17 September 2021
What We’ll be Listening for at UNGA 76
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Governance requires conversations and negotiations to develop shared agendas and take collective action.

The UN General Assembly General Debate is accompanied by the parallel convening of several other high-level events, which focus the attention of leaders on specific issues that are critical for international cooperation.

“Global Governance may sound lofty or abstract. It is not.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres let this statement ring around the UNGA Hall as he concluded his presentation of recommendations for implementing the 12 commitments agreed by UN Member States in their Declaration marking the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Titled ‘Our Common Agenda,’ the report launched on 10 September 2021, immediately prior to the opening of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, outlines steps to be taken to implement the commitments negotiated by UN Member States last year.

The exercise of global governance in the instance of developing ‘Our Common Agenda’ started with a conversation with people around the world, followed by conversations among governmental leaders, continued through negotiations and the adoption of a Declaration, involved further consultations to identify actions to implement the 12 commitments, and will result in further consultations to take action on the recommendations.

Governance requires conversations and negotiations to develop shared agendas and take collective action. In this light, the annual discussions at the UN General Assembly are essential listening. As world leaders take the podium, they send messages to the global community about their shared objectives and challenges, and signal where they want to see global agendas moving.

It is in this context that the SDG Knowledge Hub will be listening to the general debate of the UN General Assembly and several high-level events taking place during the opening weeks of the 76th session. In this policy brief, we provide a short overview of some key issues to be discussed in the coming weeks.

General Debate

The General Debate will take place from Tuesday, 21 September to Monday, 27 September 2021, including Saturday, 25 September. Due to the global pandemic, the size of delegations allowed into the General Assembly Hall will be limited, and UN Member States were encouraged to provide pre-recorded statements in lieu of traveling to UN Headquarters. Despite these challenges, over 100 Heads of State or Government are expected to travel to New York this September. 

Leaders are encouraged to focus on the theme, ‘Building resilience through hope – to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainably, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people and revitalize the United Nations.’ To the casual observer, it may appear that speakers are delivering a laundry list of issues they might have been expected to deliver, but those who listen closely will hear much more. These statements, each delivered by a Head of State or Government or other high-level official to his or her counterparts around the world, provide an annual chance for countries to state their priorities and be “heard” by others. Officials will be listening for the implications of each statement for their own country’s objectives. And sometimes a speaker receives feedback on their remarks in real time, as demonstrated in the infamous incident when, in 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took offense to the words of the speaker from the Philippines and banged his fists, then shoe, on his table.

Provocative and surprising statements may also be streaming from the podium in the UNGA Hall, as speakers simultaneously address their domestic and international audiences. During the first few years of his presidency, former US President Trump used his UNGA debate time to denounce multilateralism. Many will be listening to hear what US President Biden says about this topic – both domestic and international audiences.

Another source of surprise can come when a country makes an unexpected contribution to addressing global challenges. At this time last year, for example, China’s President Xi Jinping announced his country’s ambition to reach carbon neutrality before 2060 and ensure its greenhouse gas emissions peak in the next decade. This announcement was not expected; we will keep our ears open for similar announcements this year.

Vaccinations are near of the top of list for the topics that Heads of State or Government are expected to address from the podium. We will be listening for how the leaders of the world will attempt to end the global pandemic, as current strategies have not yet ensured that vaccinations will leave no one behind. These discussions will pick up the themes of inequality and justice, which will be discussed in many contexts throughout the coming weeks. The Secretary-General’s ‘Our Common Agenda’ report includes specific recommendations on the global COVID-19 approach, which could be a benchmark for evaluating how much, or little, Heads of State or Government are proposing.

Climate change and biodiversity will also be addressed. The recently approved Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report provided new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades, and increased the pressure for meaningful action. In November, countries will be heading to Glasgow, Scotland, for the UN Climate Change Conference (or COP 26), for which parties must submit enhanced action plans and targets as part of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Climate finance and adaptation are also likely to be part of the discussion at the general debate.

During last year’s Biodiversity Summit during the UN’s high-level week, many speakers emphasized the interconnections between addressing biodiversity and climate change. Speakers almost certainly will raise the interlinkages among shared challenges and need to adopt a systems approach to address them, and they are expected to bring calls for pursuing nature-based solutions. Some of these comments will address expectations for the Convention on Biological Diversity’s COP 15, which will open through a virtual session in October, followed by an in-person element in Kunming next Spring. This meeting is expected to conclude with the adoption of a global biodiversity framework outlining actions through 2050, which could feature in UNGA discussions as well.

The dialectic relationship between leaders’ speeches from the UNGA Hall podium and the sustainable development processes underway makes this annual “debate” a truer exchange than it may appear.

High-level events during the opening of the UNGA session

The general debate at the opening of the UN General Assembly session is accompanied by the parallel convening of several other high-level events, usually lasting one day or a half-day. The events take advantage of the media attention generated by the presence of Heads of State or Government from all countries, as well as the attention from those leaders themselves, to focus on specific issues that are critical for international cooperation.

The second annual SDG Moment, on 20 September, aims to provide a snapshot of progress, highlight actions that show change is possible, and advance the transformations needed to achieve the 2030 Agenda. The SDG Moment will begin with a presentation of the state of the SDGs, providing a “reality check” on where we stand, and need to go, on the road to 2030. Where we need to go, and our limited progress toward shared objectives, is likely to be a recurring theme during the coming weeks.

Leaders from over 30 countries that presented their voluntary national reviews in July 2021 will participate in this year’s SDG Moment, which will address the theme, ‘Plans, pathways and partners for Recovery and beyond.’ Four focal topics will include: Gender equality; Connectivity; Youth in Action; and Localizing the SDGs.  

The first-ever Food Systems Summit will take place on 23 September, with a completely virtual format. The Food Systems Summit is organized around five action tracks: Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; Shift to sustainable consumption patterns; Boost nature-positive production; Advance equitable livelihoods; and Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress. The Summit aims to empower all people to leverage the power of food systems to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and implement the SDGS, by mobilizing actionable commitments to transform food systems.

On 24 September, we will be listening for what will come out of the High-level Dialogue on Energy, which will be the first global gathering on energy under UNGA auspices since the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy in 1981. This event is seeking to raise ambition and accelerate action towards the achievement of the SDG 7 energy targets, including by identifying pathways, global road maps, and generate energy compacts on five themes: Energy Access; Energy Transitions; Enabling the SDGs through Inclusive, Just Energy Transitions; Innovation, Technology and Data; and Finance and Investment.

The first Energy Compact was announced during the ministerial meetings in June – IKEA and the Rockefeller Foundation announced USD 1 billion over ten years to bring distributed renewable energy access to one billion people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and, in the process, eliminate about one billion tons of carbon emissions.

A third event to watch for will be the High-Level Event on Jobs and Social Protection for Poverty Elimination. This High-Level Event will be convened virtually on 28 September by the UN Secretary-General and the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica as the latest gathering in the Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond Initiative (FfDI). This High-Level event aims to see Heads of State and Government commit to a Call to Action and increase policy coherence ahead of the annual fall meetings of the IMF and World Bank, and upcoming meetings of the G7 and G20.

This event will focus on five pressing issues: application of effective economic, social and environmental policies at country level through dialogue with social partners and other stakeholders; the global norms and standards underpinning the socio-economic recovery and a just transition; current efforts to achieve just transitions in the context of ambitious climate action and the covid recovery and solutions that support accelerating and scaling up these efforts, particularly in developing countries; opportunities and synergies created by integrating policies on climate action, technology, health, jobs, social protection and poverty eradication; and alleviation of key constraints and market failures that impede sustainable development finance and an inclusive job-rich recovery, also benefiting women and youth.

Where Does the Global Discussion Go Next?

As noted above, Heads of State or Government will have an eye on influencing a number of events taking place before the end of the year, from the G20 to conferences of the parties for the biodiversity and climate change conferences. Another high-level moment for the international community in 2021 will focus on sustainable transport. 2022 will see gatherings on ocean and the 50-year commemoration of environmental governance as launched at the Stockholm Conference. The High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development will take place in mid-2022, to provide the next global check-in event on SDG implementation. We will be listening for signals on these and many more events, as UN Member States chart the next leg of their shared journey during the coming UN General Assembly session.

This policy brief is based on remarks by Lynn Wagner, Senior Director, Tracking Progress, IISD, during a webinar on expectations for the opening of UNGA 76. 

Join us for a live discussion and Q&A on what went well at UNGA 76, when action faltered, and where we go next on Tuesday, October 5, 2021/ 10 a.m. EDT: bit.ly/UNGA76-analysis.

Funding for our work on the SDG Moment 2021 was provided by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety of Germany (BMU).

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