Highlights from the 74th UN General Assembly & Climate Action Summit

Last week, world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this week for their 74th annual meeting. Conflicts in Yemen, Syria and South Sudan show no sign of stopping, and regional tensions in the Persian Gulf continue to increase. With these, and the ongoing climate crisis, many have questioned whether the UN can still effectively bring nations together to solve problems.

The Vatican urged the international community to give special attention to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen and to “put an end to the suffering of so many people”. Cardinal Pietro Parolin (Secretary of State, Vatican) also took the opportunity to highlight the conflict ongoing between the Israelis and the Palestinians as “an area of perennial concern”.

Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister, New Zealand) announced that a new global working group set up by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft to remove ‘extremist’ content online will become an independent watchdog working. The move will help governments and agencies “respond quicker and work more collaboratively to prevent” future attacks like the one in Christchurch.

Taking a different tone, US President Donald Trump sharply criticized China’s trade practices, going over a litany of what he deemed to be unfair & reciprocal policies. The United States also led more than 30 countries on Tuesday in condemning what it called China’s “horrific campaign of repression” against Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang, in an event on the sidelines of the UNGA that was denounced by the government in Beijing.

The Climate Action Summit brought together more than 65 Heads of State and Government, regional government leaders and representatives from the private sector. The events included an opening ceremony, general statements and a number of thematic sessions. World leaders announced revised contributions to the fight against greenhouse gas emissions, many of them from small countries with relatively low emissions. The largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world – China, the United States, and India – faced criticism for their modest commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Narendra Modi (Prime Minister, India) announced shifts in national energy policy worth over USD $50 billion, including increases in renewable energy capacity and in the ratio of biofuel blended in petrol and diesel. Wang Yi (State Councillor and Special Representative for President Xi Jinping) highlighted that since 2005, China’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions intensity has dropped by 45% and the country has contributed a quarter of newly afforested land globally.

Boris Johnson (Prime Minister, UK) announced a doubling of UK spending on climate change through the country’s official development assistance. Emmanuel Macron (President, France) announced a doubling of France’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to USD $1.7 billion. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (Emir of Qatar) pledged USD $100 million to support the climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

Representing the private-sector, 87 major companies with a combined market capitalization of over USD $2.3 trillion pledged to reduce their emissions and align their businesses models with a “1.5°C warming future”. A commitment to achieve carbon-neutral investment portfolios by 2050 was announced by a group of the world’s largest asset owners, responsible for over USD $2 trillion in combined assets under management (AUM).

On 24 and 25 September 2019, Heads of State and Government gathered for the SDG Summit 2019, an event designed to comprehensively review progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The event was the first UN summit on the SDGs since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in September 2015.

Opening the event, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th session of UNGA, noted that progress on the SDGs is uneven and called for new partnerships to unlock the trillions of dollars needed to finance the SDGs. Mona Juul, President, UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), stressed the need to aim higher to meet the SDGs, while promoting sustained and inclusive economic growth, bridging the investment gap, and combating exclusion and poverty.

Stefan Löfven (Prime Minister, Sweden) promoted the Leadership Group for Industry Transition, a partnership with India announced earlier in the week. Both countries hope to foster build public-private partnerships for the sake of transitioning to cleaner energy on an industrial level, and for sharing best practices among member states.

During a “fireside chat”, Peter Messerli outlined findings from a new GSDR report titled “The Future is Now: Science for Achieving Sustainable Development”. He warned that the Earth system is approaching tipping points that may be “irreversible or even unmanageable.” He called on countries to act on the report’s recommendations, and to establish national SDG knowledge platforms to enable policy makers to interact with different sectors.

Accenture also published a new survey which found that CEOs believe the only way to achieve the SDGs would be through sharing best practices, even among competitors. There are already a number of existing models for these industry partnerships, like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, founded by Walmart and Patagonia which currently has more than 250 active members.

The SDG Summit resulted in the adoption of the Political Declaration, “Gearing up for a decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”. World leaders called for a decade of action to deliver the SDGs by 2030 and announced actions they are taking to advance the agenda. More than 100 acceleration actions in total were announced.

Written by: David A. Klar & Sarah Nieman

David A. Klar is an award-winning sustainability leader with deep industry ties and an advanced knowledge of corporate responsibility. David founded The Global SDG Awards in 2018 to increase private sector engagement with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework after receiving UN permission in late 2017. The Global SDG Awards’ mission is to create a race to the top and to inspire others with examples of next-generation sustainability leadership. David holds a Bachelor or Environmental Studies from York University and a Master of Science in Industrial Ecology from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).