International Order & Conflict
Report

Shifting Power: Transitioning to Renewable Energy in United Nations Peace Operations

Examining the renewable energy future of UN peace operations to enhance missions, meet climate goals, and benefit host communities
By Victoria K. Holt  ·  Alex Hopkins  ·  David Mozersky Contributor  ·  Sherwin Das Contributor

The activities of the UN Secretariat constitute approximately 60% of the UN System’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest share coming from UN-led peace operations. Those operations deploy around the world to prevent conflict, protect civilians, facilitate peace processes, and support peacebuilding activities. To meet its ambitious carbon-reduction and renewable-energy targets by 2030, 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.

The transformation required for UN peace operations to reduce emissions is complex. Successful renewable-energy transitions in peace operations have grown, but they remain the exception rather than the rule. The system as a whole is not yet designed to support renewable energy in the field at scale — and several missions have overcome internal obstacles to deploy renewables. Through an examination of the UN’s vision, policy, and action in the field, this report finds that certain areas need change and that targeted, manageable measures will go a long way in meeting mission goals and UN climate targets.

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Executive Summary

In his closing remarks at the 2019 United Nations (UN) Climate Action Summit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres committed the UN Secretariat to slashing its carbon emissions and dramatically increasing its use of renewable energy to 80% 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% of the UN System’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the largest share coming from UN-led peace operations.1United Nations, UN Secretariat Climate Action Plan 2020-2030 [UNSCAP] (September 2019), https://www.un.org/management/sites/www.un.org.management/files/united-nations-secretariat-climate-action-plan.pdf. Today those operations include 13 peacekeeping and 26 special political missions/presences, 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 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.

This 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, kick-start 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 findings from peace operations and how they could accelerate beneficial shifts to diversified energy options and meet the Secretary-General’s goals for increasing the use of renewable energy.

This report also focuses on UN leadership, and looks at the broad vision across the UN System to address modernization and efficiency in field operations, as well as to reduce consumption, 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.

The transformation required for UN peace operations to reduce emissions is complex. Successful renewable-energy transitions in peace operations have grown, but they remain the exception rather than the rule. The system as a whole is not yet designed to support renewable energy in the field at scale — and the missions listed above have overcome internal obstacles to deploy renewables. This report finds that certain areas need change and that targeted, manageable measures will go a long way in meeting mission goals and UN climate targets. Several key findings should be considered.

Findings

First, energy issues within UN peace operations remain largely hidden despite energy’s critical role as an enabler. Effective system transformation requires enhanced visibility of the role of energy in peace operations among a broader set of stakeholders. 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 core activities of the missions, and energy serves as a critical input for facilitating achievement of those mandated goals and mission functions. Beyond a small subset of subject-matter experts on the support side, energy is less familiar and less understood than other elements of logistics (e.g., air assets or engineering units) despite being a major component of the missions. Its role is not a frequent area for research and policy engagement. Further, even with the vision of shifting missions away from reliance on fossil fuels, UN policies and decision-making around energy are still segregated across agencies and missions.

Yet a fresh focus on energy practices in field missions can assist in understanding the role of energy and improving mission effectiveness. This will also support the goals set out in 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 strengthening the tracking of their energy use through data collection and embracing the benefits that renewable energy can provide across many areas for missions starting up, continuing, or drawing down.

Second, accelerating a shift toward renewable energy requires understanding and navigating the dynamics — at the Secretariat, mission and member-state levels — that sustain reliance on diesel-powered generators.

They include:

  • Short-term financing and mandate cycles that impede longer-term budgeting;
  • High upfront capital costs of renewable energy;
  • Reliance by troop and police contingents on diesel generators as an established mechanism of the self-supply of energy and standard 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 new technologies;
  • Complexity in contracting for energy outsourcing;
  • Limited land area available for renewable-energy projects;
  • Mandates for peace operations lacking any focus on the use of energy;
  • A system of robust energy data that is in the early stages of establishment; and
  • Limited access to energy data, which is generally not available across operations for the full leadership team.

Third, renewable-energy transitions at scale will require a system change. This shift should take into consideration the varied experiences, incentives, and disincentives in the field, and what is adaptable to specific mission settings.Each mission has a unique story of how energy impacts its functions, as shown by the examples in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, and South Sudan, as well as Central African Republic, Darfur, Kosovo, Mali, and Somalia, among others. Our research indicates that the laudable progress some missions are making in increasing their share of renewables often stems from bureaucratic creativity and hard-to-replicate circumstances. Capturing and learning from these experiences can help the UN determine what works, where the blockages are, where change can be catalyzed, and what new challenges will occur. For energy transitions to reach scale, all missions will require improved support, technological know-how, and better financial solutions. The lessons learned to date suggest that system change is necessary within both the UN’s internal structures around energy management, as well as among member states and troop- and police-contributing countries, with support from outside expertise and providers.

Fourth, leadership matters, and senior managers can drive change by embracing the benefits of renewable energy and creating the conditions for systemwide transformation. Accelerated adoption of the UNSCAP by key UN decision-makers within the Secretariat is required to operationalize its objectives with regard to renewable energy. Leaders in the field will understand that the UNSCAP’s ambitious targets could trigger a change in how the system works. Given that ambition, the UN needs a team to lead the UNSCAP implementation plan and its combined efforts for innovation, transformation, and partnerships — a fundamental, not incremental, shift. Leaders can assure that policies follow the vision, drive change, and translate into consistent incentives for the field. Some existing challenges could be addressed by enhanced communications among headquarters, the field, and member states; other challenges will require a change in the way the UN does business across the board.

Fifth, the story of why this shift matters needs to be broadcast more effectively. The success of renewable-energy projects across UN peace operations, with localized positive impacts and benefits, is not well understood within missions or mission areas; within the broader UN; or as a matter of course within the Security Council, the General Assembly, and, more broadly, the member states. In recent years, under the leadership of Under-Secretary-General Atul Khare, the work of the Department of Operational Support’s (DOS) Environment Strategy in sharing best practices with a wider group of mission stakeholders in the monthly Energy Working Group has significantly improved the internal exchange of such experience. Yet examples of successful renewable-energy transitions from outside the UN System, in both the public and private sector, are not well known in traditional circles of peace operations expert communities, or in those focused on peacebuilding, the sustainable development goals (SDGs), and climate goals. Further, the ability of renewable energy to bolster efforts to meet UN and mission-specific goals, from cost savings and improved security to local energy access and peacebuilding, is rarely considered and poorly understood. This represents an opportunity for the United Nations. Although the climate-driven need for the UNSCAP is clear, other advantages of the energy transition defined in the plan require greater advocacy.

Sixth, renewable energy is increasingly more available and practical for modernizing missions’ energy use. Worldwide, renewable energy has undergone a revolution over the last decade, and it continues to grow and expand as the world greens its electricity supply. Prices for solar and wind technology have dropped by over 80% since 2010, and more than $300 billion is invested annually in new renewable-energy projects around the world. Between 2010 and 2019, $2.6 trillion was invested globally in renewable-energy capacity, more than triple the amount invested in the previous decade. Yet too little of that investment and technology has come to poorly electrified conflict-affected states, where peace operations deploy. The UN’s encouragement of renewable-energy usage for its missions and for host nations can begin to change this dynamic and draw significant new investment and resources to these target countries.

Seventh, transforming mission energy use is ripe for partnerships across the UN, research, private-industry, member-state, and philanthropic communities.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, host governments, 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 UN missions.

Finally, the action is the message — and a positive story for the United Nations. Walking the talk is powerful, and this area is a chance for the UN to demonstrate leadership, innovation, and problem-solving across its priorities of peace and security, environment, climate, development, and, possibly, peacebuilding and access to energy. Transitioning UN peace operations from diesel-powered generators to renewable energy offers a significant potential win for the UN and aligns directly with other international priorities, including the SDGs — particularly energy access (SDG 7), climate action (SDG 13), and peace, justice, and strong institutions (SDG 16). The groundwork for transformation is laid in the field and across the UN; the future depends on harnessing those ambitions. Although UN peace operations are unique, there are examples of communities, from big governments and corporations to small humanitarian operations and villages, that have figured out how to transition to renewable energy. The UN can do the same.

Recommendations

By mapping UN policy and practices around energy provision in peace operations, this report finds that key changes can strengthen UN peace operations and help achieve the ambitious goals set out in the UNSCAP. This section makes specific recommendations to achieve that transformation. To start, the Secretary-General’s office should appoint a champion for, and put together a team in support of, those leading the UNSCAP implementation plan. Additional efforts to build on progress to date and to accelerate change, strengthen partnerships, and expand outreach are also required.

This report illuminates the basis for recommendations for carrying out a transition to greater renewable-energy usage in field missions, as a pathway for achieving UNSCAP implementation as well as other related benefits.

For UN Headquarters and the Secretariat:

Demonstrate Leadership
  • The Secretary-General should appoint a high-level champion and establish a Secretariat-wide team to implement the action plan enshrined in the UNSCAP.Leadership by this office can incorporate all the relevant Secretariat entities and empower implementation by fostering dialogue across the UN System. This team should develop a concept, strategy, and options for advancing Track 2 of the UNSCAP plan on innovation, which will require adopting new approaches in energy provision, including external partnerships and novel financial arrangements.
Build Knowledge and Lessons Learned
  • Establish a team to capture and share applicable knowledge and lessons learned around current mission efforts on renewable-energy transitions in the field. The existing environmental staff at DOS, with support from the UN Global Service Center and Rapid Environment and Climate Technical Assistance (REACT), and the related environmental community within peace operations, should continue to set strategic direction to mission support, strengthen systems for environmental and energy management, and provide technical assistance to missions.
  • The teamshould also continue to collect and disseminate lessons learned and best practices. Other stakeholders within the Secretariat, through initiatives such as the climate-security mechanism that brings together UN expertise across pillars and disciplines, can contribute to building and leveraging this body of knowledge with applicability to a diverse range of mandated UN objectives, including peacebuilding goals, national SDG targets, and climate.
  • This team should work with missions to develop (and/or commission) case studies, foster partnerships for potential renewable-energy initiatives for a range of UN peace operations, and facilitate their dissemination and implementation.
Support System Change
  • Improve the development of agile, smart, and cost-effective systems contracts to support missions’ purchases of renewable-energy hardware, system design, installations, and maintenance, and introduce contracts that make it easy for missions to use alternative financial arrangements for energy (e.g., equipment leases, power purchase agreements), leveraging ongoing work and contracts developed by other UN entities.
  • Engage 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 various available forums.
  • Brief project and contract-reviewing committees on the UNSCAP goals and suggested strategy involving new financial solutions and contractual arrangements for energy provision in the field missions.
Elevate Energy
  • Direct each UN mission to produce an electrification plan by September 2021 to help identify ways to diversify energy sources and increase the use of renewable energy.
  • Support missions with their reporting effort on the electrification plan by establishing a concrete set of indicators related to budget plans and use of renewable energy, for each mission to report against.
Support Field Innovation
  • 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, or innovative financing mechanisms like the Peace Renewable Energy Credit.
  • Update the procurement and tendering processes for energy equipment and services to favorably weight renewable-generation options, where possible.
Build Partnerships
  • Develop partnerships with philanthropic funders, research organizations, host governments, and the private sector to identify new models, technologies, and financing options for UN missions and to help accelerate renewable-energy development, innovation, and investment.
  • Deepen research on the links between energy, conflict, and peacebuilding; and identify opportunities for renewable energy to support communities and host nations in meeting their goals.

For Peace Operations:

Demonstrate Leadership
  • Initiate joint processes for mission leadership and mission support to engage on strategic energy issues such as the mission’s electricity usage and renewable-energy targets. Identify what is needed, as appropriate, to accelerate change toward greater use of renewable energy.
Build Knowledge and Lessons Learned
  • Engage with the UN Country Teams, other international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and host-government authorities with regard to energy-related development initiatives wherein the mission can act as an anchor client and enabler for investment in local renewable-energy capacity.
  • Work with the Secretariat to develop (and/or commission) case studies, foster partnerships for potential renewable-energy initiatives for a range of UN peace operations, and facilitate their dissemination and implementation.
Support System Change
  • Actively explore options, through local procurement, 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.
  • Update the procurement and tendering processes for energy equipment and services to favorably weight renewable generation options, where possible.
Elevate Energy
  • Continue to develop, expand, and pursue funding for energy infrastructure management plans, in line with the strategic directions set out in the Environment Strategy and the UNSCAP. Continue integration of site energy plans in the energy infrastructure management plans developed by the missions’ engineering and environment units. Determine opportunities for energy improvement of currently deployed TCC/PCC options for UN-provided energy and/or connection to local lower emission grids.
  • Intensify and complete the energy-efficiency activities by 2025 which have the highest return on investment and therefore environmental impact per dollar spent, as detailed in the UNSCAP, to achieve a substantive energy reduction and reduce the energy production capacity required.
  • Continue efforts to expand data collection of missions’ energy loads, diesel fuel usage, and energy expenses to obtain a robust baseline for design, prioritization, and monitoring purposes.
Support Field Innovation
  • Continue exploring options for local grid connectivity of both UN and TCC/PCC permanent sites, where relevant, taking into account both price and environmental footprint of local energy grids as well as potential impact on local communities.
  • Continue identifying 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.
Build Partnerships
  • 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:

Demonstrate Leadership
  • Ask for briefings by the Secretary-General’s office on the UNSCAP and benchmarks to support its implementation; ask the DOS for updates on phase two of the Environment Strategy; and request that the Department of Peace Operations (DPO) and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs provide briefings on the energy plans of their peace operations.
  • Provide sufficient funding for energy projects to missions in order to reduce energy consumption as much as possible.
Support System Change
  • Offer support for phase two of the Environment Strategy.
  • Provide for better use of “technology-contributing countries” with the capacity for renewable energy to strengthen deployments, and implement this and other recommendations from the final report of the Expert Panel on Technology and Innovation in UN Peacekeeping. Offer to support the use of renewable-energy technology for TCCs and PCCs, including through partnerships with member states.
Elevate Energy
  • Understand UN policy options and prioritize the use of renewable-energy technology for contingents deploying to missions.
  • Ask DPO and its military planning service to brief on energy options in designing contingent and unit requirements, and to report on measures to support contingent options for energy in the field.
Build Partnerships
  • Help link national plans with multilateral efforts in exploring opportunities to support local renewable-energy capacity building, including deployment of renewable-energy systems as a means to support better socioeconomic outcomes with the SDGs, and improve security, peacebuilding efforts, and/or alignment with climate goals.
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