UN Enviroment Programme

Chapter 1. Setting the scene

United Nations action against soil pollution: mandate of the UNEA3 and beyond

Lead authors: Natalia Rodríguez Eugenio (FAO-GSP), Abdelkader Bensada (UNEP), Ronald Vargas (FAO-GSP)

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment. At its third session, held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 4 to 6 December 2017, the UNEA met under the theme “Towards a pollution-free planet”. As a result of the discussions among all the stakeholders present, a Ministerial Declaration and nine resolutions were adopted.

In addition to the Declaration, the Member States adopted nine resolutions on air, water, soil and marine pollution, as well as on the environment and health. While these resolutions provided mandates for UNEP, they also called for joint actions by all relevant United Nations (UN) agencies and stakeholders to fight pollution. They gave a mandate to UNEP and requested Member States, other UN Agencies, Multilateral Environment Agreements and stakeholders, and the private sector to take action. Future international actions on soil pollution will therefore need to reflect that inclusiveness and collective responsibility. Effective communications, stakeholder mobilization, and measuring and reporting on progress will be needed to mobilize all relevant actors (governments, businesses and industry, UN Agencies and Multilateral Environment Agreements, local authorities and city networks, scientists and experts, civil society, and individuals).

More than 150 country representatives who met at the UNEA3 recognized the importance of healthy soils and the need to combat soil pollution (UNEP, 2017). As a result, the UNEA resolution 3/6, in its operative paragraph 7, requests UNEP to invite relevant UN organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Global Soil Partnership (GSP) and its Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils (ITPS), and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) to prepare a report based on available scientific information and data in time for the fifth session of the United Nations Environment Assembly. The report is intended to address the extent and future trends of soil pollution, considering both point source and diffuse soil pollution, and describe the risks and impacts of soil pollution on health, the environment and food security, including land degradation and the burden of disease resulting from exposure to polluted soil.

In 2015, the GSP and the ITPS identified soil pollution as a major threat to the world’s soils and began to collect data at national, regional and global levels (FAO and ITPS, 2015). To address the knowledge gaps identified in the Status of the World’s Soil Resources Report, FAO organized the Global Symposium on Soil Pollution (GSOP18) in May 2018. The symposium, co-organized by the GSP and the ITPS, UNEP, the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions, and WHO, was the first attempt to build an international network of experts, academia, industry, and the remediation businesses, to gather existing information on soil pollution. The symposium was a timely opportunity to also consider the recommendations of the UNEA3 resolution. The collaboration of these agencies unveils the significance of soil pollution not only on soil functioning but also its negative impacts on human health, food safety and the environment, and the importance of international, national, and regional regulations to prevent soil pollution and mitigate it. The GSOP18 conclusions revealed that available data from different regions is very heterogeneous, fragmented and in many cases absent. Participants of the symposium highlighted the inherent difficulty and high cost of analysing soil contaminants in laboratories and the difficulty of accessing harmonised methods1. The conclusions and recommendations of the GSOP18 were reflected in the outcome document “Be the solution to soil pollution”, which paves the way forward for addressing soil pollution in the short to long term including how to materialize the UNEA3 resolution on soil pollution (FAO, 2018a).

Other recently adopted international efforts will also contribute to tackling soil pollution more efficiently. The UN Decade on Ecosystems Restoration adopted in March 2019 refers to a wide continuum of practices that contribute to conservation and restoration of organic carbon in agricultural soils, remediation of polluted sites and reestablishment of a diverse population of soil microorganisms that help create the natural fertility of our soils (UNGA, 2019). The Basel Convention Ban Amendment, proposed in 1994, to strengthen the prohibition on exporting hazardous waste to the least developed countries, was finally ratified on December 2019 by 98 countries, thanks to a country-led initiative from Switzerland and Indonesia (Basel Convention, 2019a, 2019b).

The Revised World Soil Charter (FAO, 2015), the VGSSM (FAO, 2017), and the Pesticide (FAO and WHO, 2014) and Fertilizer Code of Conducts (FAO, 2019) are key tools for the sustainable management of soils and for the implementation of preventive measures and management of soil pollution. These documents demonstrate the strong commitment of FAO and the GSP, and of all the members of this partnership, to ensure that soils are valued and managed sustainably to preserve this fundamental resource for future generations.

  • 1 ISO Technical Committee 190 (Soil Quality) has a significant catalog of standard methods for the collection and analyses of contaminants in soils, as well as the design and implementation of soil sampling of contaminated sites. ISO also includes methods to assess the toxicity of contaminated soils to plants, microorganisms, earthworms, insects and other biota (https://www.iso.org/committee/54328.html).