UNGA Meeting on Climate and SDGs Seeks to Ramp Up Ambition, Respond to Youth
UN Photo/Manuel Elias
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The UN General Assembly held a high-level meeting on climate and sustainable development for all.

Participants exchanged ideas for a clear narrative about the cohesive nature of climate change and sustainable development.

Speakers also discussed the need for increased ambition for the 2020 set of nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement.

29 March 2019: The high-level meeting on climate and sustainable development for all took on a larger role than it had first been mandated to do, with speakers requiring a full additional day to make plenary statements, and many linking their remarks with the upcoming UN Climate Action Summit and a “new seriousness of purpose” to address climate change, in the words of Mary Robinson.

The UN General Assembly meeting convening in New York, US, from 28-29 March 2019, also served to enable participants to begin crafting a narrative about the cohesive nature of climate change and sustainable development, and to set sights on increased ambition for the 2020 set of nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement. Other themes emerging from the discussions included a strong emphasis on the rights of youth and the importance of young people’s voices in climate and sustainable development action, and a need to reconcile the drive for economic growth with its impacts on the natural environment.

Opening the meeting, UNGA President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces said 2019 must be the year of climate action at all levels and with all stakeholders. She noted the “profound interdependence” between the Paris Agreement on climate change and the 2030 Agenda, and explained that reaching the SDGs will allow for reaching the climate goals and would even contribute to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celcius. She called for addressing climate change with a cross-generational approach, and for changing consumption patterns, noting that every year 1,300 million tons of food are wasted, while almost 2.000 million people suffer from hunger or malnutrition.

Referring to the 2019 Climate Summit that will convene on 23 September 2019, in New York, US, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the event will bring together governments, the private sector, civil society, local authorities and other international organizations to showcase and develop “the ambitious solutions we need,” and will focus on energy transition, sustainable infrastructure, sustainable agriculture, forests and oceans, resilience to climate impacts, and investing in the green economy.

Guterres said leaders are asked not to come to the Summit with a speech, but with a plan. As part of their plans, he said leaders should demonstrate: how to enhance NDCs by 2020; how greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be reduced by 45% over the next decade; how to get to net-zero emissions globally by 2050; and how climate action can generate benefits, such as job creation, reduced air pollution and improved public health. He also asked leaders to ensure that their plan includes women as key decision-makers, and address issues such as a “just transition,” where no one is left disadvantaged.

Sheddona Richardson, Youth Representative from Grenada, said that climate change impacts are becoming the “new normal” for small island developing States (SIDS).

In a “Fireside Chat” among presidents of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji and COP 23 President, remarked that the approach of the Talanoa Dialogue, introduced at COP 23, “was embraced by the world,” and that Fiji prepared a detailed report that gives information on what has been learned from the 2018 Dialogue. He said a ‘Climate Action Pacific Partnership Conference’ will take place in April 2019, in Fiji.

Michał Kurtyka, Secretary of State, Poland’s Ministry of Energy and Environment and COP 24 President, said three enablers are needed to address climate change, namely people, technology and nature. He recalled that COP 24 had approved the “rule book” for the Paris Agreement. Carolina Schmidt, Minister of Environment of Chile and COP 25 incoming President, said COP 25 should be seen as a fundamental platform to reach ambitious agreements on mitigation, adaptation and implementation measures. She called for strengthening ambition on implementation, including in terms of finance, technology, and capacity.

The plenary session of the meeting included high-level government officials, and convened over the course of two days. Many conveyed their condolence to the hundreds of thousands people affected by the recent Cyclone Idai in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Several delegations referred to the fact that millions of young people from more than 120 countries skipped school to protest the lack of climate action, as part of the ‘Fridays for the Future’ initiative, and underlined the need to step up ambition and urgency. Many said the tools and instruments to address climate change are available but political will is missing. Several speakers also highlighted the importance of multilateralism and cooperation to make progress on climate change.

Among delegations that took the floor, Palestine for the Group of 77 and China (G-77/China) remarked that the meeting comes at a critical juncture, as it builds on the outcome of COP 24, and precedes several key events: the July 2019 meeting of the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) that will review SDG 13 (climate action); the stocktaking meeting in the United Arab Emirates in June that will feed into the Climate Summit in September; the SDG Summit in September; and COP 25 in December. He stressed the need for: not renegotiating or reinterpreting the outcomes of the Paris Agreement; multilaterally agreed modalities to track the delivery of USD 100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020; and secure, predictable and sustainable additional finance for developing countries in the post-2020 context.

Fiji for the Pacific SIDS reported that Pacific SIDS have begun regional preparations for the Climate Summit, and SIDS are exploring ways to reach the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Belize for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) called for a market mechanism that delivers an “automatic overall mitigation in global emissions” and a substantial share of proceeds for adaptation. Dominica reported on the devastating impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria on the island, and said it plans to become the first climate-resilient nation in the world. He called for a financing instrument to help deliver on the SDGs in SIDS and facilitate climate adaptation and mitigation.

On the global preparatory (stocktaking) meeting for the Climate Summit that will take place on 30 June and 1 July in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) noted that his country will spend the coming months speaking to all interested stakeholders in order to offer them the space to shape, strengthen, and present their most ambitious actions.

On domestic actions, he reported that the UAE has set clean energy targets of 27 per cent by 2021, and 50 per cent by 2050, and is “ahead of schedule” to meet them. He also noted that his country has committed almost US$ 1 billion in grants and soft loans for climate projects internationally, and has just launched its Youth Climate Strategy. Chile indicated that her country embarked on a “fair transition” towards decarbonization with affordable renewable energy access, and said Santiago has the second-largest electric bus fleet in the world.

Austria reported that 19 Heads of State and Government in Europe have joined forces in an appeal for more climate ambition before COP 24, and said he intends to expand this initiative globally. The Netherlands announced that it will host the International Climate Adaptation Action Summit in October 2020.

Italy said that it recently inaugurated the Africa Center for Climate and Sustainable Development in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). He added that Italy is “best poised to host” UNFCCC COP 26 in 2020. In a later segment, the minister added that Italy is preparing a national integrated plan for energy and climate, which will be binding as of January 2020, and that it has opened a permanent platform for dialogue with youth.

Canada said it will ensure that peace and security issues related to climate change are among its priorities as it runs for an elected seat on the UN Security Council for 2021-2022. On the Climate Summit and its preparatory process, Canada noted the importance of: addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable; better adapting climate action to address the particular needs of indigenous peoples, women and youth, and empowering them in the process; and being inclusive in climate decisions.

In addition to the two-day plenary segment, the high-level meeting also included two panel discussions. The first panel addressed ‘Synergies between climate and sustainable development agendas.’ ECOSOC President Rhonda King suggested that the set of several high-level meetings taking place in September 2019, as well as the midterm review of the Vienna Programme of Action for the LLDCs, share the same ambition: to accelerate action towards a resilient and sustainable future, leaving no one behind. She also expressed her expectation that July 2019 HLPF session’s in-depth review of SDG 13 (climate action) will “produce new thinking” on combating climate change.

Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, UAE Minister for Climate Change and Environment, said climate ambition can be raised by broadening the circle of action to include the private sector, academia, NGOs, and “most importantly, youth.” As host of the preparatory meeting for the Climate Action Summit, UAE plans to target three key audiences: small businesses, to ensure the SDGs and Paris Agreement are made part of their core business strategies; non-climate ministers; and youth.

Martha Delgado, Mexico’s Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, focused on the developmental “co-benefits” of addressing climate change, which she said can encourage private sector and investor engagement, as well as social support for climate action. The new Mexican president’s office has identified 25 co-benefits of addressing climate change for other areas of development. The presidency is working to estimate the number of jobs to be generated from Mexico’s strategy to replace 500,000 combustible vehicles with hybrid or electric, and also estimating the preventable deaths and the savings to the health sector. In sum, climate elements must be recognized as “part of the logic of sectoral policies,” and this ensures that public investments have the greatest possible impact at the lowest cost. Delgado also emphasized the risk of adverse effects when pursuing several goals at once, and said the SDGs provide a road map for coherence among policies, and therefore the greatest possible benefit for society.

Responding to Delgado’s remarks, UN Women supported the emphasis on co-benefits as “the core of the synergy between climate action and sustainable development.” A World Bank representative echoed Delgado’s point that the developmental benefits of the SDGs can come at the expense of climate change. For example, developing pumps can overexploit aquifers. Reducing food loss and waste can increase the use of plastic. But shifting to glass containers can create higher GHG emissions for their transport.

Mary Robinson, Chair of The Elders Group, observed a “new seriousness of purpose” in the day’s discussions. She echoed the need to mainstream young people in climate action: “no partnerships should come to the Climate Summit without young voices [and] visions.” She stressed the value of an intergenerational lens for creating synergies between climate and sustainable development, and called for looking to 2050, not only 2030, when addressing impacts on the climate.

In remarks from the floor, the Interparliamentary Union (IPI) stressed the need to “escape the growth model” embedded in current policies and even SDG 8, because it leads to reinvesting any efficiency gains into more production and consumption. The “economics of hand-me-downs” implies a completely different economic model that would create fewer jobs, he said, and discussions must address this contradiction. Italy’s minister, too, called for rethinking the current model of development.

Krishnee Appadoo, Youth Representative (Mauritius), highlighted her three perspectives on climate change: as an islander seeing its effects firsthand, as a woman concerned about her reproductive health, and as a young person. She said action must be taken in a concerted way to address such interlinkages, saying “we have so many SDGs because we want genuine action.” Norma Kassi, Arctic Institute of Community-based Research, highlighted the benefits of the indigenous sciences for humanity.

Manish Bapna, World Resources Institute, called for an “integrated narrative” that brings climate and SDGs together and excites political leaders as much as the public. He echoed the need for attention to equity and distributional issues, including intergenerationally, and called for clarity on “what is a just and fair transition?” He suggested that countries announce climate commitments that are also aligned with the SDGs and address the need to leave no one behind.

In remarks from the floor, Omar Figuero, Belize’s Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, Environment and Sustainable Development, suggested that each country should aim to integrate all of the SDGs into its NDCs.

World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Petteri Taalas announced the release of the 25th WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate. In the context of the recent Cyclone Idai, Taalas explained that because the oceans store extra heat, they are being warmed, which creates more energy for tropical storms and other flooding events. He added that hurricane seasons are becoming more expensive, with some recent storms causing vulnerable countries to lose up to 250% of their GDP in one day.

The second panel addressed means of implementation. Hussain Rasheed Hassan, Maldives’ Minister of Environment, said intergenerational equity should be captured in national policies on climate change. Egypt’s Minister of Environment Yassmin Salah Eldin Fouad Abdelaziz noted that the transition to low-carbon technologies is doable if developed countries help developing countries through transfer of low-carbon technologies.

Eva Svedling, Sweden’s Secretary of State, Ministry of Environment and Energy, said the ambition of the second round of NDCs will be essential in incentivizing the needed climate finance investments. She called for integrating climate considerations in national budgets and plans, and noted that the New Climate Economy report finds a potential for climate action to bring USD26 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Marilyn Ceci, J.P. Morgan, encouraged the issuance of green bonds.

Javier Manzanares, Executive Director, Green Climate Fund (GCF), said adaption is rapidly becoming the top climate priority, given the repeated challenges faced especially by vulnerable countries, and adaption is currently 54% of the GCF portfolio. A youth respondent highlighted the difficulties faced by young people’s organizations in accessing GCF funding. She cautioned against tokenism, in which the international community celebrates youth actions but does not invest in them.

During the closing segment, Luis Alfonso de Alba, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 2019 Climate Action Summit, underscored that “we have no excuse not to act” on climate change, as the tool and data is there. He invited governments to come with action-oriented pledges to the climate summit, and not speeches. [Event Programme] [Meeting Webpage] [UNGA President’s Statement] [UN Secretary-General’s Statement] [Meeting Summary] [UNFCCC Press Release] [SDG Knowledge Hub Sources]

This story draws on reporting by Ana Maria Lebada and Faye Leone.


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