The UN General Assembly has commenced the general debate for its 76th session, beginning with a presentation of the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on the work of the organization. Several Heads of State and Government took the floor in the debate that will continue through 27 September 2021.

On 21 September 2021, the UN General Assembly Hall partially filled with Heads of State and Government and their respective, scaled-down delegations. Other leaders, not travelling to New York for the high-level week, had sent recorded messages that were played in the Hall.

The US President will work to double its support for developing countries to fight and adapt to climate change.

UNGA President Abdulla Shahid opened the general debate by observing a worldwide yearning for peace of mind. He said people worry they are not doing enough to solve pressing problems, and “they are not wrong. We can do more. We know this in our hearts.” Shahid reiterated his intention that this year’s UNGA will: host a high-level meeting on vaccinate the world; push for a green and blue pandemic recovery; host events to return global attention to the climate crisis, which has taken a backseat to COVID-19; empower and support those most vulnerable and disadvantaged, including by prioritizing gender-sensitive policies in COVID-19 recovery; and engage better with civil society to revitalize and improve the General Assembly.  

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told leaders “the world must wake up” to the need for solidarity to face myriad dangers: the pandemic, climate change, conflict in Afghanistan and Yemen, mistrust and misinformation, and attacks on science and human rights. He said emissions are on track to rise, not fall, which would lead to a “hellscape.” He decried billionaires “joyriding into space” while millions go hungry, lamenting shows of hubris instead of humility and a lack of solidarity. Highlighting the inequity of COVID-19 vaccine availability, Guterres said “we passed the science test, but we are getting an F in Ethics.”

The Secretary-General said his recent report on ‘Our Common Agenda’ provides 90 recommendations to address these challenges and bolster multilateralism. Guterres identified and outlined plans to bridge current divides relating to: peace, climate, poverty and the pandemic, gender, digital access, and finally a generational divide, calling for young people to have a seat at the table.

The leaders of UN Member States then proceeded to take the podium and make speeches to fellow Heads of State and Government, ministers, and online viewers around the world. Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil, said the future of green jobs is in Brazil, in the areas of renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, low-emission industry, basic sanitation, waste treatment, and tourism. He noted that Brazil will join the UN Security Council for a two-year term beginning in 2022, while expressing support for reforms to expand the Council’s permanent membership.

Joseph Biden, President of the US, announced that his country is “back at the table” to help spur action to “fight for our shared future.” With the US not at war for the first time in 20 years, he said resources can be devoted elsewhere: the pandemic, climate action, managing shifting power dynamics around the world, shaping rules on trade, cyber and emerging technologies, and facing terrorism. Biden echoed messages from Guterres and the wider UN, citing a “decisive decade” and that the climate crisis is a “code red” for humanity, the need to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius with increasing ambition leading up to the Glasgow Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC COP 26) and thereafter.

Biden reiterated the US’ goal of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030 and a net-zero economy by 2050. He said the US is investing in green infrastructure and electric vehicles, has doubled its public international financing for developing countries to fight climate change, and aims to double this amount again, including for adaptation efforts. Biden also announced the US will contribute USD 100 million to end hunger and strengthen food systems.

Other countries speaking on Tuesday morning included Chile, China, Colombia, Iran, the Republic of Korea, and Switzerland. After the opening session of the general debate, the UN Secretary-General welcomed the climate-related announcements from the world’s “two largest economies.” From the US, he welcomed the  announcement that the US will increase international climate finance to USD11.4 billion per year. From China, he welcomed that China will end all financing of coal fired power plants abroad and “redirect its support” to green and low-carbon energy in other countries. [Morning session of UNGA 76 general debate, 21 September]