United Nations

GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE is one of the most pressing issues of the 21st century. Because of the use of coal, oil, and gas for energy and the loss and degradation of forests, our planet is warming faster than at any time in the last several thousand years. We have already experienced warming temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and sea-level rise. These disruptive forces have severe effects on economies, environment, and society of humankind. Nonetheless, the climate challenge may at the same time be viewed as an enormous opportunity for a significant economic change. It is quite evident that the United Nations (UN), by implementing a number of notable conventions and treaties, assumes a key role to play in a wide range of activities concerned with understanding, mitigating, and adapting to climate change. In a nutshell, the past few decades have seen a growing recognition of the importance of involvement of the UN with the complex scientific and technical issues related to global warming, climate change, and sustainable development.

Although it is rightly perceived that it is just a kind of global challenge the UN is uniquely positioned to address, it is also recognized that this is not a challenge for this world body alone. To handle the dilemma, it requires a truly concerted global effort—an initiative that draws together national governments, private sector, and civil society in one sustained push for change. This policy-relevant piece concludes by asserting the following forward-looking reflections that the UN, with its sensitivity and imagination, will be able to more successfully convey the urgency of the situation and send the following message to all of us: we should unite at any cost to save our beloved planet.


Regardless of the fact that the international scientists have drawn attention to the threats posed by global warming in the 1960s and 1970s, it took some years before the global community responded. In 1988, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an authoritative UN network of 2000 scientists, was created by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization. In 1990, this group presented a first assessment report that reflected the views of 400 scientists. The report indicated that global warming was real and urged that something be done about it. The findings of the panel prompted governments to create an international treaty, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). By the standards of international agreements, the negotiation of the convention was rapid. It was ready for signature at the UN Conference on Environment and Development, more popularly known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

More comprehensively, the Convention on Climate Change, which entered into effect on March 21, 1994, sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed by climate change. It recognizes that the climate system is a shared resource, the stability of which can be affected by industrial and other emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHGs). Under this convention, which enjoys near universal membership, with 191 countries having ratified it, governments gather and share information on GHG emissions, national policies, and best practices; launch national strategies for addressing GHG emissions and adapting to expected effects, including the provision of financial and technological support to developing countries; and cooperate in preparing for adaptation to the effects of climate change. Notwithstanding, the recent UNFCCC report underscores the principal changes to patterns of investment and financial flows required to tackle climate change in the next quarter century. A major accomplishment of the convention, which is general and flexible in character, is that it admits that there is a problem.

A number of nations have recently approved an addition to the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol, a second, more far-reaching international treaty on climate change that entered into force on February 16, 2005. The Kyoto Protocol has more powerful and legally binding measures that call for industrialized countries to collectively reduce emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. In fact, these trends have been projected to accelerate over the recent years, including the Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, held in Bali (Indonesia) in December 2007, although the Vienna Climate Change Talks 2007 were attended by nearly 1,000 representatives from over 150 governments, business and industry, environmental organizations, journalists, and research institutions.


In 2007, climate change has indeed become one of the highly prioritized concerns for the UN, because there is now an overall understanding that the phenomenon will seriously affect the way the world operates in toady's challenging era of globalization, from healthcare and water issues to economic activity, humanitarian assistance, and the peace-building and security aspects. The UN has already demonstrated a long-standing commitment and responsibility toward resolving the cardinal environmental hazards encompassing reducing GHG emissions to limit future climate change and improving the capacity of the world's biodiversity and poorest communities to adapt to its inevitable effects. This universal organization has played a pivotal role in generating the scientific consensus, elevating the issue to the cover pages of the global media, and placing it on the in-tray of heads of state and government, as well as the chief executive officers of businesses and industries.

The UN, through the UNFCCC, helps to accelerate the take-up of clean and renewable energies to counter the climate change challenge. To be more specific, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol permits developed countries to offset some of their emissions through clean and renewable energy projects and certain forestry schemes in developing countries. The CDM funds flowing from north to south will reach up to US$100 billion over the coming years. The high-technology industries and job opportunities are emerging in both developed and developing nations. China and India are currently homes to two of the biggest wind turbine and power companies. The foreign direct investment in renewable energy, driven in part by the UN-brokered climate treaties, is anticipated to top US$80 billion in 2007. The UN system is further endeavoring to nourish this process. For instance, the UNEP, in partnership with the UN Foundation and Asian Development Bank, piloted a project that has brought solar power to 100,000 people in India.

This sort of progress actually echoes the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the UN, as they relate to such areas as poverty alleviation, public health, basic education, and so on. Furthermore, the UN assists in harnessing the power of the carbon markets and evaluates the potential for forests to cope with challenge emanated from the climate change. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, for example, estimates that 13 million hectares of the world's forests are lost annually and that deforestation accounts for approximately 20 percent of the global GHG emissions.

The issue of climate change, along with such steps as the UN Global Compact, assists the restoration of nexus between the UN and other segments of society making up business and industry. Although an intriguing feature of recent months is a call by the private sector for international regulation across the globe, businesses appear eager to do their part if the ground rules are clear and comprehensive. In addition, many other welcoming initiatives are already being undertaken. The European Union, for instance, has agreed to a 20 percent emission reduction target, which will rise to 30 percent if other countries follow suit. The Group of Eight Summit in Germany has also affirmed the ongoing UN climate change process. It is demanding that governments and the UN deliver an international agreement to address this issue. Developing countries are also acting at the same time. In Brazil, efforts to counter deforestation in the Amazon have shown positive results, whereas China has recommitted itself to reduce its energy intensity by 20 percent.

In addition, the prime minister of India has recently ordered a review of his nation's GHG emissions.

The UN is looking at its own backyard as well. The Capital Master Plan for the refurbishment of the UN headquarters in New York is assessing how to factor green measures into the project, looking to make the structure a striking example of an ecofriendly building. This is part of a wider evaluation of how UN operations, from building to procurement of goods and services, can respond to the sustainability challenge. It is redundant to say that the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has developed an information-gathering Web resource consisting of data, studies, policy papers, videos, and other materials, as part of its effort to combat climate change. Although the tourism sector is expected to mitigate and adapt in the face of global warming and to explore and put in place more climate-friendly and climate-proof alternatives, the UNWTO service is a contribution to fostering the knowledge base and search for solutions to meet the climate challenge.

Finally, the UN is the only forum in which an agreement striving to reduce GHG emissions beyond 2012

could practically be brokered among the 190-plus countries with diverse outlooks and economies, but of a common atmosphere. Despite the fact that the warming of the Earth's atmosphere has by this time adversely affected fragile ecosystems and the livelihoods of poor people, this protest at the same time offers manifold alluring prospects for all of its member states.


The most recent findings of the IPCC have emphasized that the science on climate change is very clear. The panel report, issued in May 2007, has also unequivocally confirmed the warming of the climate system and linked it directly to human activities. The IPCC has outlined the likely effects of climate change in the near future if the international community fails to act. Although this grave threat is now beginning to receive the high attention it merits, it brings up an underpinning question about how the UN itself will meet this ultimatum, carrying serious implications for our planet and our future generations.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has identified climate change as one of his top priorities since his

A moment of silence was observed for the victims of the Algiers bombing during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, December 3-14, 2007. The gathering brought together representatives of over 180 countries.

very first days in office, intends to take a leadership role in supporting efforts by the international community to address the problem by bringing world leaders together and ensuring that all parts of the UN system will contribute to the solution. The UN, as a global forum with broader participation, is best suited to forging a common approach to responding to climate change. Observing the imminence and severity of the problems posed by the accelerating changes in the global climate, the secretary-general has warned that we cannot go on this way for long, and that we cannot continue with business as usual. He also urged us to take joint action on a global scale to address climate change. It is true that there are numerous policy and technological options available to face this impending crisis, but we should have the political will to seize them.

Both developed and developing countries have to be able to reassess the big picture of what is required by identifying the key building blocks for an effective response to climate change. There is a consensus that the response needs to be global, with the involvement of all countries, and that it needs to give equal weight to adaptation and mitigation. The industrialized nations can do much more to reduce GHG emissions and encourage energy efficiency, and they can also support clean development in fast-growing economies and adaptation measures in countries facing the greatest hardships from climate change. In contrast, the developing countries need to be more engaged in addressing climate change while safeguarding their socioeconomic growth and poverty eradication. As for the UN as a whole, it should help the developing economies to finance and deploy energy efficient technologies and incorporate adaptation into the UNFCCC and related environmental organizations.

As an expert scientific panel has recently reported to the UN, to head off the worst of climate change, the governments must pour tens of billions of dollars more than they are into clean-energy research and enforce sharp rollbacks in fossil-fuel emissions. The UN itself must better prepare to help tens of millions of environmental refugees, and authorities everywhere should discourage new building on land less than 1 m. (39 in.) above sea level. The construction of climate-resilient cities may also be championed. The climate-resilient cities are identified as cities that produce low per capita emissions and that can manage weather-related events. Moreover, a climate-resilient city has a reliable supply of potable water, given that water will likely become scarcer as weather patterns change.

The UN is an intergovernmental organization, but it collects its strength and inspiration from the support of civil society worldwide. In fact, there are a number of wonderful illustrations of cohesive ties binding the UN to global civil society. Although these relationships date back to the earliest days of this global forum, they have truly come of age just recently. In spite of the truth that this has been possible because of a deliberate and sustained outreach effort on both parts, it also reflects the substantially expanded role of civil society organizations on the world stage. That is why today's UN relies on its partnership with the nongovernmental organization (NGO) community in virtually everything it does. Some research findings show that the nonstate actor can contribute effectively and efficiently, if it fosters awareness in developing inventive initiatives at the grassroots level, which inspire people to work toward a solution. Thus, one area in which the cooperative partnership between the UN and civil society is increasingly essential relates to the global challenge posed by climate change. Conceding that the NGOs have historically been at the forefront of the struggle to draw attention to the environment, and to push for action to protect it, they may be stimulated to shoulder their redoubled responsibility toward building grassroots support for a breakthrough, as well as common ground for fighting climate change.

Climate change is not just an environmental issue but one that has serious socioeconomic implications as well. Because this advanced issue requires the attention of many sectors such as finance, energy, transport, agriculture, and health, climate change should firmly be positioned in the broader sustainable development agenda. Climate change impinges on all countries, because its aftermaths know no boundaries. Hence, this issue must be addressed in the context of the international development agenda. To be more concrete, the actions on climate change must be integrated into development efforts and scientific research led by various parts of the UN family. This may include work to address investment flows and finance schemes relevant to the development of an effective and appropriate international response to climate change and increased support for adaptation and for involving industry leaders to encourage support from the private sector. In other words, multilateral and bilateral donors, regional development banks, and international investment flows into the developing countries ought to reflect adaptation in their investment decisions.

It is expected that the Bali summit, by building a climate of trust among all governments in that spirit, will determine future action on mitigation, adaptation, the global carbon market, and financing responses to climate change for the period after the expiry of the 166-member Kyoto Protocol, the current global framework for reducing GHG emissions, in 2012.


Combating climate change presents a remarkable opportunity to break with the past and to look anew at the way we operate, the way we do business, and the path we use to relate to each other, now and in the future. Nevertheless, as climate change is a global problem, it needs a long-term global solution. The UN's ultimate goal is to make a comprehensive agreement under the UNFCCC process. Such an agreement must tackle climate change on all fronts, including climate adaptation, disaster mitigation, clean technologies, global deforestation, and resource mobilization. The UN should be at the center of brokering a fair, equitable, and decisive climate change regime for the new millennium. Toward confronting the climate change challenge, the UN needs an international collaborative stride made by governments, the private sector, and civil society. If this comprehensive organization succeeds, it will not only change the world but will save humanity. The UN must lead the world to a universal consensus discussion and enroot a strategic policy guideline to be realized over the coming years; the faster we get at it, the easier it is going to be to adapt.

sEE ALsO: Adaptation; Clean Development Mechanism; Deforestation; Developing Countries; Energy Efficiency; European Union; Greenhouse Gases; Kyoto Protocol; Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs); Refugees, Environmental; Tourism; United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

BIBLIOGRAPHY. Gary Braasch, Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World (University of

California Press, 2007); Andrew E. Dessler and Edward A. Parson, The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change: A Guide to the Debate (Cambridge University Press, 2006); Charles J. Hanley, "Scientists Offer Climate Plan to UN," The Washington Post (February 27, 2007); Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007); Brett M. Orlando, et al., Carbon, Forests and People: Towards the Integrated Management of Carbon Sequestration, the Environment and Sustainable Livelihoods (World Conservation Union, 2002); Nicholas Stern, The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review (Cambridge University Press, 2007); UN, The Future in Our Hands: Addressing the Leadership Challenge on Climate Change (United Nations Headquarters, 2007); UN, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (United Nations Headquarters, 1992); United Nations Environment Programme, Caring for Climate 2005: A Guide to the Climate Change Convention and the Kyoto Protocol 2005 (United Nations Environment Programme, 2005); United Nations Environment Programme, Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2007 (United Nations Environment Programme, 2007); UN Foundation, Confronting Climate Change: Avoiding the Unmanageable and Managing the Unavoidable (UN Foundation with Sigma Xi, 2007); UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Technologies for Adaptation to Climate Change (Secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2006).

Monir HossAiN Moni

University of Dhaka

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