Every September, diplomacy gets a major moment: The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which brings together world leaders to discuss urgent global issues and create shared plans of action to tackle them.
You may be asking yourself, Why does this matter to me? Here’s why: Global problems cross borders and affect all of us. Global problems require global solutions. At the UN General Assembly, leaders from around the world will discuss the challenges that impact our lives and how to develop partnerships and ideas to solve them together.
This hard work of diplomacy is not always glamorous. It’s often slow and hard. And it definitely includes differences of opinion along the way. But working together works. Just think about it.
- The world has eradicated smallpox and is close to wiping out polio.
- We’ve fixed the hole in the ozone layer.
- And we’ve established universal human rights.
That’s why this September, it matters to your life what world leaders say and do at the UN.
This year’s “high-level week” of UNGA — which takes place September 21 to September 27 — will focus on key issues that affect everyone, everywhere: Fighting climate change; expanding affordable, quality health care; halting growing inequality; and unlocking resources to achieve all of this.
So what does this look like exactly? In addition to speeches from each world leader, the UN will host five summits this year that will examine specific issues:
On September 23, UN Secretary-General António Guterres will host a major Climate Action Summit, calling on leaders to come to New York with concrete, realistic plans to increase climate action.
This event will be preceded by the UN’s first-ever Youth Climate Action Summit to mobilize young people in the fight against climate change. More than 600 youth from across the globe — including Swedish activist Greta Thurnberg, who launched the #FridaysForFuture school strikes last year — will gather at the UN’s headquarters to discuss what they believe should be done to protect our planet and their futures. Later that week, the IPCC will also release its latest report on the ocean and cryosphere (a.k.a., frozen water).
Why You Should Care: The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Earlier this year, the country of Iceland held a funeral for the first glacier lost to climate change. Just last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a special report detailing how the planet’s land and water resources are being exploited at “unprecedented rates,” threatening the global food supply. Meanwhile, a historic number of wildfires are burning throughout the Amazon, threatening one of the world’s largest and most biodiverse ecosystems, responsible for producing more than 20% of the world’s oxygen.
Here’s the good news: We already have a plan of action in place — the Paris Agreement on climate change. What we need now is for countries to deliver on their commitments and then step up to do more.
Sustainable Development Goals
In 2015, 193 UN Member States adopted a universal agenda known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eradicate poverty, fight inequality, expand opportunity, and protect the planet. Comprised of 17 interrelated goals, the SDGs offer a global roadmap to opportunity and prosperity. World leaders also agreed on a deadline to achieve these goals: 2030.
This will be the first UN summit on the SDGs since the agenda’s adoption four years ago. Expect this summit to produce announcements of action to increase progress, as well as a “Political Declaration” from countries declaring their resolve to realize the SDGs. It is likely to be followed by the launch of a major 2020 effort by civil society organizations and the UN to drive greater action on the SDGs.
Why You Should Care: Everyone deserves to be in charge of their own fate, but that’s not the case today because of poverty, discrimination, environmental destruction, and more. At the same time, inequality is causing unrest around the world and conflict and displacement is on the rise.
As we head into the 10-year countdown to 2030, this summit represents a critical moment to reflect on how well countries are doing toward realizing the SDGs and put forth plans to accelerate ambition. While there are some signs of progress — like Trinidad and Tobago reporting zero maternal deaths in 2018, or Argentina and Algeria being certified as malaria-free earlier this year — data shows that much greater action is needed to meet the goals by the 2030 deadline.
Universal Health Coverage
At the heart of the UN World Health Organization’s mission is “universal health coverage” — the basic principle that all people should have access to quality, affordable health care. Through the SDGs, countries have promised to achieve this for their citizens by 2030.
During this year’s UN General Assembly, world leaders will convene a high-level meeting to discuss the planet’s progress toward universal health coverage — often referred to as UHC — and common barriers that have yet to be overcome, including catastrophic costs, poor infrastructure, shortages of supplies and qualified health workers, and inadequate access to digital health and innovative technologies.
Why You Should Care: Universal health coverage doesn’t just save and improve lives, it’s also a vital investment in human capital. Because UHC is a catalyst for socio-economic development and a key contributor to equity and social justice, achieving this goal would have a powerful ripple effect across the SDG agenda, helping the world get closer to Goal 1 (end poverty), Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth), Goal 9 (infrastructure), and Goal 10 (reduce inequality), among others.
Yet half of the global population still lacks comprehensive access to the health services they need to survive. And each year, nearly 100 million people worldwide are pushed into extreme poverty as a result of health care costs.
Financing for the SDGs
In 2015, when nations agreed to the SDGs, they also agreed to a plan to fund them, known as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda in UN speak. This will be the first high-level dialogue on the subject since then. At this year’s UNGA, leaders from the public and private sectors will discuss how we can unlock more resources for sustainable development.
Why You Should Care: Without adequate funding to provide quality education, health care, employment, and justice for the planet, the world will never realize the ambitions of the SDGs. But it’s not a question of whether we can afford to invest in these universal objectives. Enough wealth exists right now for everyone, everywhere to live a prosperous life. It’s a question of how we choose to invest these resources. When it comes to our collective future, the reality is that the world can’t afford not to finance action plans to eliminate poverty, inequality, injustice, and climate change.
Protecting Small Island States
Another major moment during this year’s UNGA will focus on helping small island developing states that face challenges like geographic isolation, limited resources, environmental fragility, and vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters.
Why You Should Care: Small island developing states are among the most affected by climate change. In May, UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited the Pacific Islands to see firsthand how governments and citizens are coping with these drastic environmental changes. In June, TIME magazine featured the Secretary-General on its cover, showing him wading into the waters of Fiji beneath the headline “Our Sinking Planet.”
Nations like Barbados, Fiji, and Timor-Leste are already experiencing dangerous rises in sea levels and some scientists predict the Maldives could be entirely submerged by 2050. If we don’t act, the world could lose these precious and unique ecosystems forever and millions of people could lose their homes. The planet is already experiencing the highest levels of human displacement in recorded history. Introducing “climate refugees” could further exacerbate limited resources and global instability.
How To Get Involved
Now that you know what’s happening this year at UNGA and why you should care, here’s how you can stay involved:
- Stay Tuned: Watch all of these summits via the UN’s Livestream.
- Join The Conversation: Follow the UN Foundation on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook to get live updates from UNGA as well as behind-the-scenes access and informed commentary from our experts, activists, and other UN officials.
- Sign Up: Join the UN Foundation’s newsletter (below) and we’ll send you UNGA recaps along with stories about our grassroots champions and how you can join our campaigns, alliances, and movements to help achieve the SDGs in your own community.
- Get more details on UNGA – explore our Guide