Reflections on the Opening of the 76th United Nations General Assembly
by Charlie Bevis
In September 2021, world leaders convened both in person and virtually for the 76th United Nations General Assembly. The international spotlight is a tempting stage for bold policy announcements and with the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in sight, hopes were high for ambitious climate action.
General Assembly Format
The sessions of the General Assembly last one year, beginning in September with the media spectacle of the General Debate . Following this, committees work until the end of December to develop UN policies and then the remainder of the session, from January to August, is relatively quiet .
Reports by the UN Secretary General, produced before the opening of the assembly, summarise the proposals of the previous assembly and help to guide the work of the incoming committees . This year’s version, ‘Our Common Agenda’, identified 12 ‘areas of action’, including ‘Protect our planet’ and ‘Ensure sustainable financing’ . The climate crisis was also prominent in the theme of the summit, which noted the need to “respond to the needs of the planet’ .
The General Debate is a period lasting two weeks and began this year on the 21st September. Each world leader is given the opportunity to present a speech to the assembly . Whilst the order of these changes each year, tradition dictates that Brazil is the first country to speak, followed by the United States as the host country .
Crucially, these speeches are not bound by the General Assembly’s theme or ‘areas of action’, which hold more influence during the committee stage. Nonetheless, they give a broad overview of global trends in policy making and are often used for headline-grabbing announcements.
Climate Policy Progress
In the field of climate policy, the most significant progress came from the world’s two largest emitters: China and the United States.
The former announced an end to the funding of new coal-fired power stations abroad . This is a major step; China is the world’s largest investor in overseas coal and thus many governments and private bodies will simply not be able to finance coal power stations . (Other large economies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stopped funding coal years ago [7, 8].) However, it has been highlighted that we are awaiting some important clarifications . When will this policy come into effect? Any delay reduces the likelihood of meeting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C degree target . Secondly, what constitutes a ‘new’ coal project? There is ongoing planning for many coal power stations around the world; the stage at which these are not considered ‘new’ projects could be a difference of millions of tonnes of CO2 .
As for the United States, President Biden announced that he intends to double his country’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund to $11.4 billion a year . This demonstrates a clear recognition that developed countries have consistently fallen short on their promises to mobilise public finance, a necessary step to reduce the unequal impact of the climate crisis . The move particularly stands out as leaders of other developed economies continue trying to shift focus from the public sector. For example, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated the tired rhetoric of the “trillions of private sector cash” without explaining what, if anything, he is doing to redirect these funds .
There were more subtle climate developments too. Turkey’s President Erdogan confirmed that he would submit the Paris Agreement to be ratified by the national parliament . This will bring the world’s 20th largest emitter of greenhouse gases into the framework and leave just five countries outside the agreement’s remit [15, 16]. Meanwhile, there has been a notable escalation in climate change rhetoric. The emotive language of humanity on a ‘cliff’ or undertaking a ‘suicidal war against nature’ suggests that leaders are finally understanding the urgency of the crisis [17, 2]. We hope this will entail bold action.
Climate Policy Disappointments
Despite this progress, relatively little of the total time at the assembly was dedicated to the climate crisis. This was partly owing to other pressing issues – the Covid-19 pandemic, events in Afghanistan and global economic recovery – and also because many leaders chose to defer climate announcements until the COP26 negotiations next month .
Nonetheless, from the climate policies that were discussed, we saw the same trend of crucial omissions. Leaders remained focused on energy and mitigation whilst failing to address the intersection of gender, indigeneity, or youth with the climate crisis [19, 20, 21]. The inequality faced by these groups is intrinsically linked to resource use and the changing environment; to compartmentalise them will prevent the resolution of both [22, 23].
The General Debate ended on 27th September 2021. Whilst this period is a mere forerunner to committee negotiations, the scattering of climate policy announcements and the escalating rhetoric demonstrates an accelerating shift in international climate policy. It is hoped that the General Debate set a clear direction for more influential deliberations in UN committees over the coming months and for COP26 in November 2021.
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