Published 21 December 2023 in Analysis , News
Written interview received on December 20, 2023.
Focus 2030: The multiplication of crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the re-emergence of conflict in the Middle East, the historic indebtedness faced by 52 developing countries, and unfulfilled promises in terms of development aid, financing the climate transition or in-depth reforms of the international financial architecture, have clearly contributed to the fragmentation of the international community. Some commentators speak of a situation unseen since the fall of the Berlin Wall, others of the "return of the North-South divide", while others still describe the state of health of the United Nations as "brain-dead". To what extent is this polarization affecting international cooperation, which is so essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals? How do you see this inability of nations in working together? What consequences do you observe in your day-to-day actions?
Achim Steiner: We are seeing a world in perhaps its greatest state of flux since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945. There may not be a world war, but we are seeing the highest number of violent conflicts around the world since then including Gaza, Ukraine, Haiti, and Yemen along with ‘forgotten crises’ like Myanmar and Sudan. They have dramatically reversed hard-won development progress, sometimes by generations. Being also a mirror of the world, when geopolitics is in upheaval, that makes some of the work of the United Nations (UN) more difficult, particularly when the Security Council is divided. As sovereign members of the UN, all countries have an equal voice: still one of the organization’s greatest assets. At the same time, they have vastly different resources and power and often diverging interests. Yet every day, across the globe, the UN family continues to be an effective partner to many countries across its three pillars - peace, human rights, and development - despite geopolitical tensions.
For instance, that includes Afghanistan where we are working to help create new jobs and livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of people, many of them women; to the Continent of Africa where we are rolling out life-changing access to clean, affordable energies that will help to drive down poverty and advance climate action. Or consider the operation led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN with the support of many countries earlier this year to safely remove over one million barrels of oil from the decaying FSO Safer supertanker that was stranded off the coast of Yemen. In doing so, we prevented an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe with global ramifications.
The UN continues to be the world’s foremost means to bring countries together to talk; to resolve and prevent conflict; and find new avenues to cooperate. The UN is far from perfect, but this unifying strength of the organization and its ability to bring improvements to the daily lives of millions of people across the world -guided by the Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) clear vision of what the future can look like - demonstrate how it is still taking the world forward unlike any other institution.
Focus 2030: The results of COP28 seem to demonstrate that through cooperation, debates based on science, and citizen mobilizations, multilateralism is not dead and that significant agreements are still possible at the multilateral level despite the multiple conflicts and competitions between nations. What immediate assessment do you draw from these negotiations?
Achim Steiner: COP28 was a moment when many thought that multilateralism would fail. Yet this UN Climate Change Conference was the foundation for nearly 200 countries to come together and formally agree to “transition away” from fossil fuels in a just and equitable manner for the first time: a vital step forward in our efforts to address the very core of humanity’s climate problem. There are understandable frustrations that the agreed language could have been stronger, but it remains the most unequivocal signal to date that the world is moving beyond fossil fuels towards a new era of clean, renewable energies. The declaration should be considered the startpoint for more ambition, not the endpoint.
While the operationalization of the Loss and Damage Fund will help those suffering most from the effects of climate change, COP negotiations continue to fall short on unlocking sufficient finance to allow climate-vulnerable countries to carry out climate action at the level of ambition necessary. At COP28, climate resources did not dramatically increase to support the most vulnerable nations to end the use of fossil fuels and to adapt to the catastrophic effects of a hotter climate that we see happening every day around the world. This critical issue of freeing up sufficient finance to address the climate crisis will be the focus of next year’s COP. However, we cannot wait another year. Investments need to happen now. It is time for a surge in finance, including for mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, and reform of the international financial architecture. Powered by this fit-for-purpose financial framework, extraordinary technology like artificial intelligence, and human ingenuity, countries must work together to decarbonize their economies in a way that is just and equitable for all.
Focus 2030: The year 2024 will be marked by a series of summits, the outcome of which could prove decisive for the course of the world. The G20 under the Brazilian presidency, the G7 under the Italian presidency, the Summit of the Future on the occasion of the 79th General Assembly of the United Nations, the proposed adoption by the WHO of a treaty to improve pandemic preparedness, COP29, the Commission on the Status of Women, the World Bank and IMF World Assemblies. From your point of view, what does 2024 have in store for us?
Achim Steiner: The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has underlined the pressing need for more efforts to directly address a series of financing issues in the interests of global, financial, and macroeconomic stability. It comes as we are seeing how the current financial system constrains, rather than facilitates, access to capital for the geographies and sectors where it is needed most. At the same time, UNDP analysis found that low-income countries are allocating more than twice as much money to servicing their debt as they do to social assistance, perpetuating chronic poverty and inequalities that are often the root causes of crisis or even conflict. Developing countries need $4.3 trillion per year by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change yet they lack access to the financing to respond. This should be considered as a ‘co-investment’ by our global community as the consequences of climate inaction carries a much higher price tag for everyone.
Like the Bretton Woods system that concluded that economic cooperation was the only way to achieve both peace and prosperity in the wake of global conflict, there is a pressing need for a new international financial architecture. It must align capital with sustainable development; and efforts to address the climate emergency, our global community’s greatest challenge since the Second World War. That will be amongst the key issues for Brazil’s Presidency of the G20 and Italy’s Presidency of the G7 to take forward in 2024. The UN is committed to continue supporting momentum in this critical area.
Next year, the world will come together at the Summit of the Future to answer essential questions including how do we get ahead of the challenges to come? ‘Beyond GDP’ will also be high on the agenda as the world seeks to design the metrics of the future where progress is not merely measured by GDP growth but rather by decarbonisation, climate action, environmental restoration, and new opportunities for all. UNDP will also release the latest edition of its seminal Human Development Report in 2024, which will explore how to enhance collective action and address shared challenges in this era of polycrisis. The UN itself must continue to evolve, empowered by cutting-edge skills to turbocharge our support to people and planet. In short, now is a moment for nations united: working together to ensure that the future is one that brings less war, less conflict, and less tragedy: one that bring more promise, more hope, and more possibility.