Magazine article UN Chronicle

Oil Matters: Economic and Environmental Prospects Hinge on Global Cooperation

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Oil Matters: Economic and Environmental Prospects Hinge on Global Cooperation

Article excerpt

FOR DECADES, THE BATTLE LINES OVER OIL, the world markets and the environment have been clearly drawn. But recently there has been an unprecedented shift in the conversation surrounding-energy issues. Scientists and politicians have finally managed to rouse an undecided public to a climate crisis that may be "inconvenient", but is increasingly and disturbingly "true". Meanwhile, economists worldwide are attempting to dispel apocalyptic predictions about the global oil supply. The international community finds itself in the difficult position of gauging energy truths on a daily basis. How would a polar ice cap melt affect the subarctic world? What do exorbitant gas prices really mean? While oil talk is messy, its bottom line is clear: today's energy problems are global ones and require global solutions.

To this end, the United Nations has led the way in coordinating a unified international energy effort. Moreover, it has taken innovative steps to draw human voices into a debate that, for all its urgency, can seem daunting and inaccessible to those that it affects most: consumers and workers the world over.

Three UN treaty bodies met in May 2006 to address the economic and environmental impact of energy usage. The fourteenth session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development heard from groups as varied as trade union leaders, indigenous representatives and technology specialists as it discussed a long-term international energy strategy. A week later, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held a regional meeting on the Arctic, where representatives of the Arctic Council spoke passionately about the changes occurring in their homelands. Finally, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) met in Bonn, Germany, during the 24th session of subsidiary bodies to tackle the issue of a post-Kyoto Protocol strategy for the first time. The Protocol's initial commitment period, ratified by 163 States in an attempt to lower global energy emissions, expires in 2012.

Keeping fossil fuels available, realistically priced and environmentally friendly goes beyond what Governments alone are able to do. However, energy debates have nonetheless been plagued by regional strife, and cooperation is often elusive. The question of energy-specific regulations has been a contentious one for countries with high or rapidly rising industry levels, such as the United States, China and India. In 2001, the United States formally withdrew from the Protocol, citing the need for more country-specific guidelines. China has likewise refused to sign, worrying that the treaty does not take into account its energy needs as a rapidly developing nation and asserting that as the world's most populated State its emissions should be measured per capita. Both China and India contend that they will persist in requiring substantial energy supplies as they continue to develop.

Leading UN environmental bodies like the UNFCCC acknowledge that such divisions between industrialized and developing countries are a problem. Working under the principle of industrialized response, the Kyoto Protocol and other environmental agreements urge that industrialized nations lead the way in emissions reduction, while developing nations have only semi-voluntary participation standards. UNFCCC, however, has seen the conflict as an opportunity to launch radically progressive environmental and economic programmes, according to Hennig Wuester, Special Assistant to the UNFCCC Executive Secretary.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Protocol, for example, offers industrialized nations the chance to invest in the energy clean-up of developing nations and use this as credit towards their own emissions targets. Such projects create a cohesive global goal from what was once a series of detached regional problems. Indications are that these unifying incentives are working, said Mr. Wuester. The UNFCCC Secretariat estimates that CDM will reduce worldwide emissions by over 1 billion tonnes by the end of 2012--a success that will prove to be a great promoter of international cooperation. …

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