Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting
Ambition, Urgency Needed to Address Global Emergency, Secretary-General Says
Just over a decade is all that remains to stop irreversible damage from climate change, world leaders heard today as the General Assembly opened a high‑level meeting on the relationship between the phenomenon and sustainable development.
The meeting — held pursuant to General Assembly resolution 72/219 (2017) — will run through 29 March with a focus on protection of the global climate for present and future generations, in the context of the economic, social and environmental dimensions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
“We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet,” General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés (Ecuador) warned the gathering in her opening remarks, stressing that 11 years are all that remain to avert catastrophe. Highlighting the meeting’s theme, Ms. Espinosa called for an intergenerational approach to climate change. “Climate justice is intergenerational justice,” she said, calling on States to act collectively and responsibly.
Pointing to intensified calls by youth leaders for action on climate change, she said that 2019 must be a year of climate action at all levels. Drawing inspiration from the thousands of students worldwide demanding tangible action, she called on world leaders to make 2020 the last year carbon emissions increase due to human activities. To achieve these goals, people worldwide must change their patterns of consumption, she said, noting that, every year, 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted as some 2 billion people suffer of hunger and malnutrition.
Further echoing the global youth’s call to action was United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who said young people are demanding that today’s leaders act on behalf of future generations. “We must address this global emergency with ambition and urgency,” he stressed, remarking that climate change threatens decades of development progress and plans for inclusive sustainable development.
Noting that “hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions” of people have been affected by cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, he said such events are becoming more frequent and will become worse without urgent, immediate action. He announced the convening of a climate action summit, calling on leaders to meet in New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance nationally determined contributions by 2020.
Pointing to agents of change, he stressed the importance of the role of women as key decisions makers, adding that the summit will assemble Governments, the private sector, local authorities and other organizations.
Addressing the real‑life impact of climate change was Shedona Richardson, youth representative of Grenada. To her, climate change and global warming were ambiguous terms until her life, and that of her fellow Grenadians, was forever altered by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. “That was the day mother nature fought back after being treated so unkindly for so long,” she said, adding that the international community is failing to act as small island developing States face the existential threat of climate change. Addressing the heads of State and Government present at the meeting, she said: “Our future is in your hands, do not let the hope of the world be in vain.”
Immediately following opening remarks, the Assembly held a fireside chat that touched on the achievements of the Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — held in Bonn, Germany, and Katowice, Poland, respectively, as well as the expectations for the Twenty-fifth conference to be held in Chile from 2 to 13 December.
During that discussion, Fiji’s Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, who served as President of the Twenty-third Conference of the Parties, said that, while the gathering featured disagreements and finger pointing, the spirit of cooperation and understanding prevailed. Michał Kurtyka, Secretary of State at the Ministry for Energy and Environment of Poland and President of the Twenty‑fourth Conference, said that a people-centred approach to climate change mitigation emerged in Katowice. For her part, Carolina Schmidt, Minister for Environment of Chile and President of the upcoming Twenty-fifth Conference, said discourse must now shift towards change and action with the understanding that climate change and poverty are linked.
The meeting also featured two panel discussions: one on synergies between climate and sustainable development agendas and another on means of implementation.
During the first discussion panellists, Member States and civil society representatives asserted that the time for discourse has passed. “Now is the time for action,” said Krishnee Appadoo, youth representative of Mauritius, pointing to the direct impact climate change is having on small island developing States, women and young people. Such action must be based on a new narrative that promotes systemic change, said Manish Bapna, Executive Vice-President of the World Resources Institute.
Throughout the second discussion, panellists stressed the need to promote technology transfers, provide targeted development assistance and create favourable financing packages that allow vulnerable States to adapt to, and mitigate, climate change. Panellist Javier Manzanares, Executive Director of the Green Climate Fund, said helping developing countries access climate financing is the Fund’s priority and over the past three years its portfolio has included 102 projects worth $5 billion.
The Assembly will reconvene at 10 a.m. on Friday, 29 March, to resume the high-level meeting.
MARÍA FERNANDA ESPINOSA GARCÉS (Ecuador), President of the General Assembly, warned the Assembly that “we are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet”. Worldwide, thousands of students are mobilizing around the message that we do not have a planet B and there is no future without a planet, she said, calling for their pleas not to fall on deaf ears. Against that backdrop, she stressed the need to act. “Eleven years is all we have ahead of us to change our direction,” she said, citing the findings of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “2019 must be the year of climate action at all levels,” she stressed.
She called for a change in global patterns of consumption. Every year 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted as some 2 billion people suffer of hunger and malnutrition. Development in harmony with nature is possible and sustainability efforts must incorporate cities — where 70 per cent of global carbon emissions are produced. “I invite you all to commit to 2020 being the last year carbon emissions increase due to human activities,” she said, noting that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals requires meeting climate benchmarks. Inaction in the face of climate change will lead to deteriorating global health standards. She concluded by calling for an intergenerational approach to climate change. Children, adults and older persons all live in the same house and must look after it by working together. “Climate justice is intergenerational justice,” she said, adding that States must act collectively and responsibly.
ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said no country or community is immune to climate-related devastation, with the poor and vulnerable the first to suffer the worst hit. Pointing to the “hundreds of thousands — perhaps millions” of people affected by cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, he noted such events are becoming more frequent and will become worse without urgent, immediate action. Climate change threatens decades of development progress and plans for inclusive sustainable development. Facing increased poverty, food insecurity, water stress and environmental damage, he said: “We have no excuse not to act.” He further noted that humankind has the tools to address the crisis in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. “But tools are no use if you don’t use them,” he stressed, adding: “We need action, ambition and political will.”
Citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report and its warning that humankind has less than 12 years to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption, he announced the convening of a climate action summit, calling on leaders to meet in New York on 23 September with concrete, realistic plans to enhance nationally determined contributions by 2020. He also asked them to demonstrate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and achieve net zero global emissions by 2050, to ensure no one is disadvantaged by climate action and to demonstrate how it leads to job creation, lower air pollution and improved public health. “We all know that the green economy is the future, but we must make sure that everyone benefits, and no one is left behind,” he said.
He stressed the importance of the role of women as key decisions-makers, adding that the summit will assemble Governments, the private sector, local authorities and other organizations. Noting a “growing momentum for transformational change”, he pointed to new, less costly technologies, such as solar and onshore wind power, and called for an end to subsidies for fossil fuels, enacting real carbon pricing, and closing coal plants. Future vast global infrastructure investment must be sustainable and climate-friendly. Young people are demanding that today’s leaders act on behalf of future generations. “I echo that demand,” he said, adding that: “We must address this global emergency with ambition and urgency.”
SHEDDONA RICHARDSON, youth representative of Grenada, said climate change, global warming and the greenhouse gas effect were ambiguous terms until her life was affected by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. “That was the day mother nature fought back after being treated so unkindly for so long,” she said. The Caribbean faces intensifying storm seasons and small countries are struggling to cope with that changing reality. “The impacts of climate change are our new normal,” she said, adding that world leaders are failing to act. Small island developing States know climate change is a reality which represents an existential risk and that sustainable development efforts must incorporate climate change initiatives. The General Assembly’s meeting gives youth leaders hope that global leaders understand the time for action is now. “Our future is in your hands, do not let the hope of the world be in vain,” she concluded.
Conference of the Parties Fireside Chat
The General Assembly then held a fireside chat of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Moderated by Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the Convention, it featured Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji; Michał Kurtyka, Secretary of State at the Ministry for Energy and Environment of Poland; and Carolina Schmidt, Minister for Environment of Chile.
Ms. ESPINOSA, noted that, as in a family, the parties had experienced disagreements but that discussions were ultimately successful, laying the groundwork for the Twenty-fourth Conference of the Parties to the Conference, which took place in Katowice, Poland, in December 2018, and the Twenty-fifth Conference, to take place in Santiago, Chile, in December 2019, known as COP24 and COP25, respectively. The process had demonstrated that multilateralism is alive and ready to address the challenges of climate change, but there is no time to lose, she said.
Mr. BAINIMARAMA, who served as President of the Twenty-third Conference of the Parties to the Conference, which took place in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017, known as COP23, noted that discussions were conducted not with finger-pointing but with empathy and understanding. The exchange of ideas was inspiring, and his country had prepared a report summarizing the exchange of ideas. “The time for talking and listening must now give way to action,” he said, noting that three years after the Paris Agreement, the world is facing worsening climate impacts. Global warming is approaching 3°C above pre-industrial levels. Technologies exist to de-carbonize, he said, but political will is missing.
Ms. ESPINOSA then asked about the results of the discussions in Katowice.
Mr. KURTYKA, who served as President of COP24, responded that in its wake global climate governance is in place, but implementation is the new direction. People, technology and nature are the three elements involved in change. He highlighted the people-centred approach emerging from Katowice and called for a just transition that leaves no people behind, pointing towards the upcoming climate action summit in New York and COP 25 as key moments in addressing the issue.
Ms. ESPINOSA asked what the implementation expectations were for COP25 set to be held in Chile from 2 to 13 December.
Ms. SCHMIDT, President of COP25, called for change and action, stressing that climate action must be linked to long-term development and poverty reduction. She called for increased focus on “ambition, mitigation and adaptation” when considering implementation efforts.
Ms. ESPINOSA closed the fireside chat by asking panellists what one word they would use to motivate youth leaders.
Mr. BAINIMARAMA said “more ambition”.
Mr. KURTICA told youth leaders “you are the voters of tomorrow, use your power”.
Ms. SCHMIDT called on them to “pursue action for change”.
In the afternoon, the General Assembly held a high-level panel discussion on “Synergies between climate and sustainable development agendas”, moderated by Inga Rhonda King (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines), President of the Economic and Social Council. The discussion featured presentations by Thani bin Ahmed Al Zeyoudi, Minister for Climate Change and Environment of the United Arab Emirates; Martha Delgado, Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights of Mexico; Mary Robinson, Chair of The Elders Group and former President of Ireland; Krishnee Appadoo, youth representative of Mauritius; and Manish Bapna, Executive Vice-President of the World Resources Institute.
Ms. KING said climate change can bring devastating consequences to small island developing States. The direct impact of climate change hits the poorest nations hardest as they lack resources to properly mitigate the phenomenon. She said a number of high-level meetings on climate change are scheduled for September and share the goal of accelerating action towards sustainable development.
Mr. AL ZEYOUDI said the United Arab Emirates has adopted a whole-of-Government approach for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals that includes initiatives to engage with myriad stakeholders at the national and international levels. “The United Arab Emirates is well aware of the impacts of climate change,” he said, noting that the country’s location makes it vulnerable to water shortages. A national climate change plan is preparing the United Arab Emirates to transition towards a green economy, he said, calling for the inclusion of the private sector, academia and youth in climate-related summits. Half of the population is under the age of 35 and the United Arab Emirates was among the first countries to appoint a Minister for Youth, he noted.
Ms. DELGADO said Mexico has seized the opportunity to participate in climate-related activities within the United Nations. Urging stakeholders to transition efforts towards implementation initiatives, she said Mexico is developing a road map to integrate social justice and environmental protection. States must recognize the interdependence of the Sustainable Development Goals, she said, adding that “climate change has the potential to reverse development gains and aggravate intergenerational poverty”. Mexico is promoting the integration of stakeholders as a means to identify new opportunities emerging from climate action. Citing a Government report, she said benefits of such activities include increased productivity and improvements in public health indicators. Further, the President’s Office is conducting a study to quantify the benefits of climate action, including how preventable deaths can be reduced by improving public transit networks.
Ms. ROBINSON said the debate on climate change is evolving and the seriousness of the situation is being acknowledged. “We will create the best synergies between climate and the Sustainable Development Goals through the lens of intergenerational dialogue,” she said, noting that even school children are becoming involved in climate action. “We are not preparing a safe future for our children and grandchildren,” she stressed, calling on every person on earth to take the issue of climate change personally.
Ms. APPADOO said all those convened at the meeting are concerned about the future of the planet. “Now is the time for action,” she said, pointing to the direct impact climate change is having on small island developing States, women and young people. For climate action to succeed it must account for the needs of all affected communities, she noted, adding that the University of Mauritius is set to host a multi-stakeholder climate justice conference. Such efforts allow for genuine action that recognizes the link between climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals. “More often than not, the voices of young people are not heard,” she said, urging leaders to learn from the global youth. “If we want real change we must bring all relevant actors together,” she concluded.
Mr. BAPNA said the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a real triumph. However, the international community is not on track to meet its goals or those set forth in the Paris Agreement. Across most areas progress has been insufficient. He suggested the use of an integrated narrative that brings the Sustainable Development Goals and climate action together in an exciting way that promotes systemic changes. “We have to reimagine the energy system and cities,” he said, calling for greater awareness of intergenerational equity. Such a narrative needs to accord proper attention to the institutions capable of delivering on the 2030 Agenda and Paris Agreement. He pointed to the shift towards a green economy in India as an example of best practice and said upcoming high-level meetings provide a stage to catalyze greater action.
The floor was then opened for respondents.
PETTERI TAALAS, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), noted the recent Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawai and Zimbabwe, oceans warming by half a degree, and the most expensive hurricane season in Caribbean history, all of which demonstrate a worsening situation demanding action. He highlighted that the past four years have been the warmest in history and greenhouse gases have increased by 2.7 per cent. Meanwhile, only 15 per cent of global energy is sourced from nuclear, hydro and renewable power. Without concrete action, the planet will continue to get warmer. Turning to population growth, he said Africa may have 4 billion inhabitants by the end of the century. Echoing other speakers, he called for more involvement by young people.
OMAR FIGUEROA, Minister for State of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, the Environment, Sustainable Development and Immigration of Belize, said Governments alone cannot solve the problem and the private sector and youth must be involved. However, he noted there is evidence “that we are moving in the right direction”. He called for every individual to take the issue personally, then collectively positive changes can be achieved. The Sustainable Development Goals are integral to mitigating the effects of climate change, but a warming planet will make the Goals impossible to realize. Statistics suggest vulnerable countries such as small island developing States receive a mere 2 per cent of climate funding.
NORMA KASSI, Director of Indigenous Collaboration of the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research, said indigenous people have sustained themselves for thousands of years, and must be included in implementation of all Sustainable Development Goals going forward. Indigenous people have a “law” to pass on information to younger generations. “We have a millennia of knowledge to contribute,” she said. Indigenous and all races of women are key to healing Mother Earth. “We have no more time to waste,” she added.
The floor was then opened for an interactive exchange.
LAURA TUCK, Vice-President of Sustainable Development of the World Bank, echoed the call to take steps that positively impact the most Sustainable Development Goals. She noted the importance of addressing the negative effects of new technologies like solar pumps, or how moving from plastic to glass bottles may increase emissions due to transportation.
The representative of Italy said the model of development must be rethought. His country has a national strategy for sustainable development that integrates climate issues, looking all the way to 2050, and two months ago established a Centre for Climate and Sustainable Development in Rome. He noted that Africa continues to be the continent most affected by climate change.
The representative of the Inter-Parliamentary Union expressed worry that the right synergy does not exist in the economic model, and that the international community is still thinking of a technological solution. The world must escape this growth model, which persists even in United Nations debates. “We need an economic model of hand-me-downs,” he said.
The representative of Mexico stressed the need for a commitment to real action, citing the World Bank’s position on a whole sustainability perspective.
The representative of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) reiterated the need for synergies between climate actions and sustainable development. She said there is a tendency to work in silos, and despite improvements in including gender requirements in proposals, real implementation of them is lacking.
A civil society representative echoed Ms. Robinson’s focus on youth, noting it has taken worldwide protests by young people to combat special interests that seek to uphold the status quo. This is a year for practical solutions, including realistic carbon funding.
Ms. KING, closing the discussion, said action requires strong partnerships and better coherence among multiple partners. “We need to take bold and innovative climate action to accelerate change towards the future we want,” she said.
The General Assembly then held a high-level panel discussion on “Means of implementation”, moderated by Jayathma Wickramanayake, Special Envoy for Youth of the Secretary-General. It featured presentations by Hussain Rasheed Hassan, Minister for Environment of the Maldives; Yassmin Fouad, Minister for Environment of Egypt; Eva Svedling, Secretary of State at the Ministry for Environment and Energy of Sweden; Marilyn Ceci, Managing Director and Head of Green Bonds of J.P. Morgan; and Javier Manzanares, Executive Director of the Green Climate Fund.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE said climate change is the most pressing challenge facing the international community and the situation will continue to deteriorate if further action is not taken. “We put the world in this emergency and we must be the ones to solve the problem,” she said, noting that inclusion is essential to developing effective climate strategies. She asked Ms. Svedling what policy interventions are needed to achieve emission cuts and how intergenerational equity factors into those strategies.
Ms. SVEDLING said the Swedish Parliament adopted legislation with the aim to reach net-zero emissions by 2045. In terms of private sector engagement, she said road maps are being presented by business sector representatives outlining climate initiatives. She noted that the European Union is the top provider of development assistance worldwide, with climate initiatives being increasingly integrated into funding priorities. Ms. Svedling said Sates must embed climate action in national budgets in order to establish a clear link with the Sustainable Development Goals.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE, turning to Ms. Fouad, asked how Egypt is integrating low-carbon technologies.
Ms. FOUAD said such technologies yield positive results but developing countries require developed States to promote technology transfers to make them affordable. Further, Egypt launched initiatives that provide training for youth on the use of low-carbon technologies as a means to create jobs. The Government is seeking to increase its reliance on green energy sources, including by converting waste to energy. She called for low-carbon technologies to be packaged with favourable financing terms.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE next asked Mr. Hassan what approaches were being taken in the Maldives to strengthen resilience and adaptation.
Mr. HASSAN said the Maldives has developed a number of programmes to address the impact of climate change. However, lack of resources means such programmes fail to be fully implemented. Among initiatives undertaken in the Maldives is a 2004 conservation project that fostered public-private partnerships to protect one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. The Government has identified a number of atolls where such projects can be replicated and scaled up if the proper development assistance is made available.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE asked Mr. Manzanares what percentage of the Green Climate Fund’s portfolio is dedicated to adaptation and how support for adaptation can be increased.
Mr. MANZANARES said helping developing countries access climate financing is the core goal of the Green Climate Fund and adaptation is the priority for the most vulnerable countries. The Fund has built a portfolio of 102 projects worth $5 billion that includes cross-cutting city programmes and partnerships with local financial institutions. He said the Fund steers its operations to meet the needs of developing countries. Ensuring adequate support for adaptation accounts for 54 per cent of the Fund’s grant portfolio, with funds primarily direct to the most vulnerable States.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE then asked Ms. Ceci what opportunities for investment are emerging in the climate and sustainable development spheres.
Ms. CECI said early stumbling blocks in the green market emerged when trying to fulfil the needs of pension funds while meeting the goals of issuers. Obstacles lifted when issuers realized they could reach new markets. The priority now is creating new green financial instruments to service the industry. She pointed to the International Finance Corporation’s Amundi Planet Emerging Green One fund — which has taken money from pension funds in Europe to invest in emerging market green bonds — as an example of best practice.
The floor was then opened for respondents.
NEZHA EL OUAFI, Secretary of State and Ministry of Environment of Morocco, expressed sadness over unprecedented flooding in Malawi and Mozambique, noting no country is spared from climate change today. Morocco established the Marrakesh Proclamation calling for capacity-building and technology transfer. She called for a road map for financing for sustainable development principles. The Climate Centre in Morocco is helping Africa deal with the Sahel region, and the country is researching solar and new types of energy technology. Developing countries require a new quantifiable objective for climate action financing, she stressed.
PRAMISHA THAPALIYA, youth representative of Nepal, said youth will bear the brunt of the intergenerational problem. She noted the current mechanisms for climate finance are not available to youth organizations. Young people make up nearly half of the global population of 7.7 billion but are underfunded in the domain, and the Green Climate Fund must take note to redress the inequity. Nonetheless, young people are already taking significant action with limited resources.
The floor was then opened for an interactive exchange.
A youth representative highlighted the need for increased gross national income funding for youth initiatives, and to move away from fossil fuels.
A civil society representative asked how it will be possible for young people to be included in climate action and get visas to sit at the discussion table.
Ms. FOUAD responded to the youth representative that discussions for the Paris Agreement had led to a commitment of $100 billion in climate funding by 2020. She agreed that the Green Climate Fund must increasingly engage youth. Pointing to Earth Hour on 30 March, she said her country, Egypt, is firmly engaged in highlighting that effort by including celebrities and athletes in the programme.
Mr. HASSAN said the current generation has a duty to establish and ensure intergenerational equity in terms of resource conservation. His country considers that issue when developing any project involving resources. “We haven’t got much time” to rectify the problems, he said, which present an existential threat. If the current trend continues, global temperature will rise 2 per cent, meaning 70 to 90 per cent of Maldives coral reefs will be compromised, threatening the very existence of the country.
Ms. SVEDLING pointed to a fossil-free initiative in Sweden and the importance of multilayered discussion between unions, businesses, politicians and youth representatives. She highlighted the need for ambitious goals from every sector, including financial.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE asked how to create more effective partnerships between Governments, civil society and the private sector.
Ms. CECI responded that those partnerships cannot be forced. She noted a lack of pressure on corporations to advance environmentally sound pension programmes. The Sustainable Development Goals, however, have been very impactful in the corporate world. She added that young people have a lot of power to raise their voices in that domain.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE asked how young people can tap into the Green Climate Fund.
Mr. MANZANARES agreed on the need for a mechanism for a green youth portfolio and green equity fund. He noted that the Green Climate Fund operates in 150 developing countries through a country-driven approach, and every project must have a non-objection from the country. It does not directly fund, but works through, national entities. He encouraged young people to organize and access the Fund.
Ms. WICKRAMANAYAKE closed the meeting by repeating: “We are running out of time”.