5 November 2018
Leaders at UNGA 73 Debate Urge Accelerated Climate Action, Security Council to Address Climate Change
Photo by IISD/Mike Muzurakis
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Many leaders expressed their support for climate action and implementation of the Paris Agreement, with several describing efforts to increase their renewable energy as part of their NDCs.

SIDS in particular stressed the urgency of climate action for their “very survival,” with several reiterating their call for the UN Security Council to appoint a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Climate and Security.

Leaders also addressed climate change adaptation, mitigation and energy concerns, shared new climate policies and frameworks, called for increased climate financing, and expressed support for the UN Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Summit.

The 73rd session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 73) high-level General Debate focused on implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change, among other topics. Leaders underscored the need for accelerated action to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with small island developing States (SIDS) and others stressing climate action as a matter of their survival.

The 2018 debate featured 77 Heads of State, 44 Heads of Government, five Vice‑Presidents, four Deputy Prime Ministers, 54 Ministers, one Vice-Minister and eight Chairs of Delegation. The Debate ran from 25 September through 1 October 2018 at UN Headquarters in New York, US, and focused on the theme, ‘Making the UN relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies.’

In his opening remarks, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described climate change as a “direct existential threat” and emphasized that the world has reached a pivotal moment at which it risks “runaway climate change” if we do not change course in the next two years. He appealed to world leaders to listen to scientists, observe what is happening and guarantee implementation of the Paris Agreement. He urged governments to end subsidies for fossil fuels, establish a fair price for carbon and invest in sustainable infrastructure.

This policy brief reviews leaders’ statements on climate change during the 2018 General Debate, including statements in support of climate action and implementation of the Paris Agreement. It discusses leaders’ statements on climate and security; the impacts of climate change on their countries and regions, including adaptation measures taken; climate mitigation and energy actions; climate policies and frameworks adopted or implemented by countries; climate financing; and the UN Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Summit.

Support for Climate Action and Paris Agreement Implementation

Several leaders identified climate change as one of the greatest global challenges, including Brunei, Canada, Chile, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Haiti, Iceland, India, Palau, New Zealand, Nigeria, Samoa, San Marino, Serbia, Solomon Islands, Spain, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Timor-Leste and Trinidad and Tobago. Bhutan described climate change as both a serious threat to humanity and to sustainable development. Dominica said climate change is “the main symptom of our world’s broken economy, society and humanity.” Seychelles recognized climate change as an existential threat, not only to the lives of people in island States, but “the world as a whole.” Tuvalu said that every year with no climate action draws Tuvalu “a year closer to its total demise from earth.”

Several leaders urged increased, accelerated global action on climate change, including Andorra, the Bahamas, Bhutan, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Fiji, Finland, FSM, Guinea-Bissau, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR), Malawi, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Monaco, Mongolia, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. France called for countries to make concrete commitments to innovate and accelerate progress towards the Paris Agreement targets. Mexico stressed implementation of the Paris Agreement as a priority, emphasizing that the international community has a “moral obligation” to implement it as well as to achieve even more ambitious goals.

Fiji said the struggle to tackle global warming and end ocean degradation will continue to be Fiji’s highest priority even after it completes its role as President of the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UNFCCC. As part of Fiji’s efforts to “lead from the front,” he announced that Fiji will commit to being a net zero GHG emission country by 2050. Samoa urged every individual leader and country to raise the level of ambition. Tuvalu called for dramatically increasing efforts to reduce GHG emissions, including through re-assessing and increasing mitigation pledges under the Paris Agreement. The FSM and Tuvalu called on certain countries to reconsider withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

Countries also emphasized the importance of collective, global action on climate change. Samoa urged collective efforts to address climate change, stressing that “no one country, or single group of nations, and no single organization can solely win the war against climate change.” Bosnia and Herzegovina stressed the transnational dimensions of climate change, among other global challenges, saying it requires a multilateral response based on cooperation between all nations. Albania and Ireland also recognized the necessity of collective action to address climate change. Tanzania said climate change and global warming “can only be addressed effectively through multilateral approaches.” Gabon said implementing the Paris Agreement is a “moral and universal responsibility” and the UN must step up its leadership role to ensure that efforts to tackle climate change are strengthened.

Several countries urged increased focus on implementation of the Paris Agreement, including Belgium, Estonia, Niger, Slovakia, Uruguay and Togo. The Central African Republic (CAR), Germany, the Holy See, Luxembourg, Mozambique, Montenegro, Paraguay and Timor-Leste also expressed support for implementing the treaty.

India reiterated the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities (CBDR-RC) in the Paris Agreement. Kuwait identified environmental degradation as one of the main challenges in achieving the Paris Agreement, and underscored the “principle of shared responsibility, taking into account the disparity of responsibilities and burdens of States.” Nicaragua called for urgent action to combat climate change, emphasizing CBDR and urging major GHG emitters to contribute to the planet’s recovery. Suriname shared its efforts towards climate mitigation while regretting that global commitments, based on CBDR, “have yet to materialize.” Canada said developing countries should not be punished for climate change nor deprived of opportunities for clean growth.

Katowice Climate Change Conference

A few leaders identified key areas of action needed at COP 24. Monaco, Poland and Tuvalu stressed that COP 24 negotiations should result in adoption of implementation guidelines for the Paris Agreement. China expressed hope that negotiations on the implementation guidelines would be concluded as scheduled. The Holy See hoped COP 24 would represent a strong step towards achieving the Paris Agreement by advancing the Paris Agreement Work Programme (PAWP). Solomon Islands looked forward to strengthened emission reduction commitments, particularly from the largest GHG emitters. Tuvalu also urged ensuring that the Talanoa Dialogue process leads to a strong political declaration and decision that sets a pathway for enhanced climate action.

Climate and Security

SIDS and others underscored the threat of climate change to their national security, including Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga. Cyprus, Grenada and Indonesia said further action is needed to address SIDS’ vulnerability to climate change. Barbados expressed concern about “dangerous tipping points,” observing that an increase in global average temperatures of 2°C above preindustrial levels will “wipe out the islands of the coral reefs and their peoples.” New Zealand recognized climate change as a threat to the security of Pacific islands, asking leaders: “If my Pacific neighbors do not have the option of opting out of the effects of climate change, why should we be able to opt out of taking action to stop it?” The Czech Republic said the UN reform agenda should adopt a comprehensive approach to peace and security that treats climate change as a security problem while advancing sustainable development and promoting human rights. Côte d’Ivoire said the fight against climate change can only be won if it is recognized as a threat to peace and security.

The Marshall Islands informed delegates that the Pacific Island Forum Leaders’ had declared climate change as “the single greatest threat to our region,” and called for urgent and prioritized assistance to atoll nations whose “very survival” is at risk. Australia observed that the Pacific Islands Forum Boe Declaration “takes a contemporary view of security inclusive of human and environmental security.” Tonga welcomed the establishment of the Group of Friends on Climate and Security to further highlight the nexus between the threat of climate change and threats to international peace and security. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines observed that the rising sea level and intensifying storms pose an existential threat to SIDS, and said that “major emitters that fail to set – and honor – ambitious pledges are committing a direct act of hostility against SIDS.”

On climate and the UN Security Council (UNSC), the FSM expressed concern that the UNSC has not yet addressed the threat that climate change poses to SIDS’ existence. Germany said the UNSC should place greater priority on the devastating effects of climate change on security and stability of entire countries and regions. Tuvalu hoped the UNSC would agree to place climate change on its permanent agenda. Ireland supported a role for SIDS on the UNSC in light of the growing impact of climate change on international peace and security. Romania recognized the potential for the UNSC to play a more prominent role in addressing issues that impact peace and security, particularly climate change. Romania observed that the consequences of climate change, ranging from water shortage and food insecurity to displacement, threaten lives around the world and the UNSC could create a framework to address such challenges in an integrated manner.

Palau, Nauru and Tuvalu reiterated their call for the UNSC to appoint a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Climate and Security, which Nauru said is necessary to start managing climate risks more effectively. Tuvalu also called on the UNSC to appoint a special rapporteur to produce regular review of global, regional and national security threats caused by climate change.

Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation

Leaders described the impacts of climate change on their countries, including Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Chile, El Salvador, Fiji, Jamaica, Nepal, the Netherlands, Niger, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Suriname. Cabo Verde described the “increasingly disastrous impacts of climate change and other natural disaster risks on the world, particularly SIDS.” Vanuatu said that, according to the UN University (UNU) World Risk Report, Vanuatu is the country most at risk in the world in terms of exposure to natural disasters.

Bhutan observed that climate change impacts disproportionately affect poorer countries and poorer people, stating that climate change threatens to “push 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.” Kyrgyzstan observed that climate change is increasingly impacting its glaciers and waters resources, contributing to the growth of natural disasters in its mountainous regions.

Croatia described changes in its sea temperature and ecosystems as a result of climate change, including 20 new species of tropical fish, some of them “extremely invasive” entering its waters. Tonga noted the “devastating impacts” of climate change on its marine environment, and welcomed the work of the International Law Commission (ILC) on this topic.

Nigeria observed that climate impacts had resulted in a “drastically shrunk Lake Chad and the parching up of otherwise fertile land,” contributing to loss of livelihoods, internal displacement and economic competition between farmers and herdsmen. He called for international engagement to accelerate the recovery efforts in the Lake Chad Basin to address the root causes of conflict in the region. Cameroon and Chad also urged international support to help conserve the Lake Chad Basin.

Chile said seven of the nine vulnerability factors listed by the UNFCCC apply to Chile, and outlined steps his country has taken to tackle climate change.

Countries also highlighted numerous actions to adapt to climate change, including Costa Rica and Trinidad and Tobago. Bangladesh has integrated its development programmes and efforts to build capacity to combat climate change into a mega project, ‘Delta 2100.’ As part of these efforts, Bangladesh spends over one percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on addressing climate change impacts as well as promoting climate-resilient agriculture and increasing its tree coverage and mangrove conservation. The Dominican Republic is improving resilience, relocating vulnerable communities, training teachers to promote sustainable development in schools and communities, and planting millions of trees. Fiji is “relocating entire villages and communities to escape the rising seas” and rebuilding from cyclones with more resilient infrastructure.

Climate Change Mitigation and Energy

In his opening statement, the UN Secretary-General observed that clean energy is “more affordable and competitive than ever,” and emphasized that climate action could boost the global economy and create 24 million new jobs.

Several countries outlined plans to increase renewable energy as part of their climate mitigation efforts. Brazil stated its commitment to change towards a low-carbon international economy, noting that over 40 percent of the Brazilian energy matrix is clean and renewable. India launched the International Solar Alliance with France as part of its efforts to address climate change. Madagascar shared progress towards clean energy, including building hydro and solar plants. Moldova highlighted its work to achieve energy independence and develop renewable energy as part of efforts to reduce GHG emissions. Spain described its de-carbonization efforts, and expressed commitment towards renewable energy and clean technologies as part of climate efforts.

New Zealand said it aims to achieve 100 percent renewable energy generation by 2035 and plans to cease issuing offshore oil and gas exploration permits. The Republic of Korea stated it will increase its share of renewable energy to 20 percent by 2030. Sierra Leone said it aims to achieve 60 percent renewable energy by 2030, and appealed for technical assistance and capacity building to achieve this goal. He said achieving SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy) will have a multiplier effect on Sierra Leone’s ability to meet other SDGs, particularly SDGs 1 (no poverty), 3 (good health and well-being), 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 11 (sustainable cities and communities).

The Dominican Republic said it is investing in renewable energy as part of national efforts to reduce GHG emissions by 25 percent by 2030. Nauru expressed his country’s desire to transition to 100 percent renewable energy but said capacity and resource constraints are limitations. Palau committed to transition to 45 percent renewable energy by 2025. As part of its nationally determined contribution (NDC), Solomon Islands reiterated its commitment to transition to renewable energy, and expressed appreciation for financial assistance and support towards the Tina Hydro Dam project. Tonga highlighted its partnership with the Government of Austria, the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Pacific Community to establish a Pacific Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, which will support private sector investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency in Pacific islands. Tuvalu said it is committed to shifting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.

On climate and forests, Brazil highlighted its efforts to reduce deforestation, stating that deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon are 75 percent lower than in 2004. Congo said it is working to protect forest areas as part of its climate efforts. New Zealand announced it will plant one billion trees over the next ten years. Pakistan highlighted a project to plant 10 billion trees across the country.

Suriname said it has 90 percent forest cover, noting that its high forest cover and low deforestation rate contribute to climate change mitigation. He said Suriname is one of 11 countries with high forest cover and low deforestation rate, storing 18 percent of tropical forest carbon and constituting 20 percent of remaining topical forests, but noted that his country is not fully benefiting from global arrangements associated with sound forest management. At COP 23, Suriname pledged to cap its forests at 93 percent, and made a conditional commitment to maintain its leadership position as one of the most carbon negative countries, which he said is subject to scientific, technological, technical and financial support. Within this context, he said Suriname will host a High-level Conference on Climate Finance Mobilization in February 2019 to initiate and implement new economic models of eco-sustainability.

On carbon neutrality, the Marshall Islands informed delegates that it will transition to a net zero emissions target by 2050, increase its near-term ambition and accelerate adaptation efforts. Monaco said it aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and a 50 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030. Spain announced it will join the Carbon Neutrality Coalition as part of increased efforts to implement ambitious, long-term strategies for reducing GHG emissions. Iceland and Sweden also described plans to achieve carbon neutrality.

On the green economy, Barbados described efforts to transition to a climate-resilient society powered by renewable energy as part of its National Green Economy Policy. Canada called for increased collaboration across countries and sectors to develop greener, more resilient infrastructure, including support for developing countries to improve their infrastructure. Georgia said it prioritizes green policy and green economy. Malawi said it is working to accelerate the green transition, clean energy and sustainable transport.

Climate Policies and Frameworks

Several countries launched climate change policies or frameworks. Albania has adopted relevant strategies and action plans to reduce its GHG emissions. Belize is working to ensure that climate change impacts are integrated into national investment planning across all sectors and ministries. To mitigate climate change, Mauritania has adopted a national policy to use renewable energy and combat sand invasion.

Chile aims to reduce GHG emissions by 2030 with respect to the base year, will incorporate climate change perspectives in all government, policies, plans and instruments, and has included environmental provisions in all its trade agreements. Iceland’s new climate strategy aims to make the country carbon neutral by 2040, including through phasing out fossil fuels in transport and increasing afforestation and reforesting wetlands. Sweden’s Climate Policy Framework establishes that Sweden will have net zero emissions in 2045.

Dominica has drafted legislation to establish the Climate Resilience Executing Agency of Dominica as part of its aim of becoming the first climate-resilient nation in the world by designing super-resilient networks, waterproofing its economy and building resilient communities. Grenada has established an overarching ministry, the Ministry of Climate Resilience, Environment, Fisheries, Forestry, Disaster Management and Information, to ensure that “ingrained in every aspect of our country’s development is the question of addressing climate change and climate resilience.” Kiribati’s policy focuses on building and strengthening resilience to climate change, and prioritizes water and sanitation, coastal protection and renewable energy. Palau’s policy framework addresses adaptation, strengthened capacity to prepare and minimize disaster risks, and mitigation through clean energy and low-carbon emissions.

Climate Financing

Many countries urged increased climate finance and technical support, including Fiji, Niger and Suriname. Zimbabwe called for support in the areas of adaptation, mitigation, technology, finance and capacity building as envisaged in the Paris Agreement.

On mobilizing additional financing, Jamaica said it will work with the UN Secretary-General and President Emmanuel Macron of France to lead a special initiative to mobilize climate financing. The Marshall Islands said more political effort is needed on scale targeting of climate finance. Honduras observed that bureaucracy has delayed the release of climate financing, and urged speeding up the process.

On the Green Climate Fund (GCF), Malawi called for “adequate, predictable and sustainable sources of climate financing,” such as the GCF, to support climate action. Senegal said more financing is needed for the GCF to ensure countries can address climate change. Antigua and Barbuda called for commitments to the replenishment of the GCF and the Adaptation Fund. Papua New Guinea (PNG) welcomed efforts to replenish climate finance in the GCF.

On finance for loss and damage, Dominican Republic highlighted the urgency of financing and operationalizing initiatives such as the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM) to ensure compensation for destruction of infrastructure, ecosystems and to ease vulnerability. Solomon Islands said COP 24 must consider appropriate financial support to SIDS to address loss and damage resulting from climate change.

Also on vulnerable countries and financing, Grenada said the global climate challenge offers an opportunity to focus on the distinct advantages of being small States as well as highlight vulnerability. He said the Caribbean and other SIDS can serve as test cases for national implementation of climate-related technologies and advances as well as for sustainable renewable energy investment. Haiti observed that adaptation and mitigation are extremely expensive, and called for additional funding to respond to climate change, especially for small, vulnerable countries. Uganda called for enhanced delivery of finance to the most vulnerable countries to support mitigation and adaptation measures. Vanuatu called for adopting a specific road map for collecting climate finance for vulnerable countries, in line with developed countries’ commitment to mobilize US$100 billion in climate finance by 2020. He also called for more flexible access to climate funding.

On climate insurance, Dominica called for insurance for vulnerable and at-risk countries that “pays out quickly to the victims of climate disasters.” He proposed that the UN oversee a “Climate Loss and Damage Insurance Fund” where those who have contributed the most to climate change pay and payouts go to those who suffer from climate impacts. Dominica further suggested the creation of a special “International Climate Change Resilience Facility” to provide technical and financial resources. Fiji said it is providing cyclone insurance coverage for low-income households. Tuvalu said the South Pacific region is in the process of developing a Pacific Island Climate Change Insurance Facility and seeks UN system support in developing the Facility. Saint Kitts and Nevis said the issues of disaster risk insurance should be addressed.

On disaster risk management (DRM), Lao PDR valued the UN’s continued support for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-UN Joint Strategic Plan of Action on Disaster Management 2016-2020 in addressing climate change and disaster management. Mongolia proposed establishing a Northeast Asia Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Platform in Mongolia, noting that the platform has been previously discussed in the region and received support from regional countries for implementation.

Some leaders emphasized commitments to provide climate financing. Australia expressed its commitment to work with UN Member States and UN Resident Coordinators to strengthen resilience to climate change and natural disasters in the Pacific, underscoring the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) role as a vital partner. The EU stated its commitment to make the Paris Agreement a priority in its relations with its partners. Italy underscored its commitment to tackling climate change through both bilateral support and through the UN Agencies. New Zealand said it will establish a green infrastructure fund to encourage innovation. The Republic of Korea said it will assist developing countries’ pursuit of sustainable development by “supporting them with climate change responses.” Sweden remained committed to mobilizing its share of climate financing.

UN Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Summit

Several countries expressed support for the UN Secretary-General’s 2019 Climate Summit, including the Bahamas, Cambodia, Monaco, Mongolia, Montenegro, PNG and Spain. The Bahamas said discussions on mobilizing action and financial support must dedicate more energy and resources to building the resilience and sustainability of island and coastal nations. Jamaica expressed his personal commitment to work to increase momentum to secure financial resources to address climate-related issues. The Marshall Islands described the Summit as an urgent opportunity for leaders to enhance action and ambition at true scale. The Netherlands welcomed the Climate Summit as an opportunity “to delve deeper into the links between climate resilience, financing and security.”

Romania announced that, ahead of the Summit, in April 2019, it will host, during its Presidency of the EU Council, an international conference on the theme, ‘Building Resilience to Natural Disasters,’ to exchange views on how to assess and address more effectively climate-related security risks and to enhance the base for a resilient future.

Additional Climate Action

In addition to the actions noted above, leaders outlined additional areas of climate action, including on the the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, the Arctic and Antarctica.

On the Montreal Protocol, the FSM and France urged all countries to ratify the Kigali Amendment. Both leaders underscored the potential reductions in GHG emissions as a result of its implementation.

On Antarctica, the EU appealed to all leaders to take action to protect the waters around the continent, stressing the establishment of maritime sanctuaries in the Southern Ocean could save the natural habitat of many endangered species.

On the Arctic, Finland described warming of the Arctic region, emphasizing that this challenge “poses a threat to the entire global climate system.” He urged reducing black carbon emissions to prevent further melting of sea ice in the Arctic. As Chair of the Arctic Council from 2019-2021, Iceland said it will emphasize sustainable development with a focus on the oceans, climate and energy as well as social and economic development.

On climate and oceans, Mauritius stressed that the planet’s future depends on its ability to further protect the oceans and increasing the oceans’ ability to act as a buffer against climate change. He called for global leadership and enhanced multilateral cooperation to safeguard the ocean and its role as a natural weather regulator for the planet. Kiribati underscored the completion of maritime boundaries as critical to provide certainty on ownership of ocean space in the face of climate change.

Several countries stressed that achieving the SDGs depends on addressing climate change, including Tuvalu and Uganda.

Concluding Thoughts

The General Debate illustrated continued attention to climate change, which, along with sustainable development, was the most frequently addressed topic in leaders’ statements. Leaders expressed significant support for climate action and implementation of the Paris Agreement, with a few specifically recommending actions at COP 24 to further advance the Paris Agreement’s implementation. Countries also shared their own efforts to tackle climate change, with many describing efforts to increase their renewable energy and a few committing to move towards carbon neutrality. Many developing countries and SIDS appealed for increased climate finance to help them achieve their goals. In summary, both the breadth and depth of statements on climate change suggest significant focus and attention among leaders on moving towards achieving SDG 13 (climate action) and “bending the curve” on climate change. [General Debate Homepage] [UN News Story on General Debate] [UN Meeting Coverage of Final Day of Debate] [SDG Knowledge Hub Story on Opening of UNGA 73 Debate]

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