Multi-Lateral Summaries > United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

UNEP, established in 1972, is the voice for the environment within the United Nations system. UNEP acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment. To accomplish this, UNEP works with a wide range of partners, including UN entities, international organizations, national governments, non-governmental organizations, the private sector and civil society.

UNEP work encompasses:

  • Assessing global, regional and national environmental conditions and trends;
  • Developing international and national environmental instruments;
  • Strengthening institutions for the wise management of the environment;
  • Facilitating the transfer of knowledge and technology for sustainable development;
  • Encouraging new partnerships and mind-sets within civil society and the private sector.

UNEP’s overall mandate is to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.

TCB-related programme

UNEP’s Governing Council requested UNEP in 2001 to “assist countries, particularly developing countries and countries with economies in transition, to enhance their capacities to develop and implement mutually supportive trade and environmental policies” in a manner that is “geared to reflect the socio-economic and development priorities, as well as the needs and capacities of individual countries” (GC 21/14).

Located within UNEP’s Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, UNEP’s Economics and Trade Branch (UNEP-ETB) seeks to conserve the environment, reduce poverty, and promote sustainable development by enhancing the capacity of governments, businesses, and civil society to integrate environmental considerations into economic, trade, and financial policies and practices. Trade and environment policies are often developed in relative isolation from one another due to limited understanding of trade and environment linkages, insufficient coordination among policy-makers, and a lack of capacity to design integrated and mutually supportive policies. UNEP-ETB has been responding to this challenge by initiating a number of joint initiatives and activities with the WTO, UNCTAD, UN regional economic commissions and Secretariats of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), which aim to build the capacity of developing countries to integrate trade, environment and development objectives into national policy-making.

Since 1997, UNEP has supported numerous country-driven, national-level integrated assessments of the environmental, social and economic impacts of trade liberalization in specific sectors, such as fisheries, agriculture and forestry, with the goal of ensuring that trade liberalization supports national sustainable development objectives and poverty reduction strategies.

In 2008, UNEP launched the Green Economy Initiative (GEI) in order to provide analysis and policy support for countries transitioning to a green economy. As part of the GEI, UNEP develops research materials that analyse the macroeconomic, sustainability, and poverty reduction implications of green investment in a range of sectors from renewable energy to sustainable agriculture.

UNEP’s Green Economy and Trade Opportunities Project (GE-TOP) directly supports, and benefits from the work carried under the GEI. GE-TOP examines the positive trade opportunities available in a transition to a green economy. It provides examples of the trade opportunities that are available to developing countries, guidance on how to maximize gains from these opportunities, and a platform for interested parties to discuss the opportunities in the regional and global contexts.

While GE-TOP is global in nature insofar as all countries can examine their involvement in international trade from a green economy perspective and enact appropriate policies, the project activities focus on providing analysis of trade opportunities for developing countries. The first part of the project was the draft of a report entitled “Green Economy and Trade – Trends, Challenges and Opportunities”. The second part of the project consists of national-level analysis of trade opportunities in a selection of developing countries across regions.

Successful Projects

UNEP ETB has supported many projects in the last several years, including the “Promoting Production and Trading Opportunities for Organic Agriculture in East Africa” initiative (as part of UNEP-UNCTAD Capacity Building Task Forces on Trade (CBTF), Environment and Development and implemented in collaboration with ITC, the FAO, IFOAM, and national institutions in the participating countries). The initiative was designed based on the knowledge that organic agriculture offers a range of environmental, social, and economic benefits for developing countries and that, in order to take advantage of these opportunities, governments must create an environment that encourages sustainable growth and development in the sector and that helps producers and exporters of organic agricultural products overcome the obstacles they face.

When the initiative was being planned (2003-2005), there were five public and private organic agriculture standards in the participating three East African countries—Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. It was evident from the outset that there was a need for one harmonized organic agriculture production standard tailored to local environmental and socioeconomic conditions. Stakeholders had recently created organic agriculture networks at the national level in the three countries and were in the process of developing private organic standards to guide local producers. In assessing these competing standards, it became clear that a common regional standard and pooled resources for lobbying could increase the likelihood of success in negotiations with the European Union on issues associated with equivalence or mutual recognition, which could result in improved market access for East African organic agricultural products. The CBTF established a Regional Standards Technical Working Group (RSTWG) with a mandate to develop an East African organic standard.

Once it had been adopted by the EAC as its official voluntary standard, the East African Organic Products Standard was only the second regional standard in the world, after the EU organic standard. It is the first regional standard in the developing world, and the first to be developed through such a participatory and multi-stakeholder process.


UNEP is partnering with FAO, UNIDO, ITC and UNCTAD on the United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS), a platform that provides information and analysis on voluntary sustainability standards. The UNFSS was launched in March 2013 and has a particular focus on the potential value of voluntary sustainability standards (VSS) as tools for developing countries to achieve their sustainable development goals UNEP is working with ICTSD and ITC to explore trade opportunities in the green economy.

UNEP also partners with the WTO, other UN agencies, the secretariats of environmental conventions, and UN Regional Economic Commissions in projects focused on their respective mandates.

For UNEP as a whole:

For TCB of the UNEP Economics and Trade Branch:

TCB activities in this guide


  • Analysis and support while transitioning to a green economy
  • Identifying trade opportunities in the green economy


  • Providing information and analysis on voluntary sustainability standards


  • Legal and regulatory frameworks in eco-labelling


  • Accessing BioTrade in the green economy
  • Opportunities for organic agriculture


  • UNEP South-South Exchange Mechanism