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UN calls for dialogue to ease tensions in Venezuela

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Jorge Arreaza, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in Venezuela. UN Photo/Manuel Elias

The top UN political official told the Security Council on Saturday that dialogue and cooperation were vital to ending the crisis in Venezuela, but during a contentious debate, Council members disagreed over the appropriate response to mass protests in the South American country and competing claims to the presidency.

“We must try to help bring about a political solution that will allow the country’s citizens to enjoy peace, prosperity and all their human rights,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN Under Secretary-General of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, urged the Security Council as she briefed an urgent meeting of the 15-member body on Saturday morning.

The meeting was requested late last week by United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the wake of days of political unrest in Venezuela, marked by popular protests that erupted on Wednesday after the leader of the opposition legislature, Juan Guaidó, declared himself interim president and called for fresh elections, a direct challenge to President Nicolás Maduro, who had been sworn in to a second term in office just two weeks earlier.

In a statement issued by his Spokesperson on Wednesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres urged parties to “lower tensions” in Venezuela and called for all relevant actors to commit to inclusive and credible political dialogue. Concerned by reports of casualties during demonstrations and unrest in and around the capital, Caracas, the UN chief also called for a transparent and independent investigation of those incidents.

Today, Ms. DiCarlo described the situation in Venezuela as “dire”,  and as having both an economic and political dimension.

“The population is affected in a systemic way, nearly all 30 million Venezuelans are affected by hyperinflation and a collapse of real salaries; shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies; deterioration of health and education services; deterioration of basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, transport and urban services,” she told the Council.

Years of political strife boil over into street protests

Ms. DiCarlo went on to lay out the political landscape in the country since the parliamentary elections of December 2015, when the opposition won a large majority of seats in the National Assembly. Subsequently, the Supreme Court ruled that the Assembly was “in contempt” and that all its actions were “null and void”.

In 2017, a National Constituent Assembly was established through elections in which the opposition parties did not participate. The National Constituent Assembly took over key functions of the legislative branch and undertook a process of constitutional reform that remains inconclusive and is not recognized by the opposition parties.

Attempts to bring about political dialogue started as early as May 2016, through an initiative facilitated by three former presidents from the Dominican Republic, Panama and Spain, under the auspices of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).

“Despite some initial progress, no concrete agreements were reached through this initiative, which was suspended by the beginning of 2017,” she said, adding that attempts to resume and continue dialogue faltered in February 2018 over a disagreement was the electoral calendar and guarantees to ensure free, transparent and credible elections.

Subsequently, the Government went ahead with presidential elections in May 2018. President Nicolás Maduro was declared the winner over two other candidates. Most of the opposition did not participate in the elections or recognize the results. On 10 January, Nicolás Maduro was sworn in as President for a second six-year term.

On 23 January, large scale opposition protests culminated with Juan Guaidó, president of the opposition-led National Assembly, announcing that he did not recognize President Maduro or his Government.

“While the protests were largely peaceful, there were incidents of violence,” Ms. Dicarlo said, noting that according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, (OHCHR), credible local sources have reported that at least 20 people have died in the unrest.  Many more have reportedly been reportedly injured and detained in violent incidents.

Call for a political solution

Recalling that the UN Secretary-General had offered his good offices to help resolve the crisis, Ms. DiCarlo stressed that the main concern is the well-being of the Venezuelan people and their ability to enjoy their full rights.

“The UN has been providing assistance, particularly in the areas of health and nutrition. And the Secretary-General had asked the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to establish a mechanism to support Venezuelans leaving the country.”

“There are divergent visions of what the future should hold for Venezuela. But we must all be guided, however, by the pursuit of the well-being of the Venezuelan people, and work together so that their needs are fully met,” she said.

A divided Security Council

Ms. DiCarlo’s call for cooperation and dialogue was echoed by many of the Council’s 15 members during the contentious debate that followed her briefing, even as speakers for the United States and Russia sparred over the path to end the crisis.

The US State Department on Wednesday ordered the departure from Venezuela of some non-emergency employees, following a decision by the Trump administration, and several other nations, to recognize Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful president.

President Maduro respoended by cutting diplomatic ties with the US.

Today, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the UN to recognize Mr. Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim president, and declared: “Now it is time for every other nation to pick a side. No more delays, no more games. Either you stand with the forces of freedom, or you’re in league with Maduro and his mayhem.”

But Russia’s UN Ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, rejected that view saying the US was imposing its own “approaches and recipes” to resolve the problems on the ground in Venezuela. “This meeting is yet another attempt by the United States to affect regime change and [the Russian Federation] regrets that the UN Security Council has been drawn into such an unethical ploy.”

The two diplomats had faced off ahead of the meeting when the Council held a procedural vote on whether the session would even go forward, as ‘the situation in Venezuela’ is not an official item on the Council’s agenda.

But by a vote of nine in favour (Belgium, Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, United Kingdom, United States) to four against (China, Equatorial Guinea, Russian Federation, South Africa), with two abstentions (Côte d’Ivoire, Indonesia), adopted the agenda item.

During the debate, French Ambassador Anne Gueguen said it was “entirely legitimate” that the Council considers the topic, as the crisis in Venezuela was spilling into neighbouring countries. France called for a political and negotiated solution to the crisis. “Mr. Maduro must understand that this is his last opportunity and he must take it,” she warned.

She said trhat if elections are not organized and held in eight days, France was ready, along with the European Union, to recognize Mr. Guaidó as the interim President.  She urged authorities to refrain from the use of force against democratically elected officials, members of civil society and peaceful protestors.

Jorge Arreaza, Venezuela’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, rejected what he saw as US attempts to interfere in his country’s affairs, as well as Mr. Guaidó’s presidential self-proclamation, which he deemed illegal.

He said the Trump administration was trying to build a physical wall on its border with Mexico, while also erecting an “ideological wall” and resurrecting Cold War strategies aimed at bringing misery to wider Latin America. Nonetheless, Caracas, he declared, would find its own way forward, without interference.  “No Power […] can dictate to my country its destiny or its future.”

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Finance

Why financial institutions are banking on sustainability

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Eric Usher’s day planner is filled with meetings with the heads of some of the world’s biggest banks. And while he has years of experience working with the financial industry, his mission isn’t profit. It is to support and challenge banks and other financial institutions to lay the foundation for a more sustainable future.

Usher is the head of the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI), a partnership between UNEP, banks, insurers and investment companies that has established among the most important sustainability frameworks for the sector. Its aim is to align private money with the UN Sustainable Development Goals that aim to shift our economy to clean energy, eliminate hunger, foster gender equality and achieve more than a dozen other social and environmental targets.

In his role, Usher has worked with financial institutions to put sustainability at the heart of their business strategy.

“If we want to meet global sustainability challenges, we absolutely need the support of the private sector,” said Usher recently. “There just isn’t enough public money out there, especially in the wake of COVID-19, to finance the massive structural changes our societies desperately need.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates it will cost $6.9 trillion annually through 2030 to finance the sustainable development goals.

Usher’s comments came just ahead of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties, known as COP26. The gathering came with the planet slipping dangerously behind the goals of 2015’s landmark Paris Agreement and already experiencing the effects of a changing climate. Progress towards the other Sustainable Development Goals has also been uneven.

Origins of a movement

UNEP FI was born out of a group of six banks that met on the sidelines of 1992’s Rio Earth Summit, considered by many as one of the most important environmental gatherings of the last three decades.

Nearly 30 years later, more than 450 financial institutions are members of what is the UN’s largest partnership with the finance industry.

In the past year alone, member banks have given 113 million vulnerable customers access to financial services and advised over 15,000 companies on their climate strategies.

Not only is that work helping people and the planet, it’s also securing the future of financial stability. The burgeoning green economy is creating a host of new investment and lending opportunities. Institutional investors and retail banking customers are increasingly demanding that financial institutions uphold environmental standards. And, perhaps most importantly, a growing number of financial institutions have realized that financing fossil fuels, and other projects that harm the environment, is bad for their long-term future.

“I truly believe that the next 30 years of our economy and our society, can’t be like the last 30 years,” said Guy Cormier, CEO of Desjardins Group, one of Canada’s largest financial services companies. “The activities of a financial institution can make a real difference in the lives of the people and also in the environment.”

Becoming more environmentally sustainable requires banks, insurers and investors to redesign their business models, says Usher.

“Traditional risk (in the financial sector) looks at what failed in the past,” said Usher, “With climate change that doesn’t work. Now it’s about forecasting the future, which isn’t easy and therefore is an area that we work with our members to develop the norms and standards needed to respond.” 

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , released in September, finds that nearly every corner of the world has been touched by climate change. UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2021 found that, even with new national climate pledges and mitigation measures, the world is still on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century, which could lead to catastrophic climate impacts. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement, countries would need to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.

With this as a backdrop, Usher says the work of the UNEP FI has never been so important.

“There really is no time to waste,” said Usher. “The current decade is critical to determining the future of our species and our planet.”

Guiding principles

To shepherd the financial industry towards sustainability, UNEP FI has unveiled a series of guiding frameworks including:

These industry frameworks have attracted widespread support among financial institutions. Some 80 per cent of the investment industry has committed to the Principles for Responsible Investment while 260 banks, representing $70 trillion in assets, have signed onto the Principles for Responsible Banking.

The Principles [for Responsible Banking] are very much hinged on the Paris Agreement as well as the Sustainable Development Goals,” said Siobhan Toohill, Group Head of Sustainability, Westpac. “It’s clear that climate change is a really significant factor that banks need to address… and there are areas of impacts that we need to give closer attention to, such as biodiversity.”

A progress report, released in October, highlights the accomplishments of the responsible banking principles initiative. Among other things, it found that signatories have mobilized at least $2.3 trillion in sustainable financing. What’s more, 94 per cent of banks identify sustainability as a strategic priority.

The industry frameworks developed by UNEP FI help financial institutions embed sustainability into all aspects of their business. But with more than US$100 trillion required to transition the global economy to net-zero emissions by 2050 – and US$32 trillion of that over the next decade – there is an urgent need to focus financing on helping to achieve that goal.

Three UNEP FI-convened groups are working with more than 170 investors, banks and insurers to develop the tools and science-based guidance to use with their customers and the companies they invest in to decarbonize their businesses. The financial institutions are setting targets every few years and making their progress public via annual reporting to ensure that their work can be measured and scrutinized, and that they keep their commitments on track.

The large number of financial institutions involved and the near-term action that has been committed to, have left Usher optimistic about the future.

“There’s no question we have a lot of work to do to make our societies more sustainable,” he said. “But in the private sector, the desire for real change is growing and that makes me hopeful.”

UNEP

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Energy News

Colombia’s energy districts: an example for the region

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image: UNIDO

An energy district is a local institution that leads, implements and accelerates a locally-owned, inclusive and clean energy transition. In the process, energy districts create local jobs and retain and grow wealth, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions and air pollution.

Colombia is a pioneer South American country in the promotion of this approach. Beginning in 2013, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), together with Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), has been implementing an energy districts project in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (Minambiente) and the public utility of the city of Medellín (Empresas Publicas de Medellín – EPM).

In its second phase, beginning in 2019, the project has been working closely with national and city-level authorities and stakeholders to improve and implement national and sub-national policy and regulatory frameworks to promote further development of energy districts; reinforce knowledge and capacities for energy districts of all market players; and provide technical assistance to some 10 selected cities so that they can include energy districts in their urban planning and support the realization of two-three near-future mature projects.

From the 17-19 November, the UNIDO project and partners, ACAIRE (Colombian Association for Refrigeration and Air Conditioning) and CIDARE, the Centre of Research and Development in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration hosted the Third International Conference for Energy Districts, a virtual event bringing together national and international experts from industry and academia, and representatives from the public sector and international organizations.

Carlos Eduardo Correa, Colombia’sMinister of Environment and Sustainable Development, stated that the conference was the ideal scenario to show the achievements of the country in the implementation of district energy as a contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals.

“All of our actions, plans, projects and regulations, are geared towards the achievements of the Nationally Determined Contributions, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and, at the same time, the contribution of low-carbon development. Here, Colombia has an important experience and is an example for the region,” he stated.

The progress of district energy in Colombia and the region, the importance of their implementation in urban planning, energy maps and clean energy transition, the mechanisms to finance these projects and the use of renewable energies in their execution, were some of the main topics addressed by more than 30 national and international speakers during the three days of discussions.

“The implementation of the project has, as a main component, the sustainability of knowledge and capacities in Colombia. That is why the support and work with academia are fundamental to strengthen the capacities of all the actors in the value chain and promote the education of professionals in the areas of sustainability and energy efficiency, among others,” noted Alex Saer, Director of Climate Change and Risk Management at the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

The conference was also the opportunity to celebrate the awards of the Second Competition for Universities in District Energy, with the objective of designing a business model for the sale of thermal energy applied to residential users.

The contest, which had the participation of eight universities from Colombia, awarded the first-place winner team with  fully funded attendance to the International District Energy Association Campus Energy in Boston in February 2022.

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Tech News

193 countries adopt the first global agreement on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence

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All the nations members of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) adopted on Thursday a historical text that defines the common values and principles needed to ensure the healthy development of AI.

Artificial intelligence is present in everyday life, from booking flights and applying for loans to steering driverless cars. It is also used in specialized fields such as cancer screening or to help create inclusive environments for the disabled.

According to UNESCO, AI is also supporting the decision-making of governments and the private sector, as well as helping combat global problems such as climate change and world hunger.

However, the agency warns that the technology ‘is bringing unprecedented challenges’.

We see increased gender and ethnic bias, significant threats to privacy, dignity and agency, dangers of mass surveillance, and increased use of unreliable AI technologies in law enforcement, to name a few. Until now, there were no universal standards to provide an answer to these issues”, UNESCO explained in a statement.

Considering this, the adopted text aims to guide the construction of the necessary legal infrastructure to ensure the ethical development of this technology.

“The world needs rules for artificial intelligence to benefit humanity. The Recommendation on the ethics of AI is a major answer. It sets the first global normative framework while giving States the responsibility to apply it at their level. UNESCO will support its 193 Member States in its implementation and ask them to report regularly on their progress and practices”, said Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO chief.

AI as a positive contribution to humanity

The text aims to highlight the advantages of AI, while reducing the risks it also entails. According to the agency, it provides a guide to ensure that digital transformations promote human rights and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, addressing issues around transparency, accountability and privacy, with action-oriented policy chapters on data governance, education, culture, labour, healthcare and the economy.

One of its main calls is to protect data, going beyond what tech firms and governments are doing to guarantee individuals more protection by ensuring transparency, agency and control over their personal data. The Recommendation also explicitly bans the use of AI systems for social scoring and mass surveillance.

The text also emphasises that AI actors should favour data, energy and resource-efficient methods that will help ensure that AI becomes a more prominent tool in the fight against climate change and in tackling environmental issues.

“Decisions impacting millions of people should be fair, transparent and contestable. These new technologies must help us address the major challenges in our world today, such as increased inequalities and the environmental crisis, and not deepening them.” said Gabriela Ramos, UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Social and Human Sciences.

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