Lecture at University of the South Pacific

As delivered

Lecture by H.E. Mr Peter Thomson, President of the 71st Session of the General Assembly, at University of the South Pacific

16 March 2017


USP lecture FijiLadies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be here today in my hometown of Suva, and to have this opportunity to address the University of the South Pacific.

I would like to talk to you today on what I believe to be the most consequential undertaking of our time: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Before doing so I’d like to say a few words about The Ocean Conference that will be held at the UN this June.

As many of you would be aware, Fiji is currently hosting leaders and officials from across the Pacific who are here to participate in the Pacific Regional Preparatory Meeting for the Ocean Conference.

The Ocean Conference is the short name for what is mandated as the ‘High-level United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development”.

It’s a complicated title for what is a complicated business.  The Ocean Conference isset to be an historic coming together of stakeholders from across our world to drive global action to reverse the cycle of decline in which the Ocean is currently caught.

The Conference is being held at United Nations Headquarters in New York, from 5-9 June, and will be co-presided over by the Governments of Fiji and Sweden.  In fact the whole of the UN campus will be turned over to  addressing the Ocean for the full week of the  Conference.

For Pacific Small Island Developing States, like Fiji, so dependent on the existence of a healthy Ocean, the stakes could not be higher for the success of the Ocean Conference.

With the Ocean making up almost 98 percent of the area of our region, with our cultures inherently enmeshed in the Ocean, and with the Ocean serving as an essential source of our food security and well-being, the health of the Ocean is central to our way of life.

But as we in the region know all too keenly, unrestrained human activity has placed the Ocean’s health into serious jeopardy.

Around the globe, marine pollution is cluttering the Ocean and choking marine-life, while immense gyres of garbage circulate out in the high seas. It is estimated that humankind dumps the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic into the Ocean every minute.

Coastal ecosystems are being degraded by overdevelopment, rising sea levels and run-off from agricultural and industrial activities on land.  Coral reefs around the world are in dire straits.  Rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are causing ocean acidification and ocean warming with very serious consequences for marine life.

If you add the woes of overfishing, IUU fishing and the lack of high seas governance, you’ll appreciate that we have much to do to reverse the cycle of decline in which the ocean is caught.

And it is this that brings me back to Suva today – the opportunity to join in helping the Pacific region in our efforts to mobilize the rest of the world to commit to taking effective global action during the Ocean Conference, to save life in the Ocean for generations to come.

And this, ladies and gentleman, is where you come in.

While a high-level meeting being held at the United Nations in New York might feel like a long way away from USP, the Ocean Conference actually aims to rally all stakeholders – both large and small – to forge new and innovative partnerships, and to make voluntary commitments for action to help save our ocean.

The compounding effects of these actions – whether taken at grass-root, regional or global levels – is what will emerge from the Ocean Conference as our global work plan for the years ahead.

I know many of you here today are already working on action to remedy the woes of the Ocean and I am keen to hear from you about the actions you are taking. I urge you all to register your commitments and initiatives on the online registry for voluntary commitments that has been launched on the Conference’s website.  If you want to stand up and be counted as activists for the Ocean, the registry is for you and your community.

Turning now to the central topic of my remarks – the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development –I’d like to explain why is so consequential for us all.

To place the 2030 Agenda in context, you need to go back to the Millennium Development Goals.

As some of you may know, the MDGs came into force in September 2000, and aimed to achieve eight central goals in developing countries by 2015.

These goals ranged from halving extreme poverty rates, to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, through to reducing maternal mortality rates, and providing universal access to primary education.

With 2015 approaching and the MDGs maturing, countries decided to come together at the United Nations to begin negotiating a new universal plan – one that would apply equally to all nations – developed and developing alike, one which would transform our world for the better for people, planet and prosperity.

The need for this plan was, in many ways, self-evident. Dramatic changes had unfolded over the preceding few decades, including massive population growth; exponential technological advancements; increased economic prosperity coupled with widening inequality; rising interconnectivity and mobility of people; shifting global dynamics; climate change; environmental degradation; the growing frequency and severity of natural disasters; and the increased scale, nature and complexity of global security challenges.

A universal global solution was required.

In September 2015, after two years of intense negotiations at the United Nations, world leaders came together in New York to adopt by consensus, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Agenda is an integrated plan comprising 17 mutually-reinforcing Sustainable Development Goals.

Premised on the principle of “leaving no one behind”, the 17 SDGs are underpinned by 169 targets, all of which are to be met by 2030.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If the SDGs are implemented effectively and at-scale, they will transform the world we live in.

They will improve the lives of the world’s people by eliminating extreme poverty and hunger; facilitating access to clean water and sanitation; promoting good health and well-being; improving access to education; and realizing the equal rights of women and girls.

They will increase prosperity across the globe by driving sustainable and green economic growth; improving access to decent work; promoting social inclusivity; and reducing inequalities, within and between nations.

They will protect our planet by restoring the health, biodiversity and resources of the Ocean and terrestrial ecosystems; reducing emissions and combatting climate change; increasing access to affordable, clean and renewable energy; fostering responsible patterns of production and consumption; and creating inclusive, sustainable and resilient cities.

And they will build sustainable peace by creating peaceful and inclusive societies; supporting transparent and accountable institutions; improving global governance; promoting the rule of law; and ensuring access to justice for all.

The key to success is, of course, implementation, and it is through Goal 17, that ‘means of implementation’ of the SDGs are addressed, including through the mobilization of domestic resources; intensifying international cooperation; promoting fair trade, capacity building and technology transfers; and creating effective and efficient public-private partnerships.

The 2030 Agenda, taken together with the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and other recent international agreements such as the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, the New Urban Agenda and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, essentially provides humanity with a universal masterplan for a sustainable way of life on this planet.

The great challenge before us is to turn  these ambitious commitments into meaningful global action on the scale necessary to turn human progress away from the precipice of unsustainability towards, which is our current way of life is taking us.

How will we meet this challenge?

While national governments have primary responsibility for driving achievement of the SDGs, and while governments at all levels, the United Nations, international financial institutions, civil society, the private sector, academic and scientific communities, and grassroots organizations must all work to support SDG implementation, ultimately the success of the 2030 Agenda depends on all of us as individuals playing our part. Each of us has choices to make.

As young people, you have an especially important contribution to make.

In an era where technology and innovation are driving social and economic change at a pace and scale never seen before, the ideas, creativity, and commitment to succeed of young people, can indeed have an exponential impact on the transformation of our world for the better.

With current estimates suggesting that implementing the SDGs will require global annual investments of between US$5-7 trillion, mobilizing funding on this scale requires precisely the kind of disruptive thinking that young minds are capable of.  We must develop new models of sustainable financing, find innovative new ways of running economies, doing business, and managing labour markets, based on the principles of equality and sustainability.

When I met with leaders of major innovation and technology companies in Silicon Valley a few weeks ago, we discussed the potential for rapid, continuous, and disruptive innovation to implement the SDGs and transform our societies.  Internet connectivity is of course going to be at the heart of this innovation.

For example, we can change the way education is delivered, through innovative technology, thereby helping children living in disadvantaged areas, remote villages, or even in areas of conflict, to be taught the skills they need for the future.

Through innovation and technology, we are enhancing mobile communications infrastructure, thereby expanding people’s access to the formal economy and markets, micro-credit and loans, and to legal, financial and banking institutions, and thereby helping to drive entrepreneurship and business development, in a manner unthinkable at the start of the 21st Century.

And in a region as prone to natural disasters as the Pacific, where severe weather events like Cyclone Winston can sweep through leaving trails of destruction, innovation and technology can be harnessed to build resilience, spread life-saving information, and direct emergency services to remote island communities most in need.

But, of course, to ensure innovation and technological advances address the particular needs and challenges of people living in the Pacific, it is vital that people of the Pacific are empowered to access technology, shape its development, and benefit from its use.

To this end, I urge all of you here to use the educations you are gaining here at USP to help achieve the 2030 Agenda.

And I also encourage USP to leverage its role as a regional hub of excellence and of innovation in the Pacific, and to be a Champion of instilling ‘SDG literacy’ across the region.

Such a move would be in line with a step I took a few months ago, when as part of my commitment to drive a universal push to help achieve momentum for the SDGs around the world, I wrote to all Heads of Government encouraging them to include the SDGs in the education curricula of all schools.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A couple of weeks ago I was in Bali, where I met with two teenage girls, who had founded the ‘Bye Bye Plastic Bags’ campaign.

Through their campaigning, they had been able to collect a million signatures, and ultimately secure a commitment from the Provincial Government that Bali would become plastic bag-free by 2018.

I tell this story because it succinctly illustrates the power of a couple of young people with a will to succeed to make a difference.

That same potential is true of each of you here today. Age, gender, and the tyranny of distance are no longer hurdles to changing the world.

And with the stakes being as high as they are –the security of the Pacific from the impacts of climate change, the health of our planet,  and humankind’s ongoing place on this planet – we must all be a part of driving the transformation to sustainability.

I am therefore today calling upon each and every one of you to join with me and the rest of the global activist community in driving implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

I call on you to be voices that amplify the message of the SDGs across the Pacific and thereby the world, utilising the best of social media.

To be educators and role models who share your knowledge of the importance of the SDGs, and embody what sustainable living really involves.

To be agents for global change that drive new and disruptive ways of thinking to transform our societies and achieve the SDGs.

And to be active citizens who demand urgent and responsible change from those around you.

For my part, I am firmly committed to doing all I can as President of the UN General Assembly to help push for meaningful progress in implementing all 17 SDGs.

This includes by convening a series of SDG Action Events at the UN, specifically designed to drive cross-cutting implementation action.

Indeed, next week when I return to New York, I will be convening a high-level SDG Action Event on synergies between Climate Change action and the SDGs. This will be the first UN meeting on climate change since the COP22 meeting held in Marrakech in November, and ahead of the next COP23 meeting in Bonn, to be presided over by Fiji.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Sustainable Development Agenda and its Goals are undoubtedly ambitious.  They have to be.

Their success is an intergenerational imperative for our future well-being.  It is only with all of us working together in this global effort that we will be able to combat climate change, protect the Ocean, and create a safe, just, equitable, and prosperous world for humanity.

Let me therefore close with one final message that cannot be over-emphasized – when it comes to the success or failure of the Sustainable Development Goals, it is the young people of today who have the most to gain or to lose.  Thus it falls mainly to you and your generation to be the truest and most dedicated drivers towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030.

I thank you.

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