Meeting the Moment: The U.S. and the UN in 2023

Confronting the Climate Emergency: Creating a Sustainable and Just Future

The climate crisis is the defining issue of our time. From shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, the impacts of climate change are global in scope and unprecedented in scale.

Over the past two centuries, modern energy, agriculture, and industrial practices have greatly increased the level of heat-trapping greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere. There is broad scientific agreement that the world is warming as a result, with damaging and unpredictable impacts on weather. The world is already experiencing the effects of unchecked climate change, including increasingly severe storms and wildfires, extreme droughts, and devastating floods threatening people, ecosystems, and economies.

The Role of the UN

The UN is at the forefront of the effort to save our planet. In 1992, its Earth Summit led to the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as a first step in addressing the climate crisis. The treaty committed signatories to avoiding dangerous human interference with the climate system and reducing emissions commensurate with their levels of development. U.S. President George H.W. Bush signed the treaty, and the Senate unanimously ratified it.

In 1998, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) founded the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide governments with the best scientific information so policymakers could develop sound climate change policies. In 2014, the IPCC provided more clarity about the role of human activities in climate change when it released its Fifth Assessment Report. Its conclusion: Climate change is real, and human activities are the main cause.

The IPCC’s report, released in February 2022, found that the impacts of climate change are already more widespread and severe than expected; that even if the world rapidly decarbonizes, some climate impacts are unavoidable; and that for every one-tenth of a degree of warming above 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, threats to biodiversity, food security, and access to clean water, among other things, rise dramatically.

Climate Negotiations

After years of negotiations facilitated by the UNFCCC, including the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, a breakthrough was achieved with the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The agreement charted a new course in global climate efforts by bringing all nations together for the first time under a common framework to combat climate change. The agreement’s central aim is to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C above preindustrial levels while pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.

The agreement is based on national action plans, called nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which are to be strengthened over time every five years starting in 2020. The agreement also reaffirmed a commitment to mobilize $100 billion each year from public and private sources to help developing economies limit their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Challenges and Steps Forward

Despite the adoption of the Paris Agreement, given the enormity of the task of putting the world on a low-GHG emissions trajectory, progress has been slow. Each of the past eight years was the hottest on record, and recent reports have found that global emissions continue to rise, even in light of the slowdown of the global economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After a yearlong delay because of the pandemic, world leaders, representatives of the private sector, and activists gathered for COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 to take stock of progress, finalize the rules of the Paris Agreement, and chart a path forward. While leaders made some tangible progress, significant gaps remained, especially in the ambition and implementation of the pledges countries put forward. To keep temperatures from rising above 1.5°C, emissions in developed economies will need to continue to decrease rapidly, while emissions in emerging and developing economies such as China and India will need to quickly peak and then also similarly plummet. Unfortunately, that is still not the most likely scenario, and much more work will need to be done to ensure that national actions match international promises.

Secretary-General António Guterres (left at podium) briefs reporters on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Ethiopia and the upcoming UN Climate Conference (COP27) at UN Headquarters.
Secretary-General António Guterres (left at podium) briefs reporters on the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Ethiopia and the upcoming UN Climate Conference (COP27) at UN Headquarters.
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

In November 2022, parties to the UNFCCC gathered for the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. During this discussion, delegates agreed to create a fund to compensate developing economies for loss and damage resulting from the impacts of climate change. This agreement, coming on the heels of historic floods that devastated large swaths of Pakistan and were exacerbated by climate change, is a product of the recognition that while 20 of the world’s wealthiest countries produce 80% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, small-island and low-income countries are bearing the brunt of the most severe climate change impacts. Delegates agreed to negotiate over the coming year basic details around which countries will pay into the fund and which ones will be eligible to benefit. As with everything else, the success of this agreement will ultimately come down to implementation and the willingness of countries, including the U.S., to meet their international commitments.

On the domestic front in the U.S., President Biden has established an ambitious goal of reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 from a 2005 baseline. The goal is seen by experts as achievable with the right mix of climate regulation and legislation. In August 2022, President Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, billed as “the single biggest climate investment in U.S. history.” Through tax credits and other provisions, the law is intended to increase the growth of renewable energy, drive greater demand for electric vehicles and other low-carbon technologies, support forest restoration and climate-resilient agricultural practices, and pursue other means of addressing climate change. According to the Administration, all told, the bill could put the U.S. on a path to reducing emissions by as much as 40% by 2030.

In another significant development, in September 2022, the Senate approved U.S. ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a UN treaty that seeks to phase down the use of hydrofluorocarbons. HFCs, which are used in air conditioners and other types of refrigeration, are greenhouse gases that are hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and restricting their use in line with the Kigali Amendment will avoid 4.6 billion tons of emissions by 2050. Ratification was supported by a diverse coalition of organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Manufacturers, and Natural Resources Defense Council. The Chamber stated that ratification “would enhance the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers working to develop alternative technologies, and level the global economic playing field.” That is because the world’s leading producers of substitutes for HFCs are in the United States, while the world’s fastest-growing markets for refrigerators and air conditioners are overseas.

Ultimately, climate change is a crisis that transcends national borders and puts at risk the health, safety, and livelihoods of people around the world. As such, it demands a multilateral response, involving all countries large and small, rich and poor.

Given its convening power and mandate to catalyze collective solutions to international challenges, the UN will continue to be a critical partner in efforts to reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change worldwide.