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World at risk of new pandemics, warns UN Environment Assembly

It is increasingly evident that environmental crises are part of the journey ahead.

United Nations Environment Assembly warns of a bleak future where new pandemics become the norm if environmental crisis challenges are not overcome soon.

Ministers of environment and leaders from more than 150 nations across the world concluded a two-day online meeting of the Fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5). In the meeting, the Assembly warned that the world is at risk of new pandemics "if we don't change how we safeguard nature". The UN Environment Assembly meets biennially to set priorities for global environmental policies and develop international environmental law; decisions and resolutions then taken by member states at the assembly also define the work of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the member states agreed on a two-step approach to UNEA-5: an online session that concluded on Tuesday and an in-person meeting planned for February 2022. The meet was attended by thousands of online participants. This included more than 1,500 delegates from 153 UN member states and more than 60 ministers of the environment. The assembly - which was broadcast live - also agreed on key aspects of UNEP's work. It kicked off the commemoration of UNEP's 50th anniversary and held leadership dialogues where member states addressed how to build a resilient and inclusive post-pandemic world.

Environmental crisis will fuel future pandemics

"It is increasingly evident that environmental crises are part of the journey ahead. Wildfires, hurricanes, high temperature records, unprecedented winter chills, plagues of locusts, floods and droughts, have become so common place that they do not always make the headlines," Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in remarks to the Assembly. "These increasing adverse weather and climatic occurrences sound a warning bell that calls on us to attend to the three planetary crises that threaten our collective future: The climate crisis, the biodiversity and nature crisis, and the pollution and waste crisis."

Urgent need to tackle environmental crisis

In a political statement entitled "Looking ahead to the resumed UN Environment Assembly in 2022 - Message from online UNEA-5, Nairobi 22-23 February 2021" endorsed at the close of the Assembly, the member states reaffirmed UNEP's mandate as the leading global environmental authority and called for greater and more inclusive multilateralism to tackle the environmental challenges. The statement said the assembly wished "to strengthen our support for the United Nations and for multilateral cooperation and remain convinced that collective action is essential to successfully address global challenges."

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It went on to warn that "more than ever that human health and wellbeing are dependent upon nature and the solutions it provides, and we are aware that we shall face recurring risks of future pandemics if we maintain our current unsustainable patterns in our interactions with nature."

New pandemics will exacerbate existing health concerns

Sveinung Rotevatn, President of UNEA-5 and Norway's Minister for Climate and Environment, echoed the warning. "Everyone gathered at the environment Assembly today are deeply concerned about how the pandemic causes new and serious health, socio-economic and environmental challenges, and exacerbates existing ones, all over the world," he told a press conference on the closing day of UNEA-5. "We shall work together to identify actions which can help us address climate change, protect biodiversity, and reduce pollution, at the same time, he added.

(With inputs from IANS)

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