Climate change and climate action:
What next for the UN after the Paris Agreement?
by Richard Kinley[*]
Climate changes is perhaps the quintessential “global” or “United Nations” issue, involving as it does a major threat to human security without regard to national boundaries, deeply entwined national interests, and development and equity challenges. It is therefore a source of pride that the United Nations has, over the past 30 years, delivered 3 important, near-universal, multilateral treaties, 5 increasingly-conclusive scientific assessments of the problem, an integrated 2030 agenda for sustainable development fully integrating climate considerations, numerous summits and high-level engagements, and a robust treaty implementation regime that promotes transparency and engagement, including by non-state actors.
The accomplishments listed above, heartening as they may be, are, nevertheless, completely insufficient for the scale of the problem the world currently faces – and to the opportunities presented by addressing the climate challenge in a concerted manner. The vision enshrined in the Paris Agreement is extremely ambitious: global temperature change thresholds, peaking global emissions as soon as possible, carbon neutrality in the second half of the century (i.e. a no carbon future), and adapting to the already inevitable impacts of climate change. The United Nations system must embrace these goals and push all-out to achieve them – with determination, optimism and courage. The time for lip service and negotiations is over – full mobilization for action is the order of the day.
From the time the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted in 1992, through the adoption of the landmark Paris Agreement in 2015, much of the credit for keeping climate change on national and international agendas must go to the United Nations – from the on-going UNFCCC negotiation process, with its supporting secretariat, to the leadership of the Secretary-General in highlighting the need for action among world leaders and with the broader public.
However, we have entered a new era and different roles must come to the fore. In the wake of the adoption and entry into force of the Paris Agreement, the locus of action now shifts fundamentally to the national level, with local and regional entities and the private sector also having critical roles to play. Four imperatives can be identified:
- Full implementation of the Paris Agreement, especially of its underlying “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), and doing so in conjunction with achieving the full set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This means reducing emissions rapidly and countries increasing the ambition of their NDCs progressively over time beginning in 2020. It means strengthening technological innovation, and diffusion, and ensuring appropriate economic signals to make the necessary transformations inevitable. It also means building coalitions to counter the blather of vested interests which seek to protect short-term wealth generation at the expense of the wider common interest.
- A pre-condition for #1 above is constant positive reinforcement of, and pressure for, enhanced action. This means mobilization by all sectors from governments, civil society, and business, and especially high-level political engagement to lead the way. In essence, this can be seen as the manifestation of hope.
- The ongoing response to the climate challenge must be centred around a commitment to a just world – in the coming crucial decade and for future generations. Most important in this regard is ensuring sufficient finance for development, whether in fulfilling commitments to provide support to developing countries in growing their economies in low-carbon ways and adapting to climate change, or in the massive investments needed in developing and industrialized countries for low carbon sustainability. The most vulnerable people need to be supported by governments and the international community, and the economic transformations that will be necessary need to be planned carefully and promote socially just outcomes.
- The final imperative is the need for more and better information: what can be done (and how), and what is happening in the atmosphere and the environment, in the economy, and in the implementation of response strategies. This is key to moving forward and to fairness and transparency.
What can and should the United Nations be doing to advance these four imperatives? Activities can be grouped in four thematic areas which are relevant for all members of the United Nations family to varying degrees.
- Convening and advocating at high level
Given the urgent, and ongoing, need to accelerate and intensify action to reduce emissions in all countries and to adapt to climate change impacts, all relevant UN agencies must use their convening and advocacy powers to push for greater ambition, showcase the leaders and shame the laggards. This responsibility starts with the Secretary-General but extends throughout the UN family, especially in sectoral organizations who need to mobilize their country-level teams and push partner ministries in governments as well as the private sector and civil society. The overarching vision is that provided by the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.
Heads of state and government need to be periodically engaged so that the vision they launched in Paris is carried through and not frustrated by competing internal agendas.
- Supporting implementation
In line with the need to advocate for enhanced action is the obligation to do a much better job at country level, and in inter-agency work, of supporting the development and implementation of nationally determined contributions, and the related national and sectoral plans, including effective adaptation planning and support. Success will only be achieved when sectoral ministries such as energy, transport and agriculture are fully engaged, with cross-ministerial cooperation and inter-agency collaboration (not competition) the order of the day.
The central role of the UN country teams in this regard cannot be overstated and needs constant reinforcement. Several players have important roles to play in this coordination and need to act: the Secretary-General, UNDP and UNFCCC to name three, with the World Bank being a key partner.
Finance is essential for ambitious implementation. The Secretary-General can and must use his convening and advocacy powers to push governments to meet their funding commitments. Even more significant, and impactful, is the spotlight that he and the UN can direct at changing investment patterns and unleashing the power of capital flows to achieve climate and sustainability objectives.
- Holding states and other actors accountable
The UN, especially UNFCCC in collaboration with other agencies, has a central role in holding governments, business and local authorities to account for doing what they have promised. The accumulation and synthesis of data is a traditional UN role, but one that needs to be fulfilled with greater clarity and accessibility. The status of implementation of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and what is the impact on emission trends – nationally and globally – are crucial pieces in the UN’s watchdog role. Governments have made commitments with weak compliance provisions, meaning that accountability through information dissemination is crucial. The provision of meaningful information on actions by the private sector and local and regional authorities is also urgently needed, ensuring no double counting and full incorporation in national accounts as well. The UN can shine a light on those who are leading the way, and also oblige those who are not to justify their inaction.
Accountability by national governments in the implementation of nationally determined contributions is critical, with UNFCCC being the clearinghouse for this. The essential objective for the United Nations must be increases in ambition of NDCs over time, enabled by private sector and local government action and technological innovation, as well as by international finance.
- Sharing scientific information and good practices
The UN holds a vast store of information that can inform policy making and inspire action. Sharing and promoting information on what adaptation and emission-reduction actions can be taken, their estimated costs and their impacts can be a powerful promoter of action. It reinforces the case that action is not expensive but rather reduces significantly the climate-related losses and brings about other benefits – and that the problem is solvable. All UN agencies need to integrate this into their communication and outreach, in concert with the SDGs.
A key element in this area relates to scientific information. The UN, working with the scientific community and partners like environmental NGOs, community leaders, progressive business and the media, can help to ensure well-informed decision-makers and publics. Clear information on the atmosphere/climate/weather nexus, sea levels, and response options, as well as trends and projections, to name but a few topics, will only help to incentivize action and measure progress.
Other information is also important – including on sectoral issues such as health impacts, agriculture, climate-enhanced disasters, etc. This will reinforce the action imperative.
UN support for initiatives that seek to inform people on how they can act to promote a sustainable future, will also help to rebuild connections between the United Nations and citizens around the world (see for example the Citizen’s Climate Pledge initiative).
The challenges posed by global climate change are huge, but the problem is entirely solvable within the approximately 50 year time horizon specified in the Paris Agreement. However, there is no time to lose. Science tells us that the next decade is critical to moving forward with actions and with enhancing ambition to achieve the visionary goals of a carbon free and climate secure future. All actors must play their appropriate roles – national governments, the private sector, sub-national governments, civil society and an informed citizenry. The United Nations, and the wider family of international organizations, cannot replace or compete with these actors. The good news is that the United Nations family has several indispensable roles to play, within its competencies and expertise, to convene, hold accountable, share information and support. These should be the UN’s climate objectives for the next 25 years.
Richard Kinley is a member of the Advisory Board of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). Richard was a senior official at the UN Climate Change Secretariat (UNFCCC) from 1993 to 2017. He served as Deputy Executive Secretary from 2006 to 2017 and was intimately involved in the development of UNFCCC as an organization from its establishment and in its management and operations. He also led or oversaw the secretariat’s support to the climate change negotiations, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement, and to the intergovernmental institutions. Prior to joining UNFCCC, Richard was an official of the Government of Canada working on international environmental policy issues. He holds a B.A. in political studies and an M.A. in international relations.