Tackling the Global Climate Challenge
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made progress on global climate change one of his top priorities, and he has been working with countries to help them reach an agreement since he took office in 2007. Both the global negotiations and the scientific assessment of the challenge are led by the UN.
A Brief History
International efforts to deal with climate change began at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, with the adoption of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change — a treaty signed and ratified by the United States. This agreement makes all countries responsible for working to avoid “dangerous human interference” with the climate system. It was based from its very first words on the idea that “change in the Earth’s climate and its adverse effects are a common concern of humankind.”
In 1997, an implementation agreement of the Framework Convention was adopted. The Kyoto Protocol, which covered 170 countries, committed developed countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 7 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. The U.S. signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
International negotiators have pledged to reach a new global agreement on climate change at a conference in December 2015 in Paris. They are taking a new approach based on voluntary national commitments to action – a “race to the top” in climate-friendly energy solutions.
The shift to a low-carbon economy is occurring everywhere. Countries, states, cities, and companies are taking action, partly out of concern about climate change, but also because such action is in their own economic interest — either directly (through money-saving efficiency measures like LED street lights) or indirectly (by saving lives now cut short by air pollution). As the market for low-carbon technologies expands, they will improve further in performance and price and become even more competitive. In Ted Turner’s words, it is the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century.
What the Paris climate conference can do is help accelerate the pace of technological adoption and change, toward the day when the cleanest energy sources are also the cheapest and thus become dominant. The payoff will be improved public health and increased economic well-being. Most importantly, the global climate will be prevented from going off the rails.
FORGING A SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program in 1988 to review and assess published scientific, technical, and socio-economic reports on climate change, its potential impact, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
Drawing on the voluntary engagement of hundreds of experts from leading academic and research institutions, the IPCC is the world’s most authoritative scientific effort to understand and address changes in the Earth’s climate.
To date, the IPCC has released five Assessment Reports, which have warned in increasingly strong and certain terms about the impacts of climate change on our global environment, society, and economy if serious action is not taken immediately.
In 2014 the IPCC concluded in its Fifth Assessment Report: “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.” With 95% certainty, these scientists attribute the changes to human activity.
The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880, according to two analyses by the U.S. government and another by Japan. The world is already seeing and feeling the effects – in the form of rising sea levels and more extreme weather, heat waves, wildfires, and storms. These changes could lead to devastating effects on humanity and will only worsen if left unchecked.
The UN Foundation works to ensure that the science of climate change is communicated and understood globally. It also supports action on a range of global energy issues, especially Sustainable Energy for All, the initiative launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and co-led by World Bank President Jim Kim. Along with a goal of ensuring universal access to modern energy services, Sustainable Energy for All seeks to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency globally and double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix – thus addressing climate change through critically needed changes to the world’s energy systems within a framework of sustainable development.