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The UN City of Bonn: vanguard into the “Green Twenties”

By Steffen Bauer

Dr. Steffen Bauer: Head, Klimalog project, Senior Researcher, Environmental Governance and Transformation to Sustainability German Development Institute/Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

In the noughties of this century, I was a PhD student with a keen research interest in international treaty secretariats. Bonn was an obvious choice for conducting exploratory fieldwork. It had recently become the host city to a few UN secretariats, which were easily accessible and had thus far received little academic attention. Moreover, covering the proverbial ground was feasible, even with modest resources.

As a case in point, the secretariat to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) employed well below two-hundred staff at the time. With some 450 staff today, it has since more than doubled in size. This growth is symptomatic not only for the increasing relevance of international climate policy. It also reflects the growing importance of the United Nations in Bonn at large, even as the climate change secretariat inevitably catches most of the limelight across the Bonn-based UN agencies. The significance of the UN’s Bonn hub is epitomised by the expanding UN Campus next to the World Conference Center Bonn, which encompasses Bonn’s landmark ‘Langer Eugen’ tower and extends to the designated UN Campus railway station that was functional just in time for the 2017 UN climate change conference, technically known as “COP23”.

Bonn certainly fares well with its status as a UN City, which has proved a veritable growth engine. Not only does it attract highly qualified professionals from around the world, it also boosts Bonn’s local economy in many ways, not least through uncounted workshops and international conferences. Unmistakably, UN Bonn raises the city’s international profile. This is highly beneficial for Bonn’s academic and research institutions as well as a host of civil society organizations that are dealing with environmental governance and sustainable development and other aspects of international cooperation. 

The aforementioned COP23 alone pulled in some twenty-thousand delegates and observers from around the globe, including political celebrities like Al Gore and Arnold Schwarzenegger. While conferences of this magnitude remain the exception to the rule, recurrent gatherings like the technical meetings of the UNFCCC’s subsidiary bodies warrant a continuous demand for conference services, accommodation, media coverage et cetera. The disruption caused by the Corona pandemic notwithstanding, this seems unlikely to change, even if more meetings will resort to hybrid and online formats in the future.

To be sure, it is not just the UNFCCC that energises UN Bonn. Bonn also hosts the headquarters of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) that organises and coordinates about 7.000 professionals and youth volunteers in humanitarian hotspots around the world. Moreover, the secretariat to the second major UN Convention that goes back to the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ of 1992, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), several units of the United Nations University (UNU), and a host of smaller agencies that, by and large, revolve around specific issues of sustainable development and international environmental governance or pertinent training activities (for instance, the Bonn office of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, UNITAR, and the Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development of the UN System Staff College, UNSSC). Between them, the twenty-four agencies of UN Bonn comprise just above thousand professional staff.

To its critics, UN Bonn may reflect a microcosm of the UN system’s runaway fragmentation and confusing complexity. More benevolent observers and insiders will testify to a level of diversity and functional differentiation that responds to complex challenges and, indeed, political realities. Literally knowing the UN system from inside and outside, the former Head of the UN Environment Programme and former German Federal Minister for the Environment, Klaus Töpfer typically praised, if tongue-in-cheek, the “Artenvielfalt” (biological diversity) of UN institutions. Appreciating full well that it is not ‘the UN system’ that drives institutional sprawl, but the governments of member states that create ever more institutions rather than consolidating, let alone effectively coordinating existing ones. Those governments are of course the same across each and every governing body of the respective multilateral agreements and UN agencies.

Yet, even after a quarter of a century, the majority of Bonn’s fair citizens will qualify neither as critics nor as proponents of UN Bonn. Many will be indifferent or ignorant as to what’s going on at the UN Campus. Some will have encountered the UN Funken during Karneval season. Only few will ever have noted, much less understood what institutions like AEWA, ASCOBANS, EUROBATS or SPIDER are about. That in itself is nothing to fret about, given the proverbial niches that these agencies address: migratory waterbirds, bats, small cetaceans and even outer space. Still, the lack of awareness and appreciation for the benefits that the collective of UN agencies brings to the city is regrettable. It neglects Bonn’s pivotal role and relevance in substantive matters of global governance and, hence, in dealing with the global challenges of our time, including those of systemic proportions like the spread of zoonotic diseases, the dynamic degradation of land and soils and, most obviously, climate change.

At the German Development Institute/Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), we enjoy not only the proximity to the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) as a like-minded research organisation within the  Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research (opens in a new tab), but being neighbours to UN Bonn more generally. Indeed, we benefit considerably from our neighbourhood to the UN Campus and the manifold opportunities this brings for our activities in research, policy advice and training. We appreciate the vibrant, insightful and inspiring exchanges with UN professionals at all levels and across agencies – not least through our cooperation with the UNSSC. We value the access to pertinent international meetings that are happening literally at our doorstep – as demonstrated in numerous side events and by the unique Interconnections Zone on Climate Action and Sustainable Development, which we hosted at DIE’s Tulpenfeld premises throughout COP23. And we cherish welcoming international colleagues that align research visits at our institute with their UN-related itineraries that have them travelling to Bonn every now and then.

Still, appreciating these benefits should not be an exclusive concern of researchers, advocates and policymakers that happen to deal with international cooperation and sustainable development. Being a UN City is a privilege that the city of Bonn and all of its citizens can and should be proud of: As the world ventures into the  „Green Twenties“ (opens in a new tab), Bonn is part of the vanguard!

The 25th anniversary of the UN coming to Bonn marks an excellent opportunity to bring this to the fore. Not in spite, but because of its coincidence with the global crises of our time.