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The Dawn of A New International Climate Order

The New International Economic Order (NIEO):  At its Sixth Special Session in 1974 the United Nations General Assembly solemnly proclaimed:  “our united determination to work urgently for the establishment of a New International Economic Order based on equity, sovereign equality, interdependence, common interest and cooperation among all States, irrespective of their economic and social systems which shall correct inequalities and redress existing injustices, make it possible to eliminate the widening gap between the developed and the developing countries and ensure steadily accelerating economic and social development and peace and justice for present and future generations….. All the States Members of the United Nations are therefore called upon to exert maximum efforts with a view to securing the implementation of the present Declaration on the New International Order, which is one of the principal guarantees for the creation of better conditions for all peoples to reach a life worthy of human dignity”. Championed by the developing countries, the New International Economic Order (NIEO) gave ideological structure and global visibility to concerns of the developing world during the Cold War, and that could be traced back to the Asian-African Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955. That conference laid the ground work for the launch of the Non Aligned Movement, which advocated for more or less the same themes carried forward in the NIEO. The UN Declaration and Programme of Action on the NIEO can be considered a turning point for the international community because, although it has since faded into oblivion, the NIEO’s aspirations have continued to resonate over the decades as the basis for building and regulating North-South relations and addressing critical issues on the UN agenda, including in particular the inter-related issues of sustainable development goals and the war on climate change.

Climate change and the sustainable development agenda: International awareness of the serious threat that climate change poses to humanity has evolved significantly since the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 to provide policymakers with regular and credible scientific assessments on the current state of knowledge about climate change. As IPCC’s climate assessment tools and methods have improved over the years its successive reports have also become more precise and compelling, leading to international recognition of the need to move the climate agenda to the very top of global priorities. For instance, the alarming findings contained in the IPCC’s latest (sixth assessment) report entitled Climate Change 2021 – The Physical Science Basis, such as “the scale of recent changes across the climate       system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years,” has prompted nothing less than a worldwide call to arms at the highest political levels, which is extremely unusual for a UN report of any kind. This almost panicky reaction by the international community gives a fair idea of the extent to which climate concerns now dominate the international development narrative, whereas barely a few years ago the 2030 agenda on sustainable development goals (UNSDGs) appeared to be the default priority for the UN development system. Nevertheless, although currently pursuing seemingly parallel tracks and having two different UN governing forums, the UNSDGs and the climate agenda under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) are not mutually exclusive. They are in fact almost two sides of the same coin and concern virtually the same member states and global constituencies. This fact needs to be recognized by the UN development system so as to avoid needless dispersion of energies and resources. For example, whereas the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which preceded the UNSDGs, hardly included climate concerns, the more holistic UNSDGs fully encapsulate the climate agenda as a good many of its goals and targets are directly or indirectly climate-related. Conversely, the UNFCCC which is the governing forum for the climate agenda, together with its successive Conferences of the Parties (COPs), makes explicit references to sustainable development, considering in particular that greenhouse gas emissions destabilizing the climate system originate mainly from human economic and industrial activities.  As such, there can be no viable sustainable development that preserves the environment for future generations without putting an end to fossil-fuelled industrialization at the root of the climate crisis. Additionally, the adaptation and mitigation actions that need to be mobilized to counter climate change stretch across different development sectors and actors, in the context of integrated, inter-sectoral national development strategies. In that respect, the UNFCCC provides that “Parties have a right to, and should, promote sustainable development. Policies and measures to protect the climate system against human-induced change should be appropriate for the specific conditions of each Party and should be integrated with national development programmes, taking into account that economic development is essential for adopting measures to address climate change” (UNFCCC Article 3, paragraph 4). That is basically the same approach prescribed in 2016 by the UN General Assembly for the implementation of the UNDSGs when it directed the UN development system to “ensure a balanced and integrated approach within the system towards its support to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and targets, in accordance with each entity’s mandate and bearing in mind their comparative advantages, taking into account new and evolving development challenges and the need to build on lessons learned, address gaps, avoid duplication and overlap and strengthen the inter-agency approach in this regard” (cfr UN General Assembly resolution 71/243) As can be seen therefore the global agendas for sustainable development on the one hand and climate action on the other could ideally be folded into a single international development action plan, not least because of the similarities in their substantive goals and modes of action, as shown in the foregoing paragraphs. While such a merger is very unlikely to happen due to the UN’s institutional complexity at legislative and secretariat levels, including numerous special interest constituencies, what note is worthy nevertheless is that the climate agenda exhibits in many ways the ideals of international cooperation propounded almost half a century ago by the developing countries in pitching for the NIEO. The difference this time is that leadership roles have been reversed as the UNFCCC stipulates that the developed countries must take the lead in the fight against climate change and, to that end, provide to the developing countries the bulk of financial resources and technology packages required for climate change adaptation and mitigation. It can therefore be posited that the ideals of international cooperation and solidarity that eluded the NIEO in the 1970s are on the cusp of being realized with the advent of a new climate order.

A New International Climate Order (NICO):  As argued earlier above, the climate crisis is increasingly dominating international development cooperation. In terms of high-level political engagement, global resource mobilization, and extensive media coverage, the climate agenda has already sidelined or relegated the UNSDGs and other UN system programmes to the back burner of international development concerns. Below are two examples to support that thesis.

Financing for development:  Global public and private funding for the climate agenda has risen very significantly in the past decade or so in support of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies in the developing countries, unlike funding for the UNSDGs and other UN agendas which has been either static or declining.  For example, at UNFCCC/COP16, developed country Parties committed to a goal of mobilizing jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. That goal was reiterated in subsequent COPs, including notably in the Paris Climate Agreement. As an indication of the extent to which tables have turned as a result of the advent of a new climate era, it is recalled that in the 1970s the developed countries took fright at a more or less similar demand by the developing countries for North-South resource transfers to boost international development cooperation.  It is also worthwhile to note that the US$100 billion pledged by the developed countries is only a part of the aggregate resources the climate crisis is attracting from public and private sources globally, including the private banking sector and bond markets. Further still, the US$100 billion commitment by the developed countries to counter climate change is almost twice the total financial resources currently flowing annually through the UN development system, barely amounting to just over US$40 billion when the budgets of peacekeeping and humanitarian entities are discounted.  In yet another lopsided comparison, the three successive international  conferences on financing for development organized by the UN in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002 (The Monterrey Consensus); in Doha, Qatar, in 2008 (the Doha Declaration) and in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 2015 (Addis Ababa Action Agenda)  have altogether hardly yielded anything anywhere close to the level of resources  being mobilized for example by UNFCCC’s financial instruments, including the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Reinforced multilateralism anchored in the UN:  This was one of the key propositions of the NIEO, and one to which the climate crisis has given an almost unprecedented boost in the UNFCCC process. Because of its Charter value system, perceived neutrality and objectivity, or because of their aggregate membership power, the UN multilateral system has always been preferred by the developing countries as the mechanism of choice for finding solutions to global challenges in circumstances where the developed countries have often tended to yield to bilateral impulses. As such, and thanks to the war on climate change, it is indeed remarkable that both groups of countries have found common ground in their embrace of the UN multilateral system at the highest political level.  In conclusion, the UN development system is currently being pulled, willy nilly, by the gravitational force of the climate crisis into a new international climate order reminiscent in many respects of the NIEO championed by the developing countries in the 1970s.

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