This ClimateYou post is written in reaction to the informative article in Smithsonian Magazine posted on August 4, 2021 titled: “Just 5 Percent of Power Plants Release 73 Percent of Global Electricity Production Emissions”. The study upon which the article is based examined the emissions generated by all 2900 power plants in the world, and identified those emitting the most greenhouse gases. But identifying the biggest bad apples isn’t enough. Naming and shaming only goes so far. Can the UN, which will convene a World Climate Summit called COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland this November, somehow provide the carrots and sticks needed to effect swift upgrades or shutdowns of the worst GHG-emitting coal plants?
Unfortunately, almost surely not. The UN, chartered in 1945 as an inclusive organization. All nations of the world are members of the General Assembly. The Security Council deals with peace, peacekeeping, and security. The Economic and Social Council, less well known, is charged with overseeing those matters, as well as the climate and the environment. A United Nations Climate Authority (UNCA) could and should be created under its aegis. Such an entity would function as the enforcement mechanism needed to police compliance with emission reduction commitments. No existing Institution has the financial and political clout that such an entity would require. However, a UN Climate Authority (UNCA) would, if given a mandate to preserve the habitability of the Earth for the benefit of all people for all time. UNCA would have to have supranational authority to override opposition from national and subnational governments. It would need to be able to offer inducements to cooperation in the form of experts in planning and implementing major socio-economic transitions, as well as the financial resources to effect them with the least possible harm to the people and communities affected. Such major disruptions would need local input at all stages, but such involvement should not be able to delay implementation indefinitely, because climate scientists and economists agree that greenhouse gases must be halved by 2030 if they are to be essentially eliminated by 2050. This must happen if the global temperature rise is to be held to 1.5°C (2.7°F), the aspirational limit set in the Paris Agreement. Beyond that level we can expect catastrophic social, economic, and political consequences.
Where would the necessary expertise and funding come from? The expertise should be local to the extent possible. The funding should come from the G20, from the international funding institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, from multinational corporations, (including the fossil fuel industry), from nonprofit funding foundations like Ceres, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the Environmental Defense Fund, and ClimateWorks, among many others, and from billionaires of all nationalities. All have major stakes in not having the climate deteriorate to the point that societies, economies, and polities begin to collapse, taking civilization along with them.
Could such an entity be effective in speeding the transition to clean energy? Over time, the answer is yes. It would need a few early adopters, bold enough or desperate enough to say, “I’ll bite.” Initially many countries will hesitate, reluctant to cede any part of their precious sovereignty. A few will object strenuously to such a notion, asserting their “right” to alter the climate just as the developed nations have done, in order to boost their GDP and improve the welfare of their citizens.
However, just as feudalism evolved from city states, and sovereign nations replaced feudalism, globalization with all its benefits and drawbacks — including pandemics and climate change — is now forcing sovereign states to adapt to a new world order that recognizes the essential unity of all humans despite the multiplicity of regional and national identities, cultures, and ethnicities. All are humans, and we all depend on the Earth for our very existence, now and as far into the future as we can imagine. Therefore, we collectively must preserve a hospitable climate for humans as well as the rest of the biosphere upon which we depend. And we must sustain the Earth’s resources by not depleting them faster than they can restore themselves, for we have learned of late that the Earth’s resources, though vast, are not infinite. If the first few transition projects that the UN Climate Authority undertakes show promising results, initial opposition will erode quickly. No national leader, no matter how jealous s/he may be of her/his nation’s sovereignty, wants to have to contend with all the governing challenges that ever-worsening living conditions would present in a world becoming uninhabitable. Within a decade even the most stubborn holdouts would have to bow to their citizens’ and the world’s pressure. In time, all nations will accept UNCA’s help in greening the world. But first, the Glasgow Agreement that the 195 member nations sign at the conclusion of COP26 in November must authorize and insist upon the creation of the United Nations Climate Authority.