This is the moment for bold leadership and accountability. That was the resounding message echoed by world leaders, CEOs, climate activists, youth advocates, and many others at this year’s 76th annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).
More than ever, political promises will no longer suffice without firm action to back them up — not in the face of multiple overlapping crises that are borderless, from COVID-19 to climate change, to the breakdown in the trust and cooperation we need to help overcome them.
Throughout the week, many speakers underscored the gravity of the moment the world finds itself in and reminded us that we have the tools we need to solve our shared challenges. But what we really need to muster are political will, moral courage, and the means to work better together. Of all the speeches, events, and conversations we followed, here are some of the quotes that will stay with us.
Sounding the alarm
“Excellencies, I am here to sound the alarm,” Secretary-General António Guterres warned in his speech to leaders. “We are on the edge of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction.”
While the world managed to produce COVID-19 vaccines in record time, he said, the inequity of distribution is “an obscenity. We passed the science test but we are getting an F in ethics.”
"I am here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up."
Secretary-General, United Nations
On the climate crisis, Mr. Guterres further warned that “science tells us that anything above 1.5 degrees [Celsius of global warming] would be a disaster.” He urged the leaders of the G20 richest nations — which account for some 80% of global emissions — to make deeper cuts to their emissions.
To stay within the planetary safe zone, countries must cut their emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality by mid-century. But the latest UN report shows that commitments made by countries so far suggest an increase of 16% in greenhouse gas emissions, the inverse of the necessary reductions.
“Unless we collectively change course, there is a high risk of failure of COP26,” the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, the Secretary-General warned, following a leaders’ roundtable co-hosted with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
End the War with our Planet
Less advanced economies are suffering the worst impacts of climate change, even though they are least responsible for them. Island nations, surrounded by rising seas, are especially at risk.
Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, implored leaders to keep the 1.50C target alive at next month’s climate meeting.“Leaders who cannot summon the courage to unveil these commitments and policy packages at COP26 should not bother booking a flight to Glasgow,” he said. “Instead, they and the self-interests they stand for should match the severity of what they are unleashing on our planet.”
"Leaders who cannot summon the courage to unveil these commitments and policy packages at COP26 should not bother booking a flight to Glasgow."
President of Fiji
In a week when the UN Security Council also debated climate and security together, Mr. Bainimarama added, “We do not tolerate war between our Member States. So how can we tolerate war waged against the planet?”
How many more before we act?
In an impassioned speech, Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados challenged world leaders on how much longer they can wait to act at this dangerous fork in the road. “How many more crises and natural disasters before we see that all conventions of aid means the assistance does not reach those who need it most and those who are most vulnerable?”
“How many more variants of COVID-19 must arrive? How many more before a worldwide action plan for vaccinations will be implemented? How many more deaths must it take before the 1.7 billion excess vaccines in the possession of the advanced countries of the world will be shared with those who simply [have] no access to vaccines?”
She pressed leaders on what direction the world would go in: Who will rise and stand up for the rights of people everywhere? For the millions who have died during this pandemic and because of the climate crisis? Who will stand up for the small developing island states that need a 1.5oC to survive?
"We are waiting for urgent global, moral, strategic leadership,” said Ms. Mottley. “If we don’t control this fire, it will burn us all down.”"
Prime Minister of Barbados
“We are waiting for urgent global, moral, strategic leadership,” said Ms. Mottley. “If we don’t control this fire, it will burn us all down.”
Time for concrete action
Demands for greater leadership also came from young speakers during UNGA. Hilda Nakabuye, an environmental rights activist who founded Uganda’s Fridays for Future movement, said at the Unlock the Future event that the time has come for leaders to leave their misunderstandings behind and come together and fight.
Decades of inaction by leaders must end now, she urged. For generations, she said, Indigenous people and marginalized communities have been battling the climate crisis without a response by corporations and governments.
“We need our leaders to put on their big-boy pants to stand up and to take concrete climate action,” she said.
Youth voices were heard loud and clear at this year’s UNGA, and the Secretary-General has taken strides to enshrine young people’s views and opinions at the heart of global decision-making. For his recent landmark report Our Common Agenda, which sets out a future of better global cooperation that delivers for people everywhere, Mr. Guterres asked a group of young people, the Next Generation Fellows, to consult with more global youth and help shape his report. They presented their own proposals in their Our Future Agenda report and helped bring together youth networks, governments, civil society organizations, and the UN at the Unlock the Future event to start building a coalition committed to ensuring young people have a meaningful voice in global policymaking.
Promises are no longer enough
Another much-heard complaint at this UNGA has been that talking points and political rhetoric will no longer be sufficient. The world demands accountability in the form of tangible solutions — working together in solidarity across governments, business, and civil society. That was the message from Jerome Foster II, a teenager who staged regular climate strikes outside the White House and now works inside the building as the youngest member of President Joe Biden’s Environmental Justice Advisory Board.
"If we are united in crisis, then we must be united in our solutions,”"
Jerome Foster II
Founder and Executive Director, OneMillionOfUs
“We can’t continue to fight a system with just individual actions,” Mr. Foster said. Companies and governments need to act with political and moral clarity, he said, “to make sure that even if we aren’t making progress on some things we have to take the moral high ground.”
“If history reminds me correctly, companies and political leaders had more moral clarity and more courage to stand up and say even though this isn’t profitable for us we are going to take a risk and stand on the right side of history. When you talk about segregation in America, there were businesses that stood on the right side of history.”
We aren’t passing the test yet
A unique moment in history is also how several speakers summed up the backdrop to UNGA. At the same event as Mr. Foster, United Foundations President and CEO Elizabeth Cousens said the international community is at “a profound turning point” as we face historic global challenges that will only worsen if we fail to act.
“It’s a test,” she said. “We aren’t passing it yet.”
Ms. Cousens echoed calls on global leaders to take strides to recommit to multilateralism to solve global problems and ensure that no one is left behind.
“We have to decide whether we’re prepared as societies, as a global community to cooperate and in new ways to solve challenges, like climate and like COVID, that are right on our doorstep — or whether we don’t,” she said.
Some Big Commitments
President Biden in his debut speech before the UN General Assembly vigorously underscored his Administration’s commitment to multilateralism and the UN, often echoing the Secretary-General’s own sentiments.
“Our collective future,” Mr. Biden said, “will hinge on our ability to recognize our common humanity and to act together. This is the clear and urgent choice we face here at the dawning of what must be a decisive decade for our world.”
In terms of commitments, Mr. Biden pledged to work with Congress to double the amount the United States plans to contribute toward climate financing to more than $11 billion a year to help lower-income more vulnerable nations, which would make the U.S. a lead contributor. Richer nations have promised — but failed to deliver — $100 billion a year to help less advanced economies on this issue.
Mr. Biden called on every nation to bring forth its “highest-possible ambitions to the table” when leaders gather next month and continue to keep raising goals over time as the world strives to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
He also hosted a COVID-19 summit of more than 100 world leaders and major civil society and philanthropic organizations, where the U.S. pledged to donate a further 500 million vaccine doses to countries that needed them, and where participants signed up to a goal of cooperating to get 70% of the global population vaccinated by next year’s UNGA. The event also saw the announcement of a new partnership between the United States and the European Union on global vaccine supply chains.
Just before UNGA, the U.S. convened the Major Economies Forum where countries endorsed the idea of a Global Methane Pledge to cut levels of the dangerous greenhouse gas. And during his UNGA speech, President Xi Jinping pledged that China would stop funding foreign coal power plants. It’s a major step given the extent of China’s investments, although the country remains heavily invested in domestic coal power.
“Don’t wait for the UN or don’t wait for your governments to deliver on these solutions,” she said. “It is our future. We have to sometimes take matters into our own hands.”
“Make sure you hold your governments, your elected leaders accountable for delivering on these priorities,” Ms. Wickramanayake added. “Make sure you vote. Make sure that you get your priorities heard by those who have the power to make decisions and make sure that you are actively participating in civic and political life in your countries and even run for political office and create this change yourself.”
Don’t Ask Permission
The Youth Envoy’s message was echoed by other young activists and some world leaders. Next Generation Fellow Valeria Colunga joined fellow young activists Ramazan Nanayev and Inés Yábar to meet two leaders — Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden, and President Carlos Alvarado Quesada of Costa Rica — as part of the Unlock the Future youth coalition event. Mr. Löfven asked to what extent young people were interested in the more formal processes of democracy versus a more activist role because “we need politicians of the future.”
“I truly believe that the idea that young people are not interested is actually a myth,” said Ms. Colunga. “The actual question is what can governments and institutions do to be rejuvenated and to be more open and interesting to young people to be part of them because young people are going to continue doing their thing outside the system.”
Mr. Quesada, who was just 38 when he became the leader of Costa Rica, told the young activists not to wait for permission to get involved.
“My takeaway from the conversations today is a good one — it’s hope,” he said. “When you see people that are engaged, that want to get involved, that want to participate, that means that there is hope that things can change, and things are changing.”