In 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the climate crisis as a “battle for our lives.” Shortly thereafter, he announced the UN Secretariat Climate Action Plan (UNSCAP), a 10-year plan to reduce the UN system’s greenhouse gas emissions globally. Significantly, UNSCAP makes the commitment to reduce the Secretariat’s carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, in line with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. UNSCAP also calls for innovation and the intensification of current efforts in field missions to address climate change.
The plan focuses on peace operations, which reportedly account for almost 90 percent of the UN Secretariat’s total greenhouse gas emissions. While field missions are designed to support peace and security, their emissions and contributions to climate change may be paradoxically contributing to destabilization in their host nations. For example in east Africa, where UN missions are present in Somalia and South Sudan, climate shocks (such as flooding and drought) have displaced millions and increased food prices dramatically. Extensive drought has severely affected local farmers in Afghanistan, and according to research “the lack of water and the ensuing violence [has] had negative effects on the legitimacy of local state institutions and of the UN peace operation, which failed to mitigate/mediate the conflict.”
The devastating effects of the climate crisis in these two cases underscore why UN peace operations and special political missions (hereafter referred to as field missions) must advance climate-sensitive strategies to sustainably deliver peace and security.
Innovations in the Field
UN field missions have been working to improve their environmental impact for years. Notable initiatives have been implemented in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia, and Iraq.
Recent research by the Stimson Center—as part of its Powering Peace project—captures UN efforts to transition peacekeeping operations to renewable energy. According to the report, in the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO)—the largest peace operation—sources one-third of its energy from renewable hydroelectricity via local grids. Additionally, the mission’s Goma headquarters uses a 650-kilowatt solar system to power its operations. While hydropower (particularly large dams) can negatively impact local ecosystems, the report emphasizes that the mission could increase its commitment to renewables by proactively supporting the “virtually untapped solar and wind power resources” of the DRC.
At the Malakal protection of civilians site in South Sudan, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has successfully collaborated with the UN Migration Agency (IOM) to install a hybrid solar power plant expected to generate 900-megawatt hours of power and meet 80 percent of electricity demands at the humanitarian site. Through quick impact projects, UNMISS has implemented solar power systems to power street lights and communications equipment as well as local health centers, hospitals and training facilities. Such initiatives are expected to yield a 10 percent reduction of the mission’s total diesel usage.
In Somalia, UN Support Office in Somalis (UNSOS) has begun initiating a renewable energy project which is expected to transition the mission site in Baidoa to nearly 100 percent renewable energy in the long-term. This would realize an annual reduction of nearly 900,000 liters of fuel while ensuring savings and outsourcing the burden of maintaining and operating mission systems. More broadly, the Baidoa project is expected to stimulate local job growth and support local capacity development in renewable technologies.
At the UN Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), extensive progress has been made in energy management. Since 2015, the mission has reduced its energy consumption by 33 percent and is expected to reach a 50 percent reduction this year.
The above examples demonstrate that UN field missions large and small can reduce their greenhouse gas emissions in a relatively short amount of time by committing to climate-sensitive strategies. These cases further illustrate how UN field missions can positively encouraging the adoption and presence of renewables in their host nations.
Making Greater Progress
Despite the progress, structural limitations have historically created obstacles. Four important dynamics must be addressed to support the advancement of climate-sensitive strategies in UN field operations and help achieve the secretary-general’s ambitious UNSCAP goal.
1. Agreeing on the climate crisis
As long as UN member states (particularly the most influential) do not take the climate crisis seriously, the UN Secretariat and field missions will be constrained in taking all possible action to reduce their environmental footprints. UN staff openly acknowledge that certain member states have slowed efforts to fund climate-smart operations and have, in certain cases, outright blocked environmental projects arguing that the size of the investment was too great. Member states who recognize the existential threat of the climate crisis can help by advocating for greater action. They can also demand more accountability from the Secretariat on implementing climate-sensitive strategies. The new administration in the United States may bring a new urgency on this topic which could help overcome this barrier.
2. Prioritizing the climate and the environment across all mission components
Climate change is deepening social and political instability in complex and multi-dimensional ways. Despite this the majority of work done related to the environment within UN field missions has been led by the Department of Operational Support (DOS). While there are a number of reasons why DOS is the logical lead on environmental policy for field missions, this has created a siloed effect where environmental strategies are viewed as administrative processes and not “substantive” enough to require the attention of other mission components. As a result, field missions do not systematically and strategically assess the risks of climate change or how missions’ climate-insensitive interventions can negatively affect their efforts to promote peace and security.
To address this, substantive sections in field missions—such as civil affairs, Joint Mission Analysis Centres (JMACs), political affairs, and human rights—must be tasked to assess the multi-dimensional impact of the mission on the climate and environment, as well as engage on analyzing how climate change impacts the context locally and regionally.
Moreover, missions need to consider how peacebuilding initiatives can catalyze cooperation and support climate-sensitive development. One innovative example of this is a project in Colombia, which experiences extreme droughts, severe flooding, and water insecurity. In the state of Chocó, an interagency UN pilot project is “promoting the engagement of women in environmental governance and natural resource management within the context of the implementation of the Final Peace Accord, with positive effects on local-level peacebuilding.” Initiatives like this demonstrate what is possible when substantive components engage with mission support to deliver on their mandate while supporting the environment.
3. Financial foresight
The existing budgeting process and the fact that most missions are renewed on an annual basis has limited the ability of the UN system to invest in longer-term, climate-sensitive practices. While budgeting committees heavily scrutinize field missions’ budgets and expenses, they often overlook the fact that renewable energy systems can yield cost savings over a number of years. Moreover, the falling costs of renewable technologies has made it even more cost-competitive for UN field missions adopt.
UN missions regularly remain in place for multiple years (and in some cases decades). This presents an opportunity for the UN to realize cost savings and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Missions in “frozen conflict” zones—such as the UN Truce Supervision Organization in the Middle East, the UN Military Observer in India and Pakistan, the UN in Western Sahara, the UN Disengagement Force in the Golan Heights, and others—are highly unlikely to close soon, offering greater potential for renewables to recover investments. The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), for example, has innovated in a number of ways including implementing solar panels, introducing a hybrid vehicle fleet, as well as installing water filters and banning plastic water bottles.
Additionally, in line with the secretary-general’s reforms to the peace and security architecture, the Security Council is likely to shift more missions across a continuum from peacekeeping to special political missions, as was done most recently in Haiti. This dynamic means renewable energy systems can be utilized longer as missions transition.
For missions to convince budgeting committees to support multi-year investments, they need to present detailed, multi-year strategies. To be most effective, such strategies should quantify their value by specifying projected cost savings of implementing renewable systems versus not adopting such systems. Headquarters must continue to push for the adoption of these strategies, which should be developed by field missions in conjunction with local governments. When clearly articulated in the past, budgeting committees have welcomed such proposals. One practical way to support high-quality proposals would be to establish a project office providing technical assistance to field missions on this topic. Member states could even provide seconded experts to expedite the process.
4. One UN
One way for UN field missions to overcome the aforementioned budgeting challenge is by building synergies with other agencies and the local country team. UN missions can partner with UN agencies who may have the administrative flexibility to support energy infrastructure investments. As previously noted, UNMISS has partnered with IOM in Malakal to implement a hybrid solar power plant. Other UN agencies, such as UNOPS, the UN Development Programme, the World Bank, and the UN Human Settlement Programme (UNHABITAT) may all be obvious partners to support climate-sensitive strategies.
Though such inter-agency relationships have been negatively affected by “turf wars” in the field, this process may be facilitated more seamlessly with the newly-implemented resident coordinator system which has helped “increase collaboration in United Nations country teams and foster alignment to national priorities and needs.”
Climate change’s role in sparking the COVID-19 pandemic presents a sobering example of just how destabilizing climate change can be for the world. The COVID-19 crisis has burdened the UN system and much of the world. It has also appeared to slow UNSCAP’s roll out. To re-energize UNSCAP’s implementation and support its success will require an implementation plan providing a status update and roadmap moving forward.
While the Security Council has held an open debate on how the climate crisis impacts international peace and securityand has recognized climate change’s impact on the stability to the Lake Chad region, there are still diverging opinions on how the Council and the field missions it authorizes should address the climate crisis. Support for climate-sensitive strategies may be viewed by some as primarily development programs in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
The fact remains that there is growing evidence linking climate change and insecurity in conflict areas, many of which UN missions are deployed in. With more severe droughts, flooding, and rising ocean levels, many contexts where UN fields operations are deployed will likely become more vulnerable and complex in the near future. Even countries where UN missions have successfully departed after delivering on their mandate (such as East Timor, Haiti, Liberia, and Sierra Leone) may be forced into crises by climate shocks defeating the gains made by UN interventions. Recognizing this stark reality, the risks presented by the climate crisis must be carefully assessed and proactive climate-sensitive strategies utilized to foster peace and stability.
Pushkar Sharma has worked for the United Nations in Kosovo, the Gaza Strip, Iraq, Colombia, and Myanmar in peacekeeping and political affairs.