UN PGA High-Level Meeting on Climate and Sustainable Development for All

AD8C160B-3546-480A-ABD7-B21FC63EBA4Fby Shan Agrawal

On March 28th 2019, the President of the General Assembly (PGA) convened a High-Level Meeting (HLM) on “Climate and Sustainable Development for All” at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The meeting was focused on the synergies between climate and sustainable development agendas, long-term planning, an intergenerational approach to implementation, and the various means of implementation (climate finance, capacity building and low-carbon technologies).

As is common with most High-Level UN meetings, various heads of states and ministers made 5-8 minutes long speeches and statements on the state of climate action in their countries while sharing their nationally grounded experiences, often constrained by political leadership. But what was uncommon was the presence of youth from all around the world at this meeting, and the mention of youth and youth-led movements around the world.


Statements from Leaders Around the World

Maria Espinosa, the current president of the UN General Assembly (GA), opened the plenary session making it clear to member states and everyone present in the room that multilateralism and cooperation are the best tools at our disposal to fight climate change and advance the sustainable development agenda. Climate change stands to threaten decades of development. Fighting climate change is a binary choice between survival and extinction, with no country or person immune to it.

The President of Hungary János Áder rightly argued that to promote sustainable development for all while tackling climate change, we need to look at the four areas of: Demographic Growth, Per Capita GDP, Energy Intensity, and Carbon Intensity. While there are no easy ways to control demographic growth or argue on per capita GDP, we must focus on the latter two. We must start using less energy to produce the same products, and we must start using less fossil fuel energy to produce a unit of GDP. Interestingly, the principles of increasing energy intensity and decreasing carbon intensity directly relate to the dialogue on climate finance and carbon pricing (by incentivizing and channeling more mainstream finance towards climate-smart projects, and reflecting the true cost of carbon emissions to realize a carbon-neutral economy).

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After the end of the plenary, the overarching message echoing in the UN General Assembly Hall was that the time for making speeches is over; it’s time for action. As the President of the Republic of Slovenia Borut Pahor said,

“If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

We already have everything we need to tackle climate change. What we need is action, ambition and political will, along with some solidarity!


Synergies between Climate and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Climate change is linked to the risks and opportunities in all areas of development. Be it environmental, social, economic, or geo-political. Building resilience by catalyzing investment in these existing synergies is extremely important for any significant climate action. And SDGs provide the perfect framework to build on these mutually reinforcing interactions.

Many member states, including the UAE and Mexico, acknowledged that climate change is a cross-cutting issue; climate elements should be a part of a larger sectoral policy and should not be complementary or an additional part of the larger public policy. The need for businesses and private sector to create SDGs a part of their core business strategy, and the participation of all national departments in climate change dialogues instead of participation in “silos” were some of the many suggestions that were discussed.

According to a recent report co-produced by the Government of Mexico, which has been promoting the integration of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and Agenda 2030 (SDGs being the centerpiece), almost 40% of SDG targets are directly related to mitigation and/or adaptation. While the report identifies and explores 25 co-benefits associated with climate action (which go beyond greenhouse gas emissions reduction), it also notes that SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities and Communities), SDG 12 (Sustainable Consumption and Production) and SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) have the highest number of interconnections to climate co-benefits.

Similarly, according to a World Resources Institute (WRI) working paper from September 2016 climate actions (climate targets, goals, policies and measures) drawn from across the intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) were aligned with 154 of the 169 SDG targets, which underpin the 17 SDGs. In order to galvanize and materialize these potentials and co-benefits, a strategic and integrated planning which breaks across “sectoral silos” to formulate coherent policies and prioritized action items is needed.

While exploring and showcasing these positive synergies is important, we also need to be cognizant of some of the negative synergies or unintended consequences. As we develop solar pumps for increased food production, we tend to over-utilize aquifers and water resources. As we move from the use of plastics to glass, we can increase the greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector. As the representative from the World Bank argued, in order to make informed decisions we need to take into account the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the products and services we provide, thus assessing their environmental impacts from raw materials phase through end of life phase.


Climate Finance and Carbon Pricing

While the discussions on means of implementation through climate finance, carbon pricing and low-carbon-technologies were also hopeful, the highlight of this panel for me as a youth was the youth intervention through YOUNGO (the official youth constituency at the UNFCCC). It is ironic that while the need for an intergenerational approach and celebrating young people’s actions (like the recent climate strike) around the world is talked about, the investment in youth-led and youth-based organizations working in the context of climate change is lacking.

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Thus, YOUNGO suggested the establishment of a Green Youth Portfolio or Youth Equity Fund — recognized by governments and multilateral institutions — to increase access to climate finance for youth-led initiatives. Building up on the dialogue, the representatives from the World Bank and France’s Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs requested a proposal from YOUNGO to further engage in discussions. The acting executive director of the Green Climate Fund also supported the idea and encouraged further discussions.


What’s next?

I am mindful of something the great Arabic philosopher Maimonides is supposed to have said, “Hope is a belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable”. I know the odds to tackle climate change are stacked against us. But, through grit, perseverance, and strength of character, we can solve these challenges. And because we must. As the previous UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, “There is no plan B, because there is no planet B”.


Shantanu Agrawal is a Resilience Intelligence Fellow for Citizens’ Climate Education and a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s Chicago North Chapter.