A time of reckoning

What is the immediate future going to look like for the agencies of United Nations focusing on sustainable development?

The potential for imminent and seismic change at the UN was widely anticipated, but the so-called pundits did not predict the scope and alacrity of the change.

Introduced without much public and media attention on January 3, in the US Congress, the bill “American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017” was one of the New Year’s harbingers of change for the relationship between the US and the UN.
There is little room for confusion here. “The bill requires: (1) the president to terminate US membership in the UN, including any organ, specialised agency, commission, or other formally affiliated body; and (2) closure of the US Mission to the UN.”

A time of reckoning has arrived for the UN. Governor Nikki Haley — a daughter of Indian immigrants sworn in as the new US Ambassador to the UN — was explicit in her confirmation hearing statement: “We contribute 22% of the UN’s budget, far more than any other country. We are a generous nation.

But we must ask ourselves what good is being accomplished by this disproportionate contribution. Are we getting what we pay for?... In short, Mr Chairman, my goal for the UN will be to create an international body that better serves the interests of the American people.”

Imminent change was signalled by Ambassador Haley in her forcefully succinct opening remarks at the UN on January 27: “Our goal with the administration is to show value at the UN… For those that don’t have our back, we’re taking names. We will make points to respond to that accordingly. But this a time of strength, this is time of action, this is a time of getting things done.” She went on to add: :Everything that’s not working, we’re going to try and fix. And anything that seems to be obsolete and not necessary, we’re going to do away with.”

So a pragmatic question is what the immediate future for UN agencies mandated to focus on sustainable development including environment, human rights, population, and gender issues going to look like?

Sustainable development is a massive umbrella concern at the UN. The UN and its member states universally adopted two landmark global agreements in 2015: the Paris Climate Agreement which entered into force on November 4, 2016 literally days before a new US administration was voted in, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda anchored by no less than 17 new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and a massive associated list of 169 targets.

The future implementation of these agreements is a relevant concern for many developing countries including India — the world’s third largest aggregate greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter but also the world’s lowest per capita emitter among the top 10 aggregate GHG emitters.

India has long argued that poverty eradication and equity considerations need to be factored in its climate change response. India’s 2015 submission to the UN — its “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution”— does not include aggregate emissions reduction targets, instead it pledges to reduce “emissions intensity”— its emissions per unit of economic output. India’s push towards renewable energy showcased by the National Solar Mission (NSM) was the identified strategy to reduce emissions intensity and provide clean, sustainable energy for millions.

It is worth recalling that the previous US administration actively negotiated and ratified the Paris Climate Agreement, but also simultaneously pursued a ruling against India’s National Solar Mission with the WTO.

A US environmental group — the Sierra Club — had argued that: “By dropping the solar trade case, solar panels produced domestically in India will improve energy access and move the world’s third largest carbon emitter away from dirty fossil fuels.”

The WTO ruling against India’s NSM revealed an essential fault line about the existence of global governance “silos” on climate and clean energy action.
Decades of UN-led negotiations have resulted in ineffective policy “silos” that separate out “sustainable energy for all” goals from “climate change” goals even though energy is common denominator. Having two separate SDGs on sustainable energy and climate change within the UN’s new agenda makes little practical sense in terms of financing and implementation.

The need for integrated action on climate and clean energy is urgent for the “840 million people in India by far the largest national population of any country in the world" (International Energy Agency 2015 estimates) whose heavy reliance on polluting and highly toxic solid fuel energy sources results in grave health impacts and short-term climate pollutants.

Sustainable energy
Integrating access to sustainable energy for the poor with climate change objectives has also been embraced as essential by new and innovative global public-private initiatives that do not fall within the purview of the UN. These global partnerships include:

Breakthrough Energy Coalition (BEC): Philanthropic billionaires agreed to pool their assets to launch the BEC. An opening sentence of the BEC’s guiding principle is worth highlighting: “The urgency of climate change and the energy needs in the poorest parts of the world require an aggressive global programme for zero-emission energy innovation.”

Mission Innovation: An initiative launched by 20 countries (including the world’s most populous and the largest oil, gas and renewable energy producers such as Brazil, China, India, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia and the US), this initiative is the government-driven analog to the business-driven BEC and aims at dramatically accelerating global clean energy innovation.

International Solar Alliance: Jointly announced by India and France, the alliance comprises 120 countries and focuses on the idea that developing countries need scaled up technology, capacity building and initial public financing in order to maximise the potential of solar energy.

Countries seeking urgent, integrated action on energy and climate now need to ask whether the immediate future for effective climate and clean energy action will occur under the aegis of the UN, or within a diverse range of bilateral and public-private partnerships that lie outside of the overall aegis of the UN.
(The writer is an expert on climate change based in the US)

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