The UN Role in Climate Change Action: Taking the Lead towards a Global Response

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Over the coming weeks and months, the three Special Envoys on climate change appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will be making whistle-stop tours of key capital cities to build a solid and sustainable consensus on action over climate change. Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, Han Seung-soo of the Republic of Korea and Ricardo Lagos Escobar of Chile underline the seriousness with which the Secretary-General takes the threats, as well as the opportunities presented by the immense challenges documented in the recently published reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The United Nations is the only forum in which an agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions beyond 2012 can realistically be brokered among the 190 plus countries with different outlooks and economies but of a common atmosphere. The climate change challenge involves every nation and will, if unchecked, touch every community and citizen on a time-scale of decades rather than centuries.

In 2007, climate change truly became an issue of highest concern to the United Nations, because there is now the full understanding that the phenomenon will fundamentally affect the way the world operates in the twenty-first century--from health care, aid and water to economic activity, humanitarian assistance, peacebuilding and security concerns. The United Nations has played a pivotal role in building the scientific consensus, raising the issue to the front pages of the world's media and putting it in the in-tray of Heads of State and Government, as well as the chief executive officers of businesses and industries. Since February 2007, the IPCC has published three important reports, and the more than 2,000 scientists and experts of the IPCC have put an end to any doubts in the science debate. Climate change is happening and the links between rising temperatures and human activities are considered "unequivocal". The IPCC has outlined the likely impacts of climate change in the coming decades if the international community fails to act. These include sea-level rise, which could deprive millions of people from Bangladesh to the small islands of their land and livelihoods, in addition to the melting of mountain glaciers, which are the source of water for millions of people, businesses and farmers around the world. However, the IPCC has also noted other factors that are cause for hope and must be the catalysts for action. The experts in their report issued in May 2007, argued that decarbonizing the global economy to a point where climate change should be manageable could cost 0.1 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP). Indeed, in some sectors, the actual costs of significantly boosting energy efficiency would actually make rather than cost money for managers and homeowners.

The United Nations, through the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), has also been at the cutting edge of assisting in the development of creative new carbon markets. The Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) allows developed countries to offset some of their emissions through clean and renewable energy projects and certain forestry schemes in developing countries. Over the coming years, the CDM funds flowing from North to South will reach up to $100 billion. New high-technology industries and job opportunities are emerging in both developed and developing countries. China and India are now home to two of the biggest wind turbine and power companies. Investment in renewable energy, driven in part by the UN-brokered climate treaties, is expected to top $80 billion in 2007. It is bringing down costs and increasing opportunities for deployment in rural areas.

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The UN system is helping to accelerate this further. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in partnership with the UN Foundation and Asian banks, has piloted a project that has brought solar power to 100,000 people in India. …