– As delivered –

Statement by H.E. Mrs. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly

6 August 2019

The Honourable Milly Soames, Deputy Lord-Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire,

Councillor Mark Cole, Mayor of Buckingham,

Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham,

Distinguished guests, dear students, ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you, so much Sir Anthony, for your kind invitation. And thank you, Malebogo, for your generous words of introduction. I am deeply touched and humbled by the warm welcome I have received this morning. It really is such a pleasure to join you all today, and to learn more about the new Centre for United Nations Studies.

The opening of this Centre is music to my ears. I understand it is the first of its kind in the UK. Today, as we commemorate the 74th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, this tragedy serves as a reminder of the need for dialogue, for spaces to reflect.

As we move through this turbulent period for the world, I cannot think of a better time to set up an institution devoted to diplomacy, conflict resolution and international organisations. And I am confident that through your research, and through students like Malebogo, you will help to shape global discussions.

I want to begin this morning by looking at the confluence of crises facing the world. I will outline four “tipping points” – planetary, economic, social and political – facing the world, and I will conclude with some thoughts on how to address them.

Turning first to the challenges we face. Earlier this year, the UN’s Global Assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystems was released. One of the press headlines simply read: we are in trouble.

Based on more than 15,000 academic studies, the report warned that nearly one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction. Bee colonies are collapsing. Coral reefs are dying. Rainforests like the Amazon are drying into savannahs. The ecosystems on which our lives and livelihoods depend are deteriorating rapidly. And we are to blame. Humans are to blame.

Human activity has significantly altered a staggering three-quarters of all land, and two-thirds of our marine environment. Plastic pollution – one of my priority issues – has increased ten-fold since 1980, contributing to over 400 ocean “dead zones”. Thirteen million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean every year.

This alone is a crisis of epic proportions. But it is only one of the pressing challenges we face.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have just 11 years to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees and avoid the worst impacts of climate change. This will require us to reach “peak carbon” next year. According to the Climate Action Tracker, current pledges under the Paris Agreement put us on course for 2.4 to 3.8-degree rise – and a future of widespread poverty, water scarcity, hunger, displacement and conflict.

So we have to go beyond the Paris Agreement. We urgently need to increase our ambition. We urgently need to unlock the benefits of green growth, climate-smart growth – which the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate estimates could be as much as $26 trillion dollars in the next decade.

At the same time, we need to address long-standing challenges. One in 10 of us still lives in extreme poverty. One in three of us does not have safe drinking water. At least half the global population lacks essential health services.

And it is still the case that if you are a woman, an older person, a person with disabilities, or from a rural, minority or indigenous community, you are more likely to be disadvantaged.

Other issues, too, are emerging that require urgent attention. Rapidly-changing communications platforms, for instance. They offer great potential in areas from delivery of services to citizen empowerment – as well as challenges in terms of privacy, disinformation and hate speech, to name just a few.

Digitization and automation also offer benefits – in terms of productivity, job creation and innovation. But they too come with risks. For instance, as many as two-thirds of jobs in developing countries could be lost to robots in the coming years. We must have policies in place to ensure these developments yield a net gain.

And then there are the sweeping big-picture trends. Between now and 2030 – the deadline for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals – half of the global population will be under 30. By 2050, however, people over 60 will overtake youth. We need to start preparing our social systems for these changes.

And – as we grapple with the current displacement crisis of nearly 70 million people across the world, 80% of whom are hosted by developing countries – we must plan to support even greater numbers uprooted by climate change and instability.

Finally, we must weather transitions in the global political landscape. Power is mutating. It now encompasses factors such as energy security, cyber capability, information and innovation – alongside traditional military and economic levers.  

And global power is shifting. The world is becoming more multipolar, but also more polarized.

Dear friends, ladies and gentlemen,

This is a huge agenda for the international community.

For policy-makers, it can feel overwhelming – and I say this as someone who has served as foreign minister and defense minister. How can we prioritize when everything is urgent?

One approach that could help is to focus on “tipping points” – not only the areas where we are close to a point of no return, but also the actions that could help tip the scale back in our favor. There are four I want to set out today.

The first, of course, is climate change. We know we face a “hard deadline” on carbon emissions and we know, in broad terms, what we need to do. But there are many pathways to zero carbon – we are unlikely to have definitive answers on which to prioritize in the required time-frame.

Our best bet, therefore, is to focus on the most transformative, scale-able steps we can take immediately to tip the scale. We have to work together to become carbon neutral. Countries in the EU, for instance, have been encouraging the bloc to become carbon neutral by 2050 – a commitment recently made by the UK.

The second is economic. Global growth is slowing. Markets are volatile. In many countries, deficits remain too high to stabilize.  The action taken during the last financial crises has not been enough. There is lingering public resentment: that the banks were saved at the expense of workers.

And let me give you a figure here: we need to create some 600 million jobs by 2030 to keep pace with the growing population. That is a huge macroeconomic challenge. And these jobs must be green jobs, and quality jobs – because this is not merely an economic matter but one of human rights, and of the future of humanity.

The whole-sale transformation we need – in economic policy and governance – is challenging to pursue politically, but we cannot run away from making the hard choices we need to make urgently. In parallel, we must do more to promote evidence-based action, rather than policies driven by ideology. We can do more to ensure that our international financial institutions create a better safety net. And we need to rethink the concept of profit. What is profit if it is destroying the planet? What is profit if it is fuelling modern slavery?

The third tipping point is the fraying of the social contract as the gains we have made over the past decades are slowing, even reversing. Moreover, these gains were never shared equally.

Despite prolonged periods of growth, wealth has not trickled down. Inequality is deepening. It is sobering to think, for example, that just 26 people own as much as the 3.8 billion who make up the poorer half of humanity.

Governments are less able to provide a credible guarantee to their citizens. Today, issues that were traditionally domestic – job creation, for instance – increasingly have a global dimension and require global cooperation.

Which brings me to my last tipping point: the health of our multilateral system. These trends and challenges have produced a crisis of confidence in governments and institutions.

Justified concerns about unchecked globalization have mutated into a backlash against the very principles that give power to the people, such as human rights, gender equality and social justice. And against the institutions that promote them.

We are seeing a rise in nationalist sentiment, in extremism, in unilateral approaches, in attacks on international laws and norms.

This is creating a difficult environment for the decisions we need to take in the coming months and years. Just when we need multilateralism more than ever, global cooperation is being questioned, even undermined in some quarters.

We know from past, painful experience that erosion of the social contract, and erosion of international cooperation, leads to war.

And we know that this time, war could wipe us out – through nuclear weapons, but also by wasting time that should have been spent on climate change, sustainable development and well-being.

We hear time and again that governments alone cannot achieve the transformation we need to our societies and economies; that we need civil society, business, parliaments, academia, cities and youth to take forward sustainable development and climate action. We need to do much more to open up the UN, to build stronger partnerships and engage stakeholders meaningfully in decision-making and in implementation on the ground.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés

President of the UN General Assembly

Dear friends,

I fear that I may have thoroughly depressed you by now! But I assure you, I am a stubborn optimist. I remain confident that – together – we can navigate the challenges we face.

Why? Because multilateralism works. I see it every day at the United Nations. Even in the most difficult situations, the UN is a platform for states to work together.

Since the creation of the UN, we have made great strides forward – in education, poverty eradication, development and health.

We have adopted human rights treaties to eliminate discrimination against women, to protect children, to empower people with disabilities. We have responded to humanitarian emergencies and supported peace in countries such as Lebanon, Bosnia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. We have defeated Apartheid.

And there are interesting parts of the UN that you may not have heard of – like the International Civil Aviation Organization, which looks after things like flight safety. Or the Office for Outer Space Affairs, which helps to ensure you have mobile data on your phone.

And then there is the UN’s work on the ground – feeding 80 million people a day, for instance, or vaccinating nearly half of the world’s children.

That is just a snapshot of the UN’s achievements and the range of issues it works on. And it does so on a modest budget. The total spending by all parts of the UN – peace operations, development agencies, humanitarian programmes, health and so on is about $50 billion dollars a year. Now that sounds like a huge amount.

But let’s put it into context, the world’s richest man has a net worth of three times that amount. Americans spend more on pizza each year.

And even at this difficult time, diplomats are working together at the General Assembly – our “parliament for humanity”. As President of the Assembly, that is part of my job, supporting states to reach agreement when they have diverging views. The adoption last year of the compacts on refugees and on safe, orderly and regulation migration show that we can still make progress, even on the hardest of issues.

The overwhelming majority of states recognize that multilateralism is not a threat to sovereignty, that – on the contrary – it strengthens states’ capacity to pursue their interests and solve problems, whilst sharing the burden, costs and risks.

So we know multilateralism works. But where are we to direct our efforts? We have – in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and in the Paris Agreement – our blueprint to save the world, our survival kit for humanity.

These documents offer hope. They offer guidance. They address many of the factors fueling dissatisfaction with the international system, from material deprivation to poor governance. Implementing them will do more to demonstrate to people the value of multilateralism, than any speech or campaign.

So, we know what to do. But how do we get there? Throughout this session of the General Assembly, the same answers have emerged: Let’s focus on the evidence. Let’s look at what has worked. Let’s identify the most transformative, scale-able “next steps” that can tip the scales in our favor.

As for when we need action, clearly, the answer is now. We need action today.

And we have two crucial opportunities coming up. In September, during the General Assembly’s High-Level Week, we will have five summits that will be attended by around 160 world leaders.

  • The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development – this will be the first SDG Summit at heads of state and government level;
  • The Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit – which will be all about scaling up ambition;
  • The midterm review of the SAMOA Pathway for small island developing states – who are at the sharp end of the climate crisis, who could simply disappear if we don’t act;
  • The High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage;
  • And the High-Level Dialogue on financing for development.

We need every meeting to count. All of them are inter-connected.

And next year, in 2020, we will mark the UN’s 75th anniversary. This is a golden opportunity to galvanize commitment to multilateralism, and to change the way we do business. It is a chance to make the UN more effective, more transparent, more accountable and more relevant to “we the peoples”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

That has been the overarching theme for my presidency: making the UN relevant for all. And this is my final point. After why, what, how and when, there is: who. And the answer to that is you.

We hear time and again that governments alone cannot achieve the transformation we need to our societies and economies; that we need civil society, business, parliaments, academia, cities and youth to take forward sustainable development and climate action. We need to do much more to open up the UN, to build stronger partnerships and engage stakeholders meaningfully in decision-making and in implementation on the ground.

So, as you can see, there is much work for the Centre for UN Studies!

I wish you all the best as you embark on this exciting journey. I congratulate you on being pioneers in founding the first institution of this kind in the UK. And I look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions.

Thank you.