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UN Members Killed in Ethiopian Plane Crash Headed to 4th UN Environment Assembly

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UN Members Killed in Ethiopian Plane Crash Headed to 4th UN Environment Assembly
UN Staff observe a minute of silence for the victims of the accident of the Ethiopian Airlines, including 19 UN workers, before the opening plenary of the 4th UN Environment Assembly at the UN headquaters in Nairobi, Kenya, on March 11. UNEP / C. VILLEMAIN / AFP / Getty Images

The Fourth UN Environment Assembly began in Nairobi Monday with a moment of silence for the victims of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines ET302 that killed 157 people on Sunday, including 22 UN staff members, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) reported.


Some of those killed in the crash has been traveling to the assembly, which is the largest ever gathering of the world's top environmental decision-making organization. Among the dead were youth delegates, scientists and academics, UN Environment Acting Executive Director Joyce Msuya said in a statement.

"The environmental community is in mourning today," Msuya said.

The deadly crash occurred minutes after the plane took off from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia Sunday morning en route to Nairobi, The Guardian reported. Everyone on board was killed. The tragedy raised safety concerns about the plane's model, a Boeing 737 Max 8, a new design that was involved in a similar crash in Indonesia in October 2018.

A UNEP staff member told AFP that the agency was "still trying to consolidate" the number of UN workers who had died.

Among those lost was Victor Shangai Tsang, who was the UNEP Policy Officer on Sustainable Development and had been with the program since 2015. His last professional act had been to work to promote the Sustainable Development Goals Innovation Talks at the assembly. He also worked on issues of gender equality.

"He represented the best in all of us, and we will miss him terribly," a UNEP statement said.

The tragedy cast a pall over the opening proceedings. The UN flag was lowered to half-mast, and the country flags were removed, UNEP reported.

"In the wake of this tragedy, it has been difficult to navigate how to proceed without showing disrespect to the many lives lost yesterday," Acting Director-General of UN Office in Nairobi and Executive Director of UN-Habitat Maimunah Sharif said. "I want to assure you all however, that as the day and week unfolds, and the world's global environmental leaders meet to discuss the future of our planet, we will not forget this tragedy, nor those that perished with it."

As the assembly began, one major theme to emerge was the need to address plastic pollution, AFP reported. The world currently produces more than 300 million tonnes (approximately 331 million U.S. tons) of plastic every year, and scientists say at least five trillion pieces of it are floating in the oceans. The UN wants countries to set ambitious targets to reduce plastic manufacturing and phase out single-use plastics by 2030, in an effort modeled after the Paris agreement to limit global warming to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"In the field of (plastic) pollution we don't have such agreements," UN Environment Assembly President and Estonia's Environment Minister Siim Kiisler told members of the press, as AFP reported. "This is the first time (we have) to convince member states to make international commitments."

Msuya urged delegates to be "optimistic and bold" and work towards the goals of reducing fossil fuel use by 80 percent and creating an almost zero waste economy, both by 2050, according to UNEP.

"[We need to] transform the way our economies work ... break the link between growth and increased resource use, and end our throwaway culture," Msuya said, as AFP reported.

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The oil spill has already killed marine animals and turned the turquoise water black. It's also threatening the long-term viability of the country's coral reefs, lagoons and shoreline, NBC News reported.

"We are starting to see dead fish. We are starting to see animals like crabs covered in oil, we are starting to see seabirds covered in oil, including some which could not be rescued," said Vikash Tatayah, conservation director at Mauritius Wildlife Foundation, according to The Weather Channel.

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"People have realized that they need to take things into their hands. We are here to protect our fauna and flora," environmental activist Ashok Subron said in an AFP story.

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Human hair absorbs oil, but not water, so scientists have long suggested it as a material to contain oil spills, Gizmodo reported. Mauritians are currently collecting as much human hair as possible to contribute to the booms, which consist of tubes and nets that float on the water to trap the oil.

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