U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the 78th United Nations General Assembly High-Level Week a “one-of-a-kind opportunity each year to harness the power of diplomacy and collaborate on solutions to global challenges.” Leaders delivered their speeches and calls to action with utmost urgency. But from an energy security perspective, the meetings only spotlighted the mismatch between the nature of the world’s shared problems and the institutions and tools designed to address them.
Energy Security: A Long-Overlooked Priority at the General Assembly
In the past, energy was rarely a priority for the world leaders who gather annually in New York. Some specific programs, like Oil-for-Food, did arise in various crisis situations, but the diplomats who dictate the General Assembly’s agenda mostly dismissed energy concerns for the better part of the U.N.’s history. That changed around 2009, with the campaign to make energy part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — a set of ambitious targets to achieve significant social, economic, and environmental development by 2030. Nonetheless, the world is still far from meeting the SDGs commitments, and faces concurrent energy, food, and climate crises that will make it increasingly difficult to do so. Rising energy price rises are already disrupting development efforts, and the odds of the climate stabilizing at 1.5 degrees Celsius become less likely every day.
Importantly, the role of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 in triggering at least two of these ongoing crises (energy and food), as well as Russia’s ability to wield its status as a key energy exporter, have placed energy security squarely in the international agenda. In particular, energy security has become a top priority for major economies like the European Union and Japan that previously depended on Russia to supply large shares of their natural gas consumption. Yet, energy concerns continue to manifest more explicitly at summits like the Group of Seven (G7) and the Group of 20 (G20) than the General Assembly itself, despite a rapid increase in international attention. Why might this be the case?
A Tall Order to Fill
Addressing this is particularly challenging due to the myriad – and often conflicting – interests different countries and regions have at stake. For this reason, energy security has eluded much of the world to date. Sustainable Development Goal 7 focuses on energy access and energy poverty, addressing the roughly one billion people lacking any access to electricity, and three billion lacking access to clean fuels for cooking and heating. But these numbers severely understate the problem. The Payne Institute, which focuses on natural resources, energy and environmental policy, estimates that potentially three to four billion people lack “reasonably reliable” energy access – that is, the basic expectation that flipping a switch will turn on the lights.
Former U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon called energy “the golden thread of development.” And he would know, having spent his formative years in a war-ravaged Korean peninsula which lacked basic energy access. But the focus on “traditional” supply-side energy security in the West often leaves the needs of the Global South as an afterthought.
Thus, even with the leadership and political will of Western States, the General Assembly faces a tall order: addressing energy and food insecurity in an increasingly unstable and contested world, all while transitioning global energy systems towards clean sources, and leading various economies towards more vibrant economic development. Trying to prioritize everything inevitably leaves many issues wanting, especially in a budget-strapped organization in desperate need of reform. So, what was actually said on the floor this year, and what does the bode for the agenda moving forward?
More Heat than Light
First and foremost, a lot of naming and shaming. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres harshly criticized fossil fuel interests and large polluting economies, such as X and Y, amplifying the voices of representatives from small island states such as Palau and the Marshall Islands who fear total inundation as sea levels rise. Guterres further amplified his rhetoric by noting that “Humanity has opened the Gates of Hell” through slow action on climate change.
Second, a few proposals and announcements about energy trade and production were made both during and outside of formal diplomatic discussions. For example, Kenyan President William Ruto suggested a universal tax on fossil fuel trades as a potential funding mechanism. Colombia and Panama also announced they would join the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a possibly significant commitment given that the former country is a top-ten global exporter of coal.
Third, a coalition of mostly developing countries, but also France, called for the phase-out of fossil fuels — a decade-old theme in international discourse. But the chorus of developing nations did not sing in harmony. Several, including Tanzania and Bangladesh, argued that the anti-fossil fuel positions of many advanced Western economies are hypocritical given the importance of fossil fuels in achieving high standards of living.
Fourth, developing and middle-income countries again noted that they lack the financing to achieve their climate targets without significant help. More generally, there was recognition of the massive gap between the actions necessary to achieve 1.5 degrees Celsius and the funding available to make it a reality — a gap that is especially concerning given the comparatively high interest rate environment, which drives up borrowing costs for those seeking to build out the energy systems of the future.
If this seems like more heat than light, it is. The High-Level Week failed to deliver any true bombshells with respect to energy security. Perhaps member States, civil society organizations, and the corporate world were keeping their powder dry for the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai this winter. But even if they are, negotiations will be arduous. This is because the politics around energy security and decarbonization are both hard – they entail real sacrifices – and because they are difficult and complex. The two are not the same.
Diplomacy: The Only Real Way Forward
Events since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as well as the recent coup d’états in Niger and Gabon highlight the complexities of achieving energy security. Solutions to one challenge are often at cross-purposes with solutions to other challenges. For example, higher prices for fossil fuel carbon pricing are needed to combat climate change, but come with social costs like the yellow jacket protests in Europe and energy protests in South Africa, as well as negative impacts on food security for the world’s poor. And these social costs may erode electoral and popular support for the types of policies necessary to make gains in addressing all three.
Chasing 17 different SDGs is a hard task for an institution where desperately needed reforms seem almost impossible to implement, where one permanent member of its Security Council again attacked a sovereign country, and where the agendas of the roughly 200 members have vastly different priorities. Still, it remains the only such institution we have, and diplomacy takes nuance, time, and patience. With a healthy dollop of luck, COP28 can still help ensure real commitments to action in the form of expanding climate financing for developing countries, get closer to goals established by the Paris Accords, and set detailed plans to implement mechanisms for ensuring our energy transitions are just.