Global Connections: Nelson Institute representatives discuss global pollution in Kenya

February 21, 2018

Nations and organizations from around the world gathered in early December at the third meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA3) in Nairobi, Kenya to talk about global solutions for the effects of pollution on humans and the environment. The Nelson Institute’s Nathan Schulfer, assistant director for International & Professional Programs, participated in UNEA3 as part of a delegation from the National Council on Science and the Environment (NCSE).

Much of his work focuses on advancing the Nelson Institute's Professional Master’s Programs in Environmental Conservation and Environmental Observation & Informatics, as well as building partnerships with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government units, which makes attendance at the UNEA3 and similar events a great opportunity. An NGO is any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which is organized on a local, national or international level.

While his primary role at this meeting was more of a support role for the NCSE delegation, Schulfer said this work can have big impacts on how policies are implemented around the world. “Our goal in Nairobi was to support and advocate for specific anti-pollution policies, while also trying to come up with strategies for how these policies can have an impact back home, on a local scale,” Schulfer said. He noted that much of the policy that comes out of large multi-lateral meetings like this is non-binding, and that many of the policy ideas generated will have various degrees of success, depending on the commitment and motivation of each individual country.

Although part of Schulfer’s focus was to reinforce the NSCE delegation on their environmental policy goals, he also took advantage of his time in Nairobi to meet with Nelson Institute partners at the World Agroforestry Centre, the Kenyan Wildlife Trust and Earthwatch Institute. These partnerships are crucial for Nelson graduate students in the professional programs, since many students do their project work with these organizations.

With over 4,000 government leaders, CEOs, celebrities and grassroots activists present at UNEA3, many international partnerships developed between countries and people who cared deeply about the environment. Attendees like Maria Daniela Castillo, recent Nelson Institute alumna and research assistant at Boston University School of Public Health, were able to connect with others who shared the same concerns for the safety of the environment and public health.

Castillo was invited to act as a member of the Civil Society and of the Major Group of Children and Youth at UNEA3. Her youth climate advocacy started with her co-founding of UpTica, a social venture that provides access to opportunities for women through sustainable practices in rural Costa Rica. Through this work, she learned how unique perspectives can offer creative and innovative solutions that might not otherwise be mentioned. So she was proud to see so many climate leaders taking the time to listen to the perspectives of youth at the conference.

"Senior government and business leaders have started to acknowledge the work of the youth in helping to find a solution for a healthy climate future," Castillo said. "Now they’re also with us, advocating for the voice of children and youth in the decision-making process."

Castillo, a native of Colombia, also appreciated the importance of diversity at the conference, highlighting African and South American countries that were able to take a more active role in a conversation she says they are sometimes absent from.

Through open conversation and collaborative efforts between the countries present, ministers of the environment were able to issue a declaration to “protect, mitigate and manage the pollution of air, land and soil, freshwater and oceans.” A number of resolutions and decisions were passed by the assembly, intending to cut plastics production, improve air quality and eliminate lead paint exposure. While there is still more work to be done, Schulfer said this sort of outcome marks a success towards the larger, overarching goal of curbing the impacts of pollution.

"It's about a global community coming together to advance a shared set of environmental goals and values, and this kind of action inspires people to push forward and work harder to achieve long-lasting and positive environmental outcomes," Schulfer said.