The UN Secretary-General’s decision to use the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 74) to convene a Climate Summit on 23 September boosted the climate action momentum worldwide. The next day, the UNGA called for a meeting of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) to monitor progress on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Two major multilateral agreements already address climate issues: the Paris Agreement (December 2015) and the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development (September 2015). Despite these agreements, global emissions have reached record levels with serious consequences for the environment. Though there are many policy initiatives on climate change mitigation at the national and local levels, the continuous rise of global temperatures and sea levels, the melting of glaciers, and the degradation of biodiversity continues. It provides clear evidence of the very significant human impact on the earth’s geology and ecosystems.
The decision by Secretary-General António Guterres to open the meeting of the world’s political leaders with talks on climate action has received considerable support within the UN system. However, some of the world’s most important leaders – Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Ali Khamenei – decided not to personally attend the General Assembly. US President Trump cut his presence very short. This was certainly a missed opportunity for formal and informal high-level talks on a series of sensitive issues: mitigating the trade conflict between the US and China, advancing the peace process in Ukraine, deescalating confrontations in the Gulf region and in Venezuela.
That said, the UN Climate Summit yielded results. It demonstrated that there is a growing consensus among many decision-makers and stakeholders that the pace of climate action must be rapidly accelerated. The finance industry in particular has come forward with positive initiatives in this respect.
UN strategy to deepen and broaden climate action
The UN pursues a two-fold strategy that consists of deepening, as well as broadening, awareness and action on climate change. With regard to deepening the understanding of climate change, the UN cooperates with leading scientists across the world. The number of scientists and experts across disciplines who are involved in researching climate issues has multiplied. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the UN body for assessing the science related to climate change. It identifies where there is agreement in the scientific community on topics related to climate change, and where further research is needed. The reports are drafted and reviewed in several stages, thus guaranteeing objectivity and transparency.
With regard to broadening climate awareness and action, the UN has further stepped up its efforts to involve important stakeholders and to engage in partnerships with multinational companies, civil society organisations, and, more recently, with the finance sector.
The new partners of the UN
One of the more recent reference documents for this strategy is an analysis of the Joint Inspection Unit of the United Nations (2017) that outlines the evolution of the UN’s concept of partnerships “as a vehicle through which the United Nations can facilitate actions to achieve development goals”. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the first generation of global development goals – and the launching of the Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative in 2000, were considered milestones in involving new stakeholders in global action. The document acknowledges that the “use of partnerships with the private sector as a means of implementing United Nations objectives has been increasingly recognized by Member States” and makes a series of further recommendations, including the delegation of operational authority at the regional and national levels, innovation partnerships, and stimulating small and medium-sized enterprises.
The UN strategy to engage global actors
During the UNGA 74, the UN decided to make special efforts to engage banks and investors, as well as invite representatives of the growing youth movement ‘Fridays for Future’. These initiatives underscore the firm commitment of the UN to fight for the relevance and impact of its dialogue and policy initiatives during times when multilateral cooperation has become challenging. Multilateralism faces a crisis situation following the disengagement of the US from global partnerships and amidst the rise of nationalistic rhetoric and action in the US and many other countries declaring ‘our-country-first’ as a foreign policy principle. Yet, the decision of the UN Secretary General to invite representatives of the finance industry and Fridays for Future may also spark controversy about who should be granted privileged access to dialogue and cooperation with the UN and world leaders.
The UN and big money
A total of 34 banks were invited to the summit and personally received by Secretary-General Guterres himself. The financial institutions made commitments to respect and implement the ‘Principles for Responsible Investment’ (PRI) and to align their corporate strategy with the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
This engagement strategy with the financial sector dates back to early 2005, when the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan invited a group of the world’s largest institutional investors to join a process to develop the PRI initiative. The PRI is the world’s leading proponent of responsible investment. It works to understand the investment implications of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors and to support its international network of investor signatories in incorporating these factors into their investment and ownership decisions.
The topic ‘Sustainable Finance’ has meanwhile been developing into an important reference concept for the finance industry to showcase their environmental and social responsibility. The number of investment funds applying the criteria of ethical investment is growing. Banks are starting to take responsible investment more seriously. Yet, it is far from mainstream. In March 2018, the European Commission adopted an action plan on sustainable finance as part of a strategy to further promote the integration of ESG considerations into its financial policy framework and to mobilise finance for sustainable growth while divesting in fossil fuels.
The UN and global movements
The Climate Summit was a step forward in reaching out to new stakeholders addressing the challenge of climate change, which the UN regards as the “defining issue of our time”. Greta Thunberg’s attendance of the summit and her talk with Angela Merkel and other world leaders made headlines across the world. The very emotional speech of the young Swedish climate activist and initiator of Fridays for Future attracted major media attention. She did not shy away from blaming political leaders’ failure to take adequate climate action.
Thunberg’s appearance has also invited criticism of the level of attention she received. Who should have the privilege to address the climate summit of the United Nations at the invitation of the UN Secretary General? From the perspective of the UN, the organisation has responded to the emergence of a powerful grassroots movement that has spread from Sweden to Europe to a large number of countries in different regions of the world. Fridays for Future has been able to muster support from many other communities, in particular from scientists. ‘Parents for Future’, ‘Scientists for Future’, and ‘Entrepreneurs for Future’ have joined the actions of the youth movement. Ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit on Friday, 20 September, protests took place in thousands of cities in about 150 countries.
The UN Secretary General made a bold decision to put climate action and sustainable development at the top of the agenda of the UNGA 74. In times of rising nationalism in many countries, his decision could contribute to a renewal of faith among many young people in global dialogue and the role of the United Nations in addressing major concerns of the younger generations. The DOC Research Institute supports the dialogue of civilisation and pays special emphasis to the views and concerns of young people. The young authors of the DOC Essay Contest ‘My country, our world in 2030’ looked at the future from different perspectives. And political leaders, academics, and journalists will discuss global challenges at the 2019 Rhodes Forum, ‘Global (dis)order: Towards dialogue-based worldviews’ on 11-12 October.
In addition to the global summits of international organisations, we need independent platforms for dialogue that bring together diverse perspectives in a non-confrontational and constructive spirit. As former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan said in 2001: “The United Nations itself was created in the belief that dialogue can triumph over discord, that diversity is a universal value and that the peoples of the world are far more united by their common fate than they are divided by their separate identities.” Tackling climate change is a great opportunity for the people of the world to prove that the common interests of humanity will eventually prevail over ‘my country first’ policies and that planet earth will remain a livable and beautiful place for all people and nations.
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