, consequently, illegal trade of natural goods.

The Tehran Convention (on protecting the Caspian Sea and its marine environment) is a regional agreement between the five states adjacent to the Caspian Sea: Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Russian Federation and Turkmenistan. The Caspian Sea is the world’s largest lake, and it is home to numerous species that can only be found in this region. The Tehran Convention seeks to protect these species and their habitat and to prevent pollution of the marine environment.

A rhino mother and her calf standing at a water source

Coping with the effects of global warming

Protecting the environment in all it dimension is one of the main missions of the UN in this decade and the ones to come. It is, however, also the Organization’s responsibility to protect the people who are most affected by climate change and environmental degradation, and to equip them with the tools to protect themselves. Climate-related disasters have almost doubled compared to the previous 20 years. Droughts, floods, wildfires, and other disasters trap people in poverty, taking away houses, fields and harvest, and everything else they have built up over years. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) helps countries, cities, and communities to develop mechanisms that can better withstand these environmental threats, for example by developing early warning systems that alert the population before a disaster strikes; by building houses in safe locations; or by helping governments to develop and enforce better building and construction codes, making homes less likely to collapse in the event of a disaster.

Research and training

The Geneva-based World Meteorological Organization (WMO) monitors the development of weather, climate, water and other environmental indicators globally through a multitude of observatories, and through extensive climate research. The office works with governments on national and local levels to point to the sources of problems like high greenhouse gas emissions or poor air quality.

A joint effort between WMO and the UN Environment Programme, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides scientific information on climate change to governments. IPCC experts analyse existing research and draw future scenarios – the basis for governments to adjust their climate policies. 

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) offers a multitude of training programmes focusing on conserving and restoring the environment, for example in Peacekeeping Missions, and more broadly on sustainable development.

Organizations working to protect the environment

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