On 2 March, in a packed Kenyan conference hall, Norwegian environment minister Espen Barth Eide hammered down a recycled plastic gavel to a chorus of cheers.
The gavelling sealed a global resolution to work towards ending plastic pollution, long considered one of the planet’s most pressing environmental blights.
The agreement was one of several major environmental accords forged in 2022, which observers have called a historic year for the planet. In pacts that unfolded from March to December, nations large and small committed to addressing everything from the fallout of climate change to a looming extinction crisis.
The agreements, many shepherded by UNEP, came at a critical time for the Earth. A triple crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste is threatening to undermine all life on the planet, experts warn.
Here's a closer look at 2022’s environmental milestones.
World commits to ending plastic pollution
Close to 400 million tons of plastic waste are generated every year – a figure set to double by 2040. Only a fraction of that is recycled and much infiltrates the environment, including the ocean, where it causes a host of problems for humans and wildlife.
To counter that, states in March agreed to begin negotiations on a legally binding international agreement to end plastic pollution. The resolution, struck at the United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, committed nations to having a draft agreement in place by the end of 2024.
UNEP executive director Inger Andersen called it the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris climate change accord. “Today marks a triumph by Planet Earth,” she said.
UNEP celebrates five decades of environmental leadership
Delegates from around the world gathered in Kenya for a special session of the UN Environment Assembly to commemorate UNEP’s 50th anniversary. The event saw participants take stock of all that has been achieved in the past five decades, including efforts to repair the ozone layer, phase out leaded fuel, and protect endangered species. The event also looked forward, examining ways that UNEP can support sustainable development in the years to come.
States commemorate dawn of global environmental movement
Held in Sweden’s capital, the Stockholm+50 international meeting was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Conference on the Human Environment, considered the birth of the modern environmental movement. It was also a time to focus on ways to accelerate the Sustainable Development Goals and to tackle the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
UN anoints healthy environment a human right
The United Nations General Assembly declared that everyone on the planet has a right to a clean and healthy environment and called on states to step up efforts to protect nature. The resolution is not legally binding. But backers hope it will push countries to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions, allowing campaigners to challenge environmentally destructive policies and projects.
"This resolution sends a message that nobody can take nature, clean air and water, or a stable climate away from us – at least, not without a fight," said UNEP’s Andersen.
World takes notice of environmental challenges
This year, UNEP campaigns raised awareness about a multitude of environmental issues. World Environment Day, the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies and the International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste engaged millions of people around the world, helping to put the environment front and centre in the public mind. Meanwhile, two major UNEP studies, the Emissions Gap Report and the Adaptation Gap Report, cast a spotlight on the scale of the climate crisis and what humanity must do to stave off the worst of climate change.
States commit to landmark climate change fund
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Egypt, states agreed to establish a fund that will support developing countries grappling with the fallout from the climate crisis. In a deal observers called historic, the so-called loss and damage fund would help vulnerable nations contend with droughts, floods and rising seas, all of which are expected to become more severe as the planet’s climate changes.
The fund had long been seen as one of the most contentious issues in climate negotiations.
“This COP has taken an important step towards justice,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Clearly this will not be enough, but it is a much-needed political signal to rebuild broken trust.”
Countries vow to protect dwindling biodiversity
The United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) ended in Montreal, Canada, on 19 December 2022 with a landmark agreement to guide global action on nature through to 2030. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework includes concrete measures to halt and reverse nature loss, including putting 30 per cent of the planet and 30 per cent of degraded ecosystems under protection by 2030. It is designed to counter what experts call an alarming loss of biodiversity. A seminal 2019 report found that 1 million species are being pushed towards extinction, many by human activity.
The road ahead
The coming year is shaping up as a busy one for the global environmental movement. In March, the 2023 UN Water Conference will be held in New York, USA. In April, delegates will meet in Hanoi, Viet Nam to examine how food production can be made more sustainable. In May, negotiators will gather in Paris for the second session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. And in November, world leaders are expected to meet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates for the latest edition of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP28.