Tackling the Global Climate Challenge
The Paris Agreement on climate change, which took shape in December 2015 and became official in November 2016, reaffirmed a global goal of limiting the increase in global average temperatures to “well below” 2o Celsius (3.6o Fahrenheit) – a level widely seen as dangerous disruptive to the climate system on which food production and other human activity depend. Both the global negotiations (the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ) and the scientific assessment of the challenge (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ) 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. 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.” The treaty makes all countries responsible for working to avoid “dangerous human interference” with the climate system.
The world struggled for many years to agree on how to implement the climate treaty. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol committed developed countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 5 to 7 percent. The U.S. signed but did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol.
After unsuccessful talks in Copenhagen in 2009, negotiators changed their strategy to emphasize voluntary national commitments to reduce their own emissions through steps that they would undertake themselves. This shift led to pledges by nearly every country before the Paris talks in 2015 – pledges that underpinned the Paris Agreement.
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 21 st century.
The Paris Agreement was an important step to 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. The national commitments made before Paris are not enough in themselves to stabilize the world’s climate, but the Agreement also provides for countries to make even stronger commitments every five years as technology develops and as the effects of climate change become more clear.
SHOWCASING THE 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 was Earth’s warmest since modern recordkeeping began in 1880 – but then was surpassed by 2015, and 2016 was hotter yet. The world is already seeing and feeling the effects – in the form of rising sea levels and more extreme weather, heat waves, droughts, and disappearing polar ice. 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.