What’s The United Nations Doing About Climate Change?

Alana Smyth - Politics & Economics


Climate change has become one of the world’s greatest challenges and is increasingly threatening all aspects of global security. Unless humankind can mitigate climate change, our hopes for a peaceful future will be tainted with poverty, famine, mass-displacement, lack of resources, massive impacts on economics, just to name a few.


So, what is the United Nations, the global body for the maintenance of peace, doing about this global phenomenon?


Whilst some skeptics of International order may overlook the works of the UN, the organization is at the forefront of efforts to save our world. Yes, the organization has done some ‘not so great’ things, but that doesn’t cancel out all that it does to promote peace. A crucial element to understand about the UN is this: the UN was made by the States, for the States. Meaning, the body works in favor of the State’s wants and needs. It wasn’t until recently, after the Cold War, that we saw a shift towards human rights, but even still, the UN is primarily focused on State-State relations. Now, to understand the vast array of UN bodies that work to support sustainable development and maintain ecological balance, one must know that the nature of the UN is like a spider-web: it is a deeply complex, yet delicate, system of which every stream is connected and reliant on one another.


‘World Peace’ isn’t simply a goal that applies only to human interactions and relationships. It isn’t a bunch of people sharing a blunt in a daisy field singing “Kum ba ya” whilst praying that the world magically heals itself. It isn’t a passive or weak state of operating, it isn’t cowardice or spineless: it is, however, our potential saving-grace.


Peace acknowledges the need for conflict, without it there wouldn’t be human expansion and development, and more importantly, peace is about harmonious relationships between all things in the world, including the environment.


So we, and the UN, can’t talk about peace unless the environment is brought to the table. Let’s take the prevention of war as an example: this goal is very much at the top of the UN’s agenda, why? Well, that’s self- explanatory. The prevention of war alone, ultimately prevents the actualization of mass land destruction, air pollution, oil production, overuse of land resources, pollution of waterways, and deforestation. The UN’s ‘peace-oriented’ approach to climate action is on a much larger scale, and whilst it is ‘less specific’, this does not mean it is redundant.


To dive into the UN’s contributions to climate action, we first have to understand the many mechanisms which the UN has created to ‘help the environment’. Let’s begin with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Since the establishment of the UNFCCC in 1992, 197 countries have ratified the convention. This pioneering text did not set mandatory and concrete obligations to mitigate climate change but established a system of negotiation through which it would be possible to speedily adopt amendments and updates arising from the continuous rounds of negotiations covering development protocols. This framework led to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.


The Kyoto protocol was the world’s first international agreement that set binding targets for industrialized countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Together with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development and the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction, the Paris Agreement has provided the foundation for low-carbon and sustainable development. Even if all countries meet their current Paris pledges, the world will probably heat up by substantially more than 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures, with grave consequences for the ecosystem and societies.


As all organs of the United Nation strive to unify all nations, the UNFCCC is no exception. Each year, since 1995, conferences have strived to bring participating states into a common cause to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which brings me to the UN Climate Change Conferences. The UN Climate Action Summit, the UN Climate Change Conference, and the Climate Youth Summit are three separate entities. So, considering the UN likes to meet up to talk about climate change, a lot, one would hope that these meetings weren’t for nothing, right? Well, sometimes, unfortunately, they are. Whilst education and public distribution of climate facts are critical for ending climate change, this seems to be the only truly successful thing that comes out of these meetings.


The UN Climate Change Conferences are in alignment with the UNFCCC and are global forums that exercise multilateral discussions on climate change affairs. At the formal meetings, parties review the implementation of the UNFCCC, the Kyoto protocol, and the Paris Agreement. To put it loosely, it’s a time where countries can “negotiate and trade carbon emissions”. The UN Climate Action Summits, however, are slightly more ‘flashy’. Just think: Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough.


These forums are where the world sees countries announcing their individual national steps to reduce emissions. If we look back on both the Summits and Conferences, we see time and time again the countries which are committed to climate action, and those which are not. China, India, and the US tend to be the most silent voices of the attendees, which is unfortunate considering how much the fate of the environment’s future rests in their hands. Whilst the Summits and Conferences don’t always lead to huge, dramatic, drastic, life-changing implementation, they do create a space that successfully draws attention to climate change. Going ever further than that, the world’s attention is focused on world leaders, governments, private sectors, and society.


With the world watching, the UN builds a stage where States can be named and shamed, or praised. Citizens of the world, both current and future leading generations are then inspired with a new strength of hope and resilience. These seeds of inspiration are vital for the security of our world’s future. Stemming off the UNEA and the UNFCCC, the UN has a multitude of other environmental-based bodies.


The Sustainable Development Goals have dedicated goal 13 to climate action.


These goals are set out of the blueprint to achieve a more peaceful world. They were implemented and adopted by all UN Member States, and whilst the UN hopes to achieve all goals by 2030, progress, unsurprisingly, hasn’t been as dramatic as hoped for. With that, the Green Climate Fund was created as part of the financial mechanism of the UNFCCC. The fund provides financial resources to developing countries to enable the implementation of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. Their work is categorized into 7 areas: climate change, disasters and conflict, ecosystem management, environmental governance, chemicals and waste, resource efficiency, and the environment under review. Going even further into the UN Body, The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), established in 1972, is known as “the voice for the environment within the UN system”. This program advocates, educates, and facilitates the promotion of sustainable development and usage of global resources. Now let’s quickly talk about the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).


The United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) created the panel to provide policymakers with regular reports on climate changes and recommendations for adaptation and mitigation options. Since 1988, the IPCC has released assessments and reports which have ultimately kept governments up to date with scientific developments on climate change, and how they can shape and develop their state policies to mitigate the risks of global warming. Each year, volunteer scientists devour thousands of papers and reports to release an annual report, and whilst the panel doesn’t conduct its own individual research, the body strives to maintain transparency.


Taking these 4 examples, one can’t say that the UN isn’t trying. It puts in effort year after year to promote sustainable relationships with the environment. Whilst it might not always be successful or ground-breaking, that isn’t the point. People need to stop putting the responsibility of world peace solely onto the UN. Yes, that’s why it was created, but one body alone can’t bring about world peace. Peace is a collective, conscious, and continuous choice, and when people stop viewing approaches to peace from an individualist perspective, then we might actually start seeing some progress.


Finally, there is the United Nations Environment Assembly. This body, whilst only established in 2012, acts as the highest-level decision-making body within the global arena on the environment. The biennial meetings establish environmental policy priorities and develop international environmental law. The creation of this body signified a dramatic shift in international discourse.


The UN specifically created the assembly to make a statement that the environment will no longer remain a ‘side-topic’ for international relations, but now it is as important as issues such as peace, poverty, and security. What the UN is trying to do is to create a coherent and consistent system of international law and governance around the environment, so that great power states can’t just feign a sudden bout of dementia and get away with crimes against the environment on large grandeur scales. With 193 Member States, each meeting aims to bring about the adoption of an environmentally sustainable and peaceful agenda and resolutions, which each participating State is ‘highly-encouraged’ to implement and ratify. Do all States do this? No, which lead me to the ‘not so good’ aspects of the UN.


For a quick recap; majority of the UN has no legal holding over nation-states, which is great for sovereignty, but not so great when the world is faced with a looming global threat and certain states continue to care more about economic gain than human survival.


However, the UN Security Council (UNSC) is the only body which holds power to overrule state sovereignty. This is usually done through resolutions, sanctions, and international intervention. If you don’t know what the UNSC is, have a look at this article to find out more. The body is a dichotomy of multilateral diplomacy working for and against global peace. But just like many other UN bodies, the UNSC is far more complex than at first glance. If the UNSC's main responsibility is to maintain peace within the international arena, climate change cannot be ignored in such discourse. However, it wasn’t until recently that the UNSC even started to discuss climate change - the first time being in 2007 tabled by the UK.


The UNSC is a great opportunity to see a country’s true geopolitical aims, and more often than not, those aims mirror the country’s stance on climate change. The problem here is that the UNSC is the only body within the UN that constitutes the legal backbone of the UN’s efforts. Despite decades of substantial efforts led by the United Nations; geopolitics and power dynamics still continue to plague peace and war negotiations. If this alone does sound alarm bells in your mind, I haven’t even begun to mention the detrimental effects that warfare produces on climate change. The U.S Department of Defence has “a larger annual carbon footprint than most countries on earth”. Since the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S military has emitted 1.2 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, just in Afghanistan.


What has the UN done to mitigate the U.S’s relentless act on warfare?


Nothing, because they can’t. Not that the UN doesn’t want to, it’s just that if they did, they might aggravate UNSC negotiations or lose one of their biggest funders, and that wouldn’t be great. Furthermore, besides all the greenhouse gases produced by petroleum that is polluting the environment, warfare doesn’t just target ‘enemies’: it targets land. Deforestation, polluted waterways, toxic chemicals plaguing the air, oil leakages across the ocean, these are just a few of the immediate ‘side-effects’ of war. If the UN is serious about helping climate action, steps need to be taken so that UNSC great powers, like the US, can’t continue to run rampage with industrialized military weapons without serious ramifications.


Climate change is no longer simply ‘an environmental concern’ as it was once deemed in the 20th century: the phenomena has climbed its way into the political agenda. Prior to the Trump Administration, the US, UK, and France tended to voice climate change agendas, whilst Russia and China pushed the issue over to other UN organs like the UN Environment Assembly. However, since the reigns of the US were handed over to the almighty orange toupée, the tunes of the great powers have changed. The US is showing great signs of neglect, and China has put forward efforts to secure climate security, but this back and forth dance between states isn’t helpful, to say the least, and whilst the political arena is waiting for the P5 to come together and find consensus, climate change is powering on, refusing to wait for humanity to stop butting heads.


So what can the UN do from here on in? Are the SDGs enough? Can we rely on global institutions to guide and control state decisions? Perhaps it will be too late for humanity when we come to the answer. What we shouldn’t do is attack the UN as being a redundant tool in the games of IR. If we didn’t have such a body, we sure as hell would be working around the clock to create something just like it.


If we’re going to fight against climate change, a global phenomenon that will target and affect all of us, we need a global solution.


The UN has produced agendas, resolutions, aims, and initiatives year after year, and even though many power States continue to turn a blind eye, the institution does not give up. I think we can all take lessons from such persistence and resilience. The UN truly wants and believes in the possibility of a peaceful future, and whilst this might seem too ‘liberal’ or ‘optimistic’, we have to be to continue to fight for our planet. If we all threw in the towel and thought “let’s be realistic for a second...we’re not going to survive this battle”, there’s a 100% guarantee that we’ll be doomed, but because of organizations like the UN, maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance for a future filled with nature. I know for me, that small glimmer of hope keeps me fighting each day for what’s right for our planet.


Alana Smyth is a current Peace Studies student at the University of New England majoring in Global Peace and Politics. After attending the UN Peace Summit 2020 in Bangkok, Alana became a UN Peace Ambassador and is currently combining her passion for human rights with her fascination for ecological restoration by working with various marine conservation organizations and indigenous communities in Australia.   

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