23 September 2019
What Will the UN Have to Show for Its Week of Summits?
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The UN Summits Week, taking place from 23-27 September, includes five high-level meetings: the Climate Action Summit; the High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage; the SDG Summit; the High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development; and the High-level Meeting to Review the SAMOA Pathway.

This Brief reviews the likely outcomes emerging from the week.

In under a week, UN member states, officials and stakeholders will be looking back on five high-level meetings and several days of speeches by Heads of State and Government and ministers. Some meetings will produce collective commitments, while others are built around countries and others announcing their own commitments and initiatives. Expectations vary for each event, and they are shifting each day. This Brief reviews the likely outcomes emerging from the week.

UN Climate Action Summit: Monday, 23 September

The UN Secretary-General is convening a Climate Action Summit on Monday, 23 September.

Governments were tasked with developing concrete, ambitious actions to announce during the Summit, along nine areas of work: mitigation; social and political drivers; youth and public mobilization; resilience and adaptation; industry transition; infrastructure, cities and local action; energy transition; nature-based solutions; and climate finance and carbon pricing. Presentations of tangible commitments were given space immediately before the Summit, during “weekend track meetings” to ensure space for those who will not speak on Monday.

Receiving even more global attention, however, was the Climate Strike that took place on Friday, 20 September. Dozens of cities around the world participated, and the largest may have been in New York, US, led by Swedish climate youth activist Greta Thunberg who began the ‘Fridays for the Future’ movement in 2018.

Monday’s official proceedings aim to provide a literal stage for those leaders with a “clear articulation of a plan to increase ambition.” Announcements will be made on:

  • Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 (including from Chile, Finland, Montreal and Allianz SE);
  • Scaling up “nature-based solutions” to protect nature to better fight climate change (with Norway, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan, Guatemala and Danone, among others);
  • Mainstreaming climate risk in decision making (presenters include Fiji, Nigeria, the Netherlands and the Bank of England);
  • Small island developing States’ (SIDS) vision for resilience and carbon neutrality (with Barbados, Palau, Saint Lucia, Maldives and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA)); and
  • Decarbonizing the built environment and mobility (with Turkey, Kenya, the US state of Maine, Belgium, the European Investment Bank (IEB) and others).

The SIDS session will begin a loop with the final meeting of the week, a mid-point review of the UN’s framework of action to support SIDS’ sustainable development. The nature-based solutions session will highlight the subject of SDG 15 (life on land), and will likely seek to reinforce the connections between Goals 15 and 13 (climate action).

Sideline events will continue as well, such as a Private Sector Forum on Monday to announce the CEOs that have joined the newly launched ‘Business Ambition for 1.5˚C’ campaign.

UN High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage: Monday, 23 September

Another specific SDG will be in the spotlight on Monday: Goal 3 on good health and well-being. The UN General Assembly’s High-level Meeting on universal health coverage (UHC) will begin with the adoption of a political declaration, which was negotiated over the past several months and agreed in early September 2019.

The Declaration titled, ‘Moving Together to Build a Healthier World,’ enshrines countries’ commitment to achieving SDG target 3.8 on ensuring UHC by 2030, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential healthcare services, and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all.

Negotiations previously struck points of contention on: ensuring access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services and reproductive rights; mainstreaming a gender perspective into health policies; leaving no one behind; and the needs of refugees, migrants, internally displaced persons and indigenous peoples.

The final text removes a reference to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and maintains SDG language committing to ensure, by 2030, universal access to sexual and reproductive healthcare services. The text reaffirms the primary role and responsibility of governments to determine their own path towards achieving UHC.

As the collective commitments emerging from the week ago, this agreement will be the world’s first-ever political declaration on UHC. In addition, an action plan is in place to follow up on the High-level Meeting. The SDG3+ ‘Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-being for All,’ or the ‘SDG3+ Global Action Plan,’ is a commitment by global health and development agencies to “advance collective and coherent action” to accelerate progress towards all health-related targets of the SDGs.

UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (SDG Summit): Tuesday-Wednesday, 24-25 September

The SDG Summit will heavily feature both types of political commitment: collective and individual. Heads of State and Government will adopt a political declaration during the opening session, ‘Gearing Up for a Decade of Action and Delivery for Sustainable Development.’ The text was agreed in June through negotiations led by the Bahamas and Sweden.

In the weeks leading up to the Summit, governments and others have been announcing ‘SDG Acceleration Actions,’ which now number 70 on the online platform to collect the Actions. Several more announcements can be expected to feature during leaders’ statements on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Summit is made up of six thematic sessions, during which leaders will exchange views on concepts that have been extracted from three sources:

  • The 2019 edition of the Secretary-General’s SDG progress report, which provides the state of play on the 17 Goals;
  • The Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR), authored by a group of independent scientists, aimed at making the world’s sustainable development efforts more strategic; and
  • A document prepared by a UN system task team as an informal contribution on a “common narrative” for the series of high-level meetings taking place this week. The narrative underlines the many linkages among the topics of the high-level meetings taking place each day.

A third, unofficial outcome – and one that may only become clear as governments begin implementing what they have announced – is the level of political support for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development around the world. The summit takes place once every four years and thus serves as a snapshot of global leadership. Depending on the individual heads of each UN Member State in a given year, the SDGs will be reviewed differently, and positioned differently on the global agenda.

With a nearing deadline to achieve the 2030 Agenda, the UN Secretary-General may be aiming to ensure support despite political shifts, and is expected to announce a “decade of action” for the SDGs from 2020-2030.

UN High-level Dialogue on Financing for Development: Thursday, 26 September

Like the SDG Summit, this is a meeting mandated to take place once every four years to conduct a high-level review of progress towards an agreement made in 2015: the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) on Financing for Development (FfD). The AAAA is closely linked to the 2030 Agenda by setting out how the resources needed to achieve the SDGs will be secured.

The high-level dialogue will end with no political declaration or universal commitments, as it is framed more as a stocktaking of progress than a renewal of the plan for delivery. However, the structure of the day will provide space for participants to announce their own initiatives. The final session will feature new announcements, commitments and initiatives by Member States and other stakeholders. Scheduled speakers include: Finland, France, the UK, Sierra Leone, Saint Lucia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Malaysia, Sweden, Colombia, the US and Switzerland. Beyond UN Member States, the Investor Leadership Network, the International Finance Corporation, and the 2X Challenge of the development finance institutions of several countries are among the others who will speak.

Earlier in the week, the UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) will launch the Principles of Responsible Banking to help align banks’ strategies with the goals expressed in the SDGs and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Three other sessions during the Dialogue will focus on:

  • Putting public resources to work for more equal, sustainable societies, including by combating illicit financial flows (IFFs);
  • Financing the SDGs and climate action against rising debt burdens; and
  • Moving the money to fill the climate action and SDGs financing gap.

By the end of Thursday, some governments are hoping that FfD will have become reframed as the means not just to achieve the 2030 Agenda, but the climate action agenda as well.

UN High-level Meeting to Review the SAMOA Pathway: Friday, 27 September

The SAMOA Pathway is the UN’s ten-year strategy for SIDS’ sustainable development (2014-2024). This September marks the half-way point and brings a mid-term review of progress.

SIDS themselves began preparing for this meeting in 2018 with a series of meetings to review progress for each SIDS grouping: Caribbean; Pacific; and Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South China Seas (AIS). An interregional preparatory meeting in November 2019 was the culmination of this process to compile a stocktaking of progress from the perspective of SIDS.

The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) also prepared a document to inform the mid-term review. Presenting the results in May 2019, Belize, for AOSIS, said the “odds seem to be stacked against us,” but SIDS will remain restless until they have achieved a life of dignity for all.

At the start of the negotiation process, co-chair Satyendra Prasad (Fiji) remarked on SIDS’ experiences as exemplifying the linkages among climate change, health and FfD. He said in “a very intense way” the Climate Summit is relevant to SIDS, while many SIDS also stand at the forefront of new health challenges that stem from climate change, and the UHC meeting precisely addresses these. Finally, he explained how SIDS are uniquely constrained in their resources to meet the challenges posed by climate change. In this way, the political declaration from the mid-term review aims to shine a spotlight on the linkages and the importance of managing them well in SIDS. Similarly, the concept note for Friday’s event stresses that the final five years must capitalize on synergies with the SDGs and climate action.

Agreement at the global level took several months. After negotiations, led by Fiji and Ireland, the Declaration was agreed on 16 September.

A multi-stakeholder roundtable on Friday afternoon will feature announcements and commitments for implementation of the SAMOA Pathway. The speakers list indicates presentations from the African States, the EU, the Group of 77 and China (G77/China), numerous SIDS, Turkey, Hungary, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), New Zealand, Finland, Chile, India, Morocco and Qatar.

UN General Assembly’s 74th General Debate: Begins Tuesday, 24 September

The leaders of Brazil and the US will have the first two speaking spots, respectively, on Tuesday morning, as the UN General Assembly (UNGA) begins its 74th general debate. Heads of State and Government address any topics they wish, using the platform to send a signal on current issues as well as longer-term visions. This year should feature more statements than usual on climate change and the SDGs, since those respective summits do not have enough time in their programmes for all leaders to speak.

The Coherence Question and the Ambition Question

This year’s UNGA opening week is clearly unusual. It is the first time in the SDG era that the Goals have been on stage at the summit level. But there are also pressing needs to address other global issues: health care; the climate crisis; survival of small island States; and financing to drive the needed solutions.

The UN system has made an effort to create coherence among the series of events, giving them the collective theme, ‘Action for People and Planet.’ Indeed, linkages are easy to draw as these issues are closely related and each correspond to one or more SDGs and other aspects of the 2030 Agenda. Though the processes also bear their own histories, mandates and varying levels of attention and resources, perhaps by the end of the week, the fates of each of the issues will be more strongly intertwined for the next few years of implementation.

Another question to be considered after Friday is the sum effects of the commitments that will have been made. In 2015, a collective goal-setting exercise to address sustainable development resulted in an agreement that reflected truly uncommon levels of ambition at the global level. In 2019, the areas where all can agree to act are fewer, and not as bold. Attention is thus coalescing around commitments that countries can make on their own – or in concert with specific allies. If some countries will not make changes needed for aggregate temperature control, for example, will others step up with attempts to make up the difference? Whether each commitment we hear this week is collective or individual, it is the sum total of them that will provide the prognosis for people and planet.

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