International Order & Conflict
Working Paper

Shifting Power: Transitioning to Renewable Energy in United Nations Field Missions

How UN peace operations can implement their respective mandates with more diversified energy sources, particularly renewable energy.
By Victoria K. Holt Author ·  Alex Hopkins Co-Author

UN peace operations include roughly 13 peacekeeping and 25 special political missions which are deployed to prevent conflict, protect civilians, facilitate peace processes, and support peacebuilding activities. This report examines the energy use of those missions and how more sustainable and clean options may help them improve efficiency, save money, reduce pollution, enhance security, kickstart local access to energy or investment, and reduce corruption – while meeting their mandates. The report identifies practical, bureaucratic, leadership, and other challenges to implementing a new approach to energy at UN field missions and makes recommendations to overcome them.

Executive Summary

In his closing remarks at the 2019 United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit, UN Secretary-General (SG) António Guterres committed the UN Secretariat to slashing its carbon emissions and dramatically increasing its use of renewable energy to 80 percent by 2030. This is an important step forward for the UN to lead by example and to transform its operations. While the UN as an organization has championed efforts to tackle climate change for decades, these are new, concrete goals set for reducing its emissions and scaling up its renewable-energy usage by a clear date.

The activities of the Secretariat constitute approximately 60 percent of the UN system’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest share coming from peace operations. Today those operations include roughly 13 peacekeeping and 25 special political missions, which deploy to prevent conflict, protect civilians, facilitate peace processes and support peacebuilding activities. Thus, to meet its ambitious carbon-reduction and renewable-energy targets, the UN will need to transform its approach to sourcing and generating power, and rapidly move away from its current heavy reliance on diesel generators in field missions. No other multinational organization has the same international reach and scale as the UN to respond to conflicts and crises. As such, the UN is always leading efforts to strengthen its peacekeeping missions around the world. Addressing the role of energy can also help missions better deliver on their mandates.

The interim report examines how UN peace operations can implement their respective mandates with more diversified energy sources, particularly renewable energy. As seen in the field, missions may be able to improve efficiency, save money, reduce pollution, enhance security, kickstart local access to energy or investment, and reduce corruption – while meeting their mandates. The report also considers how the energy-related policies of UN operations deployed in fragile states can concurrently support international and host-country objectives to reduce global carbon emissions and achieve universal access to electricity. At the current pace, these ambitions could take decades to realize in fragile states. The report offers initial findings from field missions and how they could accelerate beneficial shifts to diversified energy options and meet the SG’s goals for increasing the use of renewable energy. In addition, the report identifies areas for further study, as well as goals for the final report.

This report also focuses on UN leadership, and looks at the broad vision across the UN system for addressing modernization and efficiency in field operations, as well as to use more renewable energy, increase access to energy, support carbon-neutrality, consider the environmental footprint, and reduce emissions to address climate change. The report then considers how current UN policies translate that vision into mission policy, design and practice.

Next, this report reflects on lessons from UN peace operations regarding their efforts to adopt more efficient practices and renewable-energy use, and the relationship to policy goals. The research includes cases based on field research (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, and South Sudan), and desk research (Central African Republic, Darfur, Kosovo, Mali, and Somalia) to follow that chain from theory to practice, and to highlight examples from the field that demonstrate innovation.

Field and desk research identified examples of innovation and renewable energy throughout peace operations, even as missions are inconsistent in their usage and results are limited. Most missions have not linked their efforts to the local or national community goals for increasing sustainable-energy options. In addition, decision-making and leadership vary across missions. Policies and guidelines from headquarters offer some support for renewable energy in the field, but missions lack sufficient financial resources, technical capacity, political backing, institutional incentives, and organizational tools (such as the proper systems contracts) for a shift. Other factors reinforce reliance on diesel generators, such as:

  • Short-term financing and mandate cycles that impede longer-term budgeting;
  • Reliance by troop and police contingents on generators as part of deployment;
  • Uneven implementation of strategies to expand renewable energy and minimize the environmental footprint of field missions;
  • Difficulty in engaging the private sector and accessing technologies; and
  • Lack of attention and data regarding the role of energy and options to shift sources on energy.

Initial Findings

First, energy should be made a more visible part of UN operations. Despite the vision of shifting missions away from fossil fuels, UN policies and decision-making around energy are segregated across agencies and missions. Peace operations are mandated to help bring peace to regions, protect civilians, and enable nations to transition away from conflict. Those goals are the priority and are supported by the activities of the mission. The role of energy is lesser known, poorly understood, and not viewed as an area for research and policy engagemment. Yet a fresh focus on energy practices in field missions is required to improve mission effectiveness and to achieve the goals set out in September 2019 by the UN Secretariat Climate Action Plan (UNSCAP). This approach may be resisted by some as being secondary to the primary mission of UN operations, but it is not an either-or situation. Missions will benefit from tracking their energy use, collecting data, and embracing the benefits that renewable energy can provide across many areas for missions starting up, continuing, or scaling back.

Second, field incentives and disincentives for changing energy options need understanding – and addressing. Each mission has a unique story around how energy impacts its function, as shown by the examples in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lebanon, and South Sudan, as well as Kosovo and Mali, among others. This initial research found that some efforts are underway to make change, but that change needs support, technological know-how, and new financial solutions. There are also opportunities for new and better collaboration with host nations. Mission-specific case studies can help identify the discrepancies between UN visions and their implementation in the field, and help policymakers appreciate the broad variation within individual UN entities and determine how to address these. Member states will need to embrace new approaches, align policies and budgets, and support the deployment of renewable energy in the field, be it with hybrid generators, solar, wind or hybrid minigrids, or by connecting to and supporting the local grids of host nations.

Third, leadership needs to recognize the benefits of renewable energy and accelerating change. Those in leadership at the UN and within member states have pushed forward ambitious new policy goals and approaches. To operationalize these goals and gain the benefits of greater renewable-energy usage, that approach needs to be systemwide. The UNSCAP should accelerate these actions. The SG’s office should appoint a champion for and put together a team in support of those leading the UNSCAP implementation plan. They will need support for the combination of innovation, transformation, and partnerships required – the fundamental shift identified in the UNSCAP to move beyond incremental change – to achieve energy savings and peacebuilding benefits for local communities. Policies should follow the vision and drive change, and translate into consistent incentives for the field. Some existing challenges could be addressed by better communications between headquarters, the field, and member states; other challenges will require a change in the way the UN does business across the board. Setting high-level goals and offering political leadership could incentivize and change how the system works.

Fourth, the story of why this shift matters needs broader understanding. Successful renewable-energy projects have been realized across UN field missions, with localized positive impacts and benefits, such as in the DRC, Lebanon, and South Sudan. Yet these good examples tend to be little known outside of each specific mission. Capturing and learning from these experiences can help the UN determine what works, where the blockages are, and where change can be catalyzed. Examples of successful renewable-energy transitions from outside the UN system, in both the public and private sector, can also be instructive. The transition to a greater use of renewable energy can support a whole range of UN and mission-specific goals, from cost savings and improved security to local energy access and peacebuilding. Although the UNSCAP provides a climate-driven push for this change, the potential positive impacts can be much broader.

Finally, transforming mission energy use is an area deserving of and ripe for partnerships across the research, UN, private-industry, member-state, and philanthropic communities. Transitioning UN field operations from diesel to renewable energy offers a significant potential win for the UN and aligns directly with other international priorities, including the sustainable development goals (SDGs) – particularly energy access (SDG 7), climate action (SDG 13), and peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG 16). Renewable energy is a rapidly growing sector that is driving jobs, investment, and growth around the world. There are opportunities for partnerships for the UN to adopt new technologies and finance models; to deepen research on the links between energy, conflict, and peacebuilding; and to identify opportunities for renewable energy to support communities and host nations in meeting their goals. Likewise, the UN and its member states should work with philanthropic funders, research organizations, and the private sector to accelerate renewable-energy development, innovation, and investments, and to help identify new models and financing solutions that fit the unique challenges of field missions.

This interim report is an initial attempt to map the UN’s policy and practices around energy provisions in field missions. This inquiry is timely given the UNSCAP and its ambitious new renewable-energy goals, which injects new urgency into confronting change. Our goal is to help build a strong cross-cutting community of interest and to support further research and analysis, as well as deepen dialogue across member states, UN leaders, and those addressing fragile states. The picture that emerges from this research is a complicated one around energy management in UN field missions – a challenge that has historically lacked strong high-level leadership, with decision-making spread across multiple agencies and missions. The good news is that those goals are achievable. Renewable energy has undergone a revolution over the last decade and continues to grow and expand as the world greens its electricity supply. Although UN field missions are unique, there are ample examples, from big governments and corporations to small humanitarian operations and villages, of communities that have figured out how to transition to renewable energy. The UN can do the same.

Initial Recommendations

For UN Headquarters and the Secretariat:

  • Establish a team to document and collect lessons learned, identify best practices around current mission efforts on renewable-energy transitions in the field, and identify the incentives/disincentives.
  • In addition, commission case studies of current practices for a range of UN peace operations.
  • Develop a plan to implement the UNSCAP and empower its implementation by engaging across the UN system in dialogue with actors who support or work in UN peace operations. Develop a concept, strategy and options for advancing Track 2 of the UNSCAP plan on innovation, which will require reviewing new approaches to energy provision, including external partnerships and novel financial arrangements.
  • Develop systems contracts to support missions’ purchases of renewable-energy hardware, system design, installations, and maintenance for field missions.
  • Develop new incentives and support packages to help missions transition to renewable energy for UN-owned equipment and contingent-owned equipment (COE).
  • Brief troop-contributing countries (TCCs) and police-contributing countries (PCCs) on the new renewable-energy goals and existing options for generators; create new incentives for TCCs and PCCs to make better use of efficient and hybrid capacities; survey member states to understand who has hybrid generators and renewable energy technology available to deploy; and update them through the COE Working Group discussions in 2020.
  • Direct each UN mission to produce an electrification plan by September 2020 to help identify ways to diversify energy sources and increase the use of renewable energy.
  • Explore alternative financing options to help support upfront investments and overcome limitations of annual funding cycles, such as a new investment fund to finance the deployment of renewable-energy systems in field missions.
  • Develop a concrete set of indicators related to budget plans and use of renewable energy, for each mission to report against.

For Peace Operations:

  • Initiate joint processes for mission leadership, from political offices and mission support, to engage on strategic energy issues such as the mission’s electricity usage and renewable-energy targets. Identify what is needed to accelerate change toward greater use of renewable energy.
  • Explore options for local grid connectivity, where relevant, taking into account both price and environmental footprint of local energy grids.
  • Begin to identify mission site locations that could be most suitable for on-site solar/battery systems, based on factors including high energy costs, difficulty of fuel resupply, and likelihood of continuing long-term presence.
  • Expand data collection efforts around a mission’s energy loads, diesel usage, and energy expenses to create a cost baseline.
  • Engage with the local renewable-energy community in a mission’s respective country to explore local renewable-energy options and solutions.
  • Explore options for private sector renewable-energy-as-a-service solutions, or energy-leasing arrangements.
  • Prioritize the hiring of engineering staff with renewable-energy backgrounds, knowledge, and expertise.
  • Explore opportunities to support local renewable-energy capacity-building, and the deployment of renewable-energy systems as a means to support better socioeconomic outcomes, improved security, and/or peacebuilding efforts.
  • For Member States and Troop-Contributing and Police-Contributing Countries:
  • Understand UN policy options and prioritize use of renewable-energy technology for contingents deploying to missions.
  • Instruct deploying or deployed contingents to explore both local clean grid-connected energy options, and to identify locations and opportunities for transitioning diesel-powered generators to renewable-energy systems.
  • Report back on contingent options for energy in the field.
  • Support the deployment of renewable energy by troop and police contingents.
  • Offer to subsidize or help fund this technology initially for TCCs and PCCs to deploy with renewable-energy technology.
  • Support implementation of recommendations from the final report of the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping1 to create technology-contributing countries with the capacity for renewable energy to strengthen deployments.
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