Report back from the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-4)
The health of the Earth’s climate and ecosystems is dire, and governments must listen to the experts – now is the time to act.
The world is regularly being presented with new and distressing scientific data about the scale and scope of the situation:
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that if warming continues at the current rate and no radical reductions in CO2 and other GHG are achieved soon, the global temperature compared to preindustrial levels will increase by 1.5 °C between 2030 and 2052. The immediate effects of climate change are found to be significantly more serious than previously expected.
- The World Meteorological Organization has sounded the alarm that if the current warming rate continues, the world can see a temperature increase of 3-5 °C by the end of the century, with catastrophic consequences. 
- 40% of insect species are in rapid decline. This is expected to have serious impacts up the food chain, for crop pollination, soil replenishment and pest control.
- Large scale deforestation driven by commercial farming and extractive industries is rising in tropical countries, causing massive GHG emissions, destruction of biodiversity, violent land conflicts and desecration and theft of forest peoples’ lands and territories. 
- At the recently held UNEA-4 held in Nairobi on 11-15 March 2019, the sixth Global Environment Outlook (GEO-6) was launched. This latest global environmental stocktaking exercise concluded that unsustainable human activities globally have degraded the Earth’s ecosystems, endangering the ecological foundations of society.
The IPCC predicts that a transformation of the world economy in just a few years is needed to avoid the most serious damage. And the GEO-6 similarly calls for urgent action at an unprecedented scale to arrest and reverse the current situation, including more ambitious and effective policies on sustainable consumption and production. As one critical step, there is a need to enable a major shift away from large-scale industrial monoculture production systems towards more socially and environmentally sustainable agroecological practices. Such a move is already backed by social movements and forest peoples in the tropics, the FAO, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food as well as by the EU’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research.
Yet these dire facts about the state of the planet and the calls for urgent action were ignored by key government negotiators in the UNEA who actively blocked a progressive resolution put forward by the EU for tackling global deforestation linked to agricultural production and trade.
Deforestation and agricultural production
The IPCC confirms the role that addressing deforestation has in tackling climate risks. The head of UN Environment likewise understands the vital role of forest ecosystems and forest peoples’ territories, stating in 2018 that “forests are a major requisite front of action in the global fight against catastrophic climate change”.
In order to tackle deforestation the world needs to seriously rethink the way it produces food and other commodities. It is estimated that 80% of tropical deforestation and forest degradation is caused by the expansion of commercial agricultural lands. Much of this is linked to the drive to continuously increase global consumer demand, which is then satisfied through massive and complex international supply chains.
Importantly, in addition to the detrimental effects that global production, trade and consumption of agricultural products have on the environment, the social costs are high. Indigenous peoples and local communities face threats to their livelihoods, culture and territorial rights. Those who dare to stand up and challenge the external forces that threaten them often face criminalisation, physical abuse, forced and violent displacement or murder.
Governments showing lack of responsibility towards current and future generations
Against this backdrop it is deeply concerning that UNEA-4 failed to adopt the progressive resolution to reduce the impact of agricultural supply chains on forests and peoples. Placing national trade interests above the urgent need for action, a number of countries (particularly Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and the United States of America), watered the text down to such an extent that the resolution was no longer addressing agricultural commodity supply chains and had to be withdrawn. These regressive actions by some nation states are at odds with the critical state of our planet and the urgent calls to action by the IPCC and the GEO-6. They also contradict previous global pledges made by state and non-state actors, such as the New York Declaration on Forests to halt deforestation in agricultural supply chains by 2020.
With 2020 only 8 months away, world leaders must wake up and take action – they cannot fail to heed the warnings and calls for action by most of the scientific community, indigenous peoples and local communities and climate justice organisations More than 1.4 million young people around the world recently called upon world leaders to treat the current climate situation as a genuine crises requiring transformative urgent action?Now is the time to listen.
Following the UNEA forum, we begin to ask ourselves ‘Why are key government negotiators in UN fora stifling meaningful change to tackle the global environmental crisis? Are they living on another Planet?’
 IPCC (2018) ‘Summary for Policymakers’. In: Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, H.-O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J.B.R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M.I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, Maycock, M. Tignor, and T. Waterfield (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland
 World Meteorological Organization (29 November 2018) ‘WMO climate statement: Past 4 years warmest on record at https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/wmo-climate-statement-past-4-years-warmest-record
 Most real-world findings have correlated to the IPCC's 'worst case scenarios’. Current voluntary pledges from governments put us on course for a 3-5 °C rise in global temperature, which is when tipping points in the global climate system will almost certainly take over, sending the world into runaway climate chaos, resulting in anything from the deaths of hundreds of millions of people to human extinction. https://www.climatecentral.org/news/ipcc-predictions-then-versus-now-15340
 Francisco Sánchez-Bayo,Kris A.G. Wyckhuys (2019) ‘Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers’ Biological Conservation 232, 8-27
 Mikaela Weisse and Elizabeth Dow Goldman (June 2018) ‘2017 Was the Second-Worst Year on Record for Tropical Tree Cover Loss’ WRI at https://www.wri.org/blog/2018/06/2017-was-second-worst-year-record-tropical-tree-cover-lossFAO (22 Feb 2018) ‘Productive and healthy forests are crucial for meeting sustainable development, climate, land and biodiversity goals’; FPP (2018) Closing the Gap: Rights-based solutions for tackling deforestation at https://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/default/files/documents/Closing%20T…
 UN Environment (2019). Global Environment Outlook – GEO-6: Summary for Policymakers. Nairobi
 See FAO (2018) ‘Agroecology can help change the world’s food production for the better’ http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1113475/icode/; Michael Pimbert, (2015) ‘Agroecology as an Alternative Vision to Conventional Development and Climate-smart Agriculture’, Development, 58(2–3), 286–298
 IPCC, see supra note 1, B.6.1
 José Graziano da Silva (FAO Director-General), Achim Steiner (UNDP Administrator) and Erik Solheim (Head of UN Environment) (3 Oct 2018) ‘Forests: A natural solution to climate change, crucial for a sustainable future’ UN-REDD Programme at https://www.un-redd.org/single-post/2018/10/03/Forests-A-natural-solution-to-climate-change-crucial-for-a-sustainable-future
 FAO (22 Feb 2018) ‘Productive and healthy forests are crucial for meeting sustainable development, climate, land and biodiversity goals’
 Greta Thunberg, (25 Jan 2019) ‘Our house is on fire’ at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/25/our-house-is-on-fire-greta-thunberg16-urges-leaders-to-act-on-climate