The high-level week of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is the hottest moment in international diplomacy, with heads of state and government from all over the world gathering in New York to discuss various issues, in a Manhattan slowed down by roadblocks and patrols by law enforcement. One of the central events of this session was the SDG Summit on September 18-19, which focused on the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The summit was organized to take stock of the progress made in achieving the 17 Goals (Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs) of the Agenda, which was adopted in 2015 and has thus reached the halfway point.

The Italian Climate Network, represented by volunteer Teresa Giuffrè, was one of the civil society organizations with consultative status at the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to have access to the plenary of the leaders’ summit at the fortified Glass Palace.

In his opening speech, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres appealed to the leaders, emphasizing the need for a “rescue plan” for sustainable development goals. In particular, there is an urgent need to help the most vulnerable countries cope with the increasingly acute debt crisis, through debt reduction mechanisms and financial assistance such as the SDG Incentive Plan proposed by Guterres earlier this year, which aims to provide $500 billion annually in long-term concessional financing to promote investments in sustainable development and climate action. The Secretary-General also reiterated the urgency of reforming the “obsolete, dysfunctional, and unjust” international financial system, an idea that is finding increasing consensus in the Global North as well.

Delegates then breathed a sigh of relief when the Political Declaration of the SDG Summit, the result of negotiations that took place over several months, was adopted without any objection. The declaration acknowledges the need for reform of the financial system, a decidedly revolutionary step forward. However, it only vaguely outlines the actions to be taken to bridge the gaps in progress towards the achievement of the 2030 Agenda, a goal that currently seems difficult to reach: only 15% of sustainable development goals are in line with projections. An important absence is any mention of the abandonment of fossil fuels, despite them being among the primary causes of the multiple crises we are facing today. Climate change, in fact, in addition to being at the centre of SDG 13 (climate action), has negative repercussions on all sustainable development goals, exacerbating conditions of poverty and vulnerability, and contributing to the escalation of conflicts.

Therefore, despite some positive points in the Political Declaration, the SDG Summit was effectively a missed opportunity to catalyze greater ambition. To make matters worse, few leaders announced new commitments related to the advancement of the SDGs, as envisaged by the program, and some of the most important ones completely “snubbed” the event (including President of the United States Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping).

One of the few leaders from the Western world to attend was the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who expressed the EU’s support for the financial incentives plan advocated by Guterres. Reiterating the need to attract more capital towards the SDGs, von der Leyen emphasized the need to reform multilateral development banks and encourage private investment. The intervention of the German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, also went in this direction, with Germany’s promise to inject 300 million euros of hybrid capital into the World Bank to incentivize a multiplier effect on investments.

Despite these promises being a positive sign, climate finance needs to be subject to greater scrutiny. Furthermore, the proposals from OECD countries tend to focus on private financing, which, although heavily facilitated, still has the effect of exacerbating the already serious indebtedness of the most vulnerable countries, in addition to having less transparent reporting. This was emphasized by the President of Senegal, Macky Sall, during one of the SDG Summit leader’s dialogues on mobilizing financial resources. Africa is forced to bear higher costs to take out loans, up to eight times those of developed countries, Sall emphasized. Representatives from the least developed countries and Small Island Developing States have also joined the call for greater commitment from the Global North in disbursing public funds.

Unfortunately, the SDG Summit was characterized by a lack of significant proposals. Even Italy, represented by Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, limited itself to urging the United Nations to find solutions to resolve the migration crisis and intensify the fight against human traffickers.

The tepid leaders’ summit contrasts with the ambition demonstrated, instead, by the demands made by non-governmental actors during the SDG Action Weekend on September 16-17, an opportunity to bring together all stakeholders in a discussion on achieving the SDGs. The main message that emerged from the weekend is the importance of an inclusive process that allows the participation of all stakeholders, such as youth, women, indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities. Facilitating access to UN spaces, which is still difficult today, for vulnerable and underrepresented groups is necessary: it is increasingly clear how climate and human rights, intergenerational and gender issues are intersectional, and the contribution of all stakeholders is essential if we hope to solve the current interrelated crises. Events like the Action Weekend, where civil society, youth, women, and other stakeholders can openly engage with government representatives, should be repeated and encouraged. For example, one of the high-level panels of the weekend hosted a discussion on the SDG incentive plan, with the participation of non-governmental stakeholders and ministers from governments of the Global South and Global North who shared proposals to address the debt problem.

Despite the disappointing outcome, a piece of good news that emerges from the summit is the consensus of countries on the need for a radical reconfiguration of the financial system and, in general, to achieve the SDGs through the UN process. This demonstration of trust in multilateralism is a positive sign, given the hard blows it has recently suffered. However, the usual divergences that have so far prevented accelerating progress in the SDGs, as well as in the UNFCCC climate negotiations, remain. Divergences were demonstrated, once again, on the occasion of the equally disappointing last G20 leaders’ summit. The abandonment of fossil fuels is the usual “elephant in the room” that some countries systematically refuse to include in any decision or political statement. Only by overcoming this impasse will we have the chance to achieve sustainable development goals, as well as those of the Paris Agreement.

Article by Teresa Giuffrè, Italian Climate Network Volunteer

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