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Review of key environmental moments, studies in 2023
Although 2023 has been a hard one for the planet, there were remarkable environmental moments and studies to give hope for a sustainable future.
But amid all that, there is reason for hope, say those on the frontlines of the effort to create a more sustainable world.
In 2023, countries came together in unprecedented ways to tackle the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. This environmental multilateralism led to landmark pacts to end chemical pollution and transition the world away from fossil fuels, among a host of other milestones, many of which were supported by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
2023 witnessed major environmental moments affecting the future of the planet.
Study finds ozone layer “on track” for recovery
The ozone layer, which protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation, is on track to recover within the next four decades, revealed a report from several scientific organizations, including UNEP. The Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion – 2022 found the planet’s sun shield could reach 1980 values over Antarctica by 2066 and over the Arctic by 2045.
Experts attributed the rebound to the Montreal Protocol, a planet-wide agreement adopted in 1987 to phase out many ozone-depleting chemicals. A 2016 amendment is also helping to rein in a series of powerful greenhouse gases and could avoid up to 0.5°C of global warming by 2100, the report found.
Fight for climate justice gains steam
The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that many advocates hailed as an important step in the campaign for climate justice.
Spearheaded by the cyclone-wracked nation of Vanuatu, the resolution asks the International Court of Justice for an opinion on whether countries have a legal duty to address climate change and what the legal consequences of climate inaction could be. Experts say the court’s opinion, which is pending, would not be legally binding but would carry moral authority and some legal weight.
The resolution came as a growing number of people around the world turned to courts to compel governments and businesses to act on climate change. A UNEP study, released later in the year, found climate-related lawsuits have more than doubled since 2017.
Nations band together to protect freshwater sources
UNEP and several partners launched the Freshwater Challenge, which aims to safeguard and revive 300,000km of rivers and 350 million hectares of wetlands around the world by 2030. That would make it the largest wetland and river restoration effort in history. Some 43 nations joined the push in 2023, including many at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), whose presidency cited the Freshwater Challenge as a key outcome of the summit. Sources of freshwater are under increasing pressure from climate change, pollution and other stressors. One-third of the world’s wetlands have been lost over the past 50 years, while rivers and lakes are the most degraded ecosystems in the world.
World marks inaugural International Day of Zero Waste
Countries around the world celebrated the first International Day of Zero Waste, a global call for humanity to better manage waste and build more circular economies.
The day was led by UNEP and UN Habitat with support from Türkiye, and featured an address from UN Secretary General António Guterres. “Humanity is treating our planet like a garbage dump,” he warned. “It’s time to fight back and launch a war on waste.”
Creative solutions to plastic pollution abound at World Environment Day
UNEP-led World Environment Day, celebrated on 5 June, showcased to the world the scale of the plastic pollution crisis while highlighting a bevy of potential solutions. Several governments made firm commitments on the day, with host Côte d’Ivoire unveiling a new environmental code to fight plastic pollution and the Kyrgyz Republic announcing it will begin to transition away from some plastic products. The day grabbed the globe’s attention; it was the top-trending hashtag on Twitter and related content was seen more than 300 million times across social media.
Historic “high seas” treaty throws a lifeline to marine biodiversity
The United Nations formally adopted a pact that extends for the first time environmental protections to two-thirds of the ocean that lie beyond national jurisdictions.
The so-called “high seas treaty” offers an updated framework to The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that came into force in 1994. The world’s oceans, which play a vital role in everything from the global economy to regulating the climate, are laboring under climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
“You have pumped new life and hope to give the ocean a fighting chance”, António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, told countries as the measure was adopted.
Global plastics instrument takes crucial step forward
The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, hosted by UNEP, released a zero draft of a legally binding global instrument to end plastic pollution. The draft, which covers the full lifecycle of plastic, was reviewed during the third session (INC-3) in Nairobi, Kenya in November 2023. The talks in Nairobi followed a second session in Paris, France in June 2023. The INC sessions mark a key step in the effort to finalize a planet-wide agreement by the end of 2024.
Every year, humanity produces around 430 million metric tons of plastic – about the same weight as 71 million African elephants – and much of that is contained in single-use products that quickly become waste, polluting land, sea and air.
Landmark chemicals accord takes aim at a range of toxic substances
The world agreed to the Global Framework on Chemicals, a historic deal to protect people and the environment from chemical pollution, which causes an estimated 2 million deaths a year. The agreement includes 28 targets which, among other things, call for the phasing out of highly hazardous pesticides and a crackdown on the trafficking of illegal chemicals.
The adoption of the new framework recognizes pollution and waste as the global crisis that it is, putting it on par with climate change and nature loss, which already have frameworks in place. UNEP will manage a dedicated trust fund in support of the framework. Germany has committed 20 million euros to the fund, with France, The Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland also contributing.
Africa Climate Week showcases home-grown solutions to climate crisis
UNEP and partners organized Africa Climate Week alongside the first Africa Climate Summit, which brought more than 10,000 people, including 20 heads of state, to Nairobi, Kenya. The gathering, which took place against the backdrop of some of the worst droughts and floods ever to hit the continent, emphasized that Africa can drive solutions to the climate crisis. It was also a chance for leaders to form a consensus around key issues ahead of COP28. “We aim to weave a single, resounding African voice that will carry the outcomes … to COP28 and beyond,” said Kenyan President William Ruto.
Global pact to end mercury pollution celebrates a decade in action
October ,2023, marked the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Minamata Convention, a deal that has been hailed as a triumph of international diplomacy. Some 147 parties have ratified the agreement, which calls for countries to phase out mercury use in products, ban the opening of new mercury mines and limit the emission of mercury into the environment.
Every year, as much as 9,000 tons of mercury – a toxic substance often used in small-scale gold mining – are released into the atmosphere, in water and on land. As the Minamata Convention enters its second decade, experts are buoyed by the progress of recent years. The trade in mercury has slowed, manufacturers have begun finding alternatives to mercury in a range of products and public awareness about the dangers of mercury has grown.
UNEP announces the winners of its highest environmental award
This year’s awards honored innovators and initiatives for their cutting-edge work in tackling plastic pollution. This followed the 2022 historic resolution at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) in Nairobi to End Plastic Pollution and forge an international legally binding agreement by 2024.
The Champions of the Earth award recognizes outstanding leaders from government, civil society and the private sector for their transformative impact on the environment in four categories: Policy Leadership, Inspiration and Action, Entrepreneurial Vision and Science and Innovation.
Three UNEP-supported reports on climate crisis
A trio of UNEP-supported reports brought into sharp focus the scale of the climate crisis and offered policymakers a suite of potential solutions.
UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report found developing countries alone need to devote $215 billion to $387 billion a year to contend with extreme weather, rising seas and other climatic upheaval. Spending now is just a fraction of that.
Meanwhile, UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report revealed that based on current climate-related pledges by governments, the Earth is on pace to warm by between 2.5°C and 2.9°C this century, well above the goals of the Paris Agreement. To keep warming below 1.5°C, a key Paris target, the world will need to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent by 2030.
As well, the Production Gap Report, produced by UNEP and partners, found states were planning to produce more than twice as much fossil fuel as would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C.
One year into the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework
It has been a year since the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was successfully adopted in Montreal, Canada in December 2022.
The framework included concrete actions to halt and reverse the loss of nature, including protecting 30 per cent of the planet and restoring 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems.
To improve governance and accountability for nature, UNEP and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) supported 138 countries to align their national biodiversity policies, targets and monitoring frameworks with the GBF. This is a critical step to the agreement’s success.
In September, UNEP and partners launched the National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans Accelerator Partnership, which provides technical support to accelerate implementation of the framework. UNEP also trained officials from 50 countries to use a data reporting tool, which helps streamline reporting to biodiversity-related conventions.
COP28 with key goal of ending fossil fuel era
On 12 December, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) came to a close with a historic declaration as negotiators from nearly 200 Parties came together with a decision to ratchet up climate action before the end of the decade with the overarching aim to keep the global temperature limit of 1.5°C within reach while rapidly ramping up production of renewable energy.
While UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen said the deal “is not perfect” she expressed cautious optimism. “The world is no longer denying our harmful addiction to fossil fuels. We know what needs to be done.”
COP28 also saw the operationalizing of the Loss and Damage Fund, which will help climate-vulnerable communities in developing countries cope with the effects of climate change.