Traffic in Nepal © UN Road Safety Fund

How UNECE activities shape economies, the environment, and society
Evolving with the changing global socio-economic landscape
1 Jul 2024

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) was set up in 1947 to facilitate economic cooperation for reconstruction after the devastation of World War II. 

Since then, its work has evolved with the shifting geopolitical and economic landscape of the region, supporting its members to navigate the transition from centrally planned to market economies after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, and a succession of economic crises. Today, UNECE counts 56 member states across Europe, North America, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

According to Executive Secretary Tatiana Molcean, “Countries’ cooperation at UNECE results in tangible outcomes for each and every one of us – from the transport we depend on, to a healthier environment, the goods we buy, and much more. These everyday successes of multilateralism can inspire the joint efforts we need to address the challenges ahead.”

One of the five UN regional commissions, UNECE has a distinctive normative role that – as well as a wealth of policy expertise – has resulted in the development of hundreds of conventions, agreements, recommendations and standards across a broad range of issues and economic sectors.

Today, many of these are used by citizens, companies, and countries around the world. These tools are developed thanks to a secretariat composed today of six Divisions, which leverage a network of over 30,000 experts participating in UNECE’s intergovernmental Committees, their Working Parties, and other subsidiary bodies.

Among these is the Inland Transport Committee, the global UN platform where countries shape regulations for road, rail and inland waterway transport, for which the Committee performs a role equivalent to that of IMO or ICAO. Over 60 legal instruments cover areas from vehicle regulations, to the transport of chemicals, harmonized road signs and signals, cross-border transport of goods (the “TIR” Convention), international rail transport, and rules for inland navigation. UNECE also hosts the secretariats of the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Road Safety, Jean Todt, and the UN Road Safety Fund.

Countries convene under the Water Convention, May 2024 © UNECE

“The adoption this year of an ambitious decarbonization strategy for inland transport, which accounts for 72% of the sector’s annual GHG emissions, demonstrates countries’ commitment to climate action, and will contribute to the transformation of an important sector of the economy,” highlights Dmitry Mariyasin, Deputy Executive Secretary and Director of the Sustainable Transport Division.

Cooperation at UNECE also helps to harness the power of trade, infrastructure investment, and innovation for sustainable development. Among the many practical tools forged through this work are agricultural quality standards for over 100 fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and dried fruits, and over 800 standards and recommendations to streamline electronic trade, business, and logistics. These support countries’ WTO accession.

Examples of comprehensive efforts to facilitate economic cooperation include a Gender-Responsive Standards Declaration signed by over 80 bodies worldwide, reviews and recommendations for countries’ innovation policies, and a set of standards and tools to improve the sustainability of Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs).

“Since 2015, UNECE pioneered the “PPPs for the SDGs” approach. The PIERS evaluation methodology helps to ensure that projects create not only value for money, but also value for people and the planet,” notes Elizabeth Tuerk, Director of the Economic Cooperation and Trade Division.

Powering climate action and the move to green and resilient economies is energy policy, for which UNECE convenes experts to shape standards, guidance and support to improve energy efficiency, facilitate renewables uptake, accelerate the net-zero transition, and tackle methane emissions. The management of resources, including critical minerals, is also an important focus, resulting in the UN Framework Classification for Resources and UN Resource Management System, endorsed by ECOSOC.

“Our work is to support member states to build resilient energy systems, based on energy security, affordability, and environmental sustainability. An integrated approach is needed to ensure the energy transition is just and fair for all,” emphasizes Dario Liguti, Director of the Sustainable Energy Division.

In fact, the protection of the environment has been an important focus of UNECE’s work for over 50 years. Its Multilateral Environmental Agreements – which cover air pollution, shared water, public participation, environmental assessment and industrial safety – provide powerful tools both for sustainable development and to prevent, control and reduce pollution, particularly in cross-border contexts. UNECE Environmental Performance Reviews conducted for close to 30 countries to date further help improve environmental policy.

Marco Keiner, Director of the Environment Division, stresses that “the escalating impacts of climate change, together with deadly air pollution and rising chemical risks, demand unified action across national and sectoral borders. UNECE’s Multilateral Environmental Agreements and governance tools are needed more than ever to ensure our right to a healthy environment.”

A key feature of the region’s environment is its forests, which account for 43% of all forests and 60% of wood provision worldwide. The UNECE-FAO Joint Forestry and Timber Section supports countries in sustainable forest management and the sustainable use of wood-based resources. The InForest platform provides key data on forests in the region, allowing comparisons and country-specific analysis. Urban forestry is also a growing focus, including through the Trees in Cities Challenge, for which over 80 cities from 31 countries have already pledged to plant 12 million trees.

3rd Forum of Mayors, October 2023 ©  UNECE; photo by Violaine Martin

Cooperation at UNECE supports countries and cities with housing policy and facilitates the sharing of best practices in land administration and the governance of real estate markets. Recognizing the importance of including cities within a stronger, more inclusive multilateralism, UNECE established the Forum of Mayors as a subsidiary body of its Committee on Urban Development, Housing and Land Management. This platform sparked cooperation to support the future reconstruction of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and other urban areas in Ukraine.

“The Forum of Mayors is a pioneering initiative within the UN framework, allowing mayors to actively engage as primary actors in a UN body. Local authorities have a primary role in implementing the SDGs by devising and executing strategic yet practical solutions on the ground,” notes Paola Deda, Director of the Division of Forests, Land and Housing.

To help produce high quality, impartial and trustworthy statistics as a foundation for democracy and informed decision-making, UNECE’s Conference of European Statisticians gathers the National Statistical Offices of some 60 countries, the EU, OECD and CIS, to improve measurement and comparability in key areas. This work is guided by the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics developed at UNECE over 30 years ago, which today are a UNGA-endorsed global standard.

“The Conference is an important driving force in official statistics,” says Tiina Luige, Director of the Statistical Division. “Its cutting-edge work on modernizing official statistics has produced several standards that are used worldwide and supports countries to access new data sources and make use of technological developments, including AI.”

If we look at the megatrends shaping our societies, we cannot ignore population ageing: one in four people in the region will be 65 years old or above by 2050, compared to one in six today. Ageing is a main focus of work on population at UNECE, which hosts the only dedicated permanent intergovernmental body in the UN, the Standing Working Group on Ageing. 

* Thomas Croll-Knight is Public Information Assistant at UNECE.
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