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Dear UN Secretary-General Guterres: Deliver on climate action

Here's how the world can approach Sustainable Development Goal 13, the one with a big asterisk.

Our SDGs Letter Project is a call to action. A little over a year ago, the U.N. adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which collectively represent millions of dreams and aspirations. GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing 17 letters by Yale University students that highlight the ideas of youth regarding the 2030 developmental agenda. This series seeks to drive forward the collective will to translate the SDGs into reality.

Dear António Guterres,

First and foremost, congratulations on your election as the next secretary-general of the United Nations, the world’s most important institution for international cooperation.

Although many are disappointed to again not see a woman in its main leadership position, I am confident that you will be able to appoint a very competent female counterpart as your Deputy Secretary-General, as well as welcome many women in top positions in your office and across the entire organization.

I am writing you to share my concern, vision and hope for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, in an effective, holistic and integrated manner, all around the world, to reach the true transformation that is promised to people and planet (PDF), and needed for so many currently suffering.

Goal 13 is very special: "Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts."

It is, after all, a goal with an asterisk. It doesn't just represent five climate targets, seven proposed indicators and plenty of climate-related targets throughout the other SDGs. Instead, it is also a 25-page legal document: the Paris Agreement (PDF).

In the same week that the Security Council agreed on electing you as the U.N.’s new leader, the new global climate agreement got ratified by the number of countries representing the amount of global emissions necessary, and officially will enter into force Nov. 4 — much earlier than many expected.

It gives hope to see the world come together like this, and both the SDGs and the Paris Agreement are huge successes brought to life at the United Nations — something to celebrate and be proud of. We now need find a way to maintain this same momentum in the 14 years ahead, which begin with your term as UNSG.

I want you to have this on your radar. You now bear a large deal of the responsibility to ensure the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement are implemented properly, and that the United Nations is able to fully support nations in their efforts to put global aspirations and obligations in practice locally.

You now bear a large deal of the responsibility to ensure the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement are implemented properly.

While countries are starting to develop plans to implement the SDGs in their own context, they also have just put forward their Nationally Determined Contributions to climate actions under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Paris Agreement states that countries will be working towards low greenhouse gas emissions development pathways.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirmed, "(climate) policies can be more effective when consistently embedded within broader strategies designed to make national and regional development paths more sustainable." It seems natural to me that the climate and SDG development efforts come together in an integrated manner, although that will require coordinated efforts, not unconfirmed assumptions.

Why are climate change and sustainable development so inherently interlinked, one might wonder? As a refresher, here are some examples:

  • Simply put, climate change increases poverty (SDG 1), decreases food security and increases hunger (SDG 2), increases diseases (SDG 3), threatens drinking water availability (SDG 6), reinforces inequalities (SDG 5 and 10), and worsens conflicts (SDG 16).

  • As a critical component of the SDGs is that we must "leave no one behind" and "reach the furthest behind first," it is disheartening to realize that climate change negatively impacts the poorest and most vulnerable the most.  

  • By current prediction models, it is expected that there may be hundreds of millions forced migrants (PDF) due to climate change impacts by 2050. Compared to that, the current unrest in Europe is nothing. As the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees, you said in 2009: "not only states, but cultures and identities will be drowned." If your island, your home, has disappeared below sea level, there is really nothing left to develop, let alone sustainably.

Thus, in order to ensure that integrated implementation happens successfully, we need first for all countries and actors to realize that climate action and sustainable development are strongly interlinked, and one cannot be achieved without the other.

Not only states, but cultures and identities will be drowned.

Next, we need your organization to put well-functioning "mechanisms" in place to help coordinate and realize the integrated, transformative and universal efforts on implementation, thus linking global vision with necessary national, regional and local actions.  

I want to point your attention toward the following three concrete action areas for the United Nations specifically.

1. Break down the institutional silos

In the negotiations on the SDGs it was repeatedly stressed that one cannot remain in silos when working on these issues.

In the spirit of practicing what we preach, the U.N. should do the same. You should offer an integrated approach to problem-solving inside the U.N. and break down silos within the institution — bringing different internal actors together and incentivizing them to collaborate.   

A strong connection must be built between the U.N. headquarters in NYC and the UNFCCC headquarters in Bonn, Germany. U.N. officials and staff should be able to properly communicate about their approaches to implementation of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, and collaborate with each other.

A potential solution could be to set up a shared office that focuses on global — and supports national — strategies for implementation of climate-resilient, sustainable development.

Moreover, as you are currently considering, perhaps a strategic pick for your Deputy Secretary-General would be the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Christiana Figueres?

2. Revitalize an effective U.N. development system

In terms of the active role of the U.N. system, it is critical to work to provide comprehensive and coordinated support for countries on implementation of climate-resilient and sustainable development plans, both at the global and the country team level.

The different U.N. organizations should have clarity on their responsibilities and mandates, and you should motivate them to collaborate rather than to compete with each other, which is at the potential expense of country-level progress.

The U.N. Development Group (UNDG) will be a very important place to establish this coordination for impactful efforts, and to start with, the UNFCCC should certainly join as a member sooner rather than later. The new global SDG Action Campaign is also a very promising U.N. initiative, with a conveniently located office in Bonn.

3. Engage and empower the leaders of 2030

As both sustainable development and climate change are primarily issues with long-term consequences and effects, it is fundamental to engage younger people, among others, in the process of implementation by equipping them with the right skills to partake in building sustainable and inclusive societies.

Also, it is important to engage with them in a meaningful dialogue. Young people should be seen as your successors in training, especially as they seem to feel disenfranchised from the bureaucratic and hierarchic U.N. system, while you largely depend on them (us!) for achieving the goals in 2030.

It is key to work in intergenerational partnership for success and sustainability, but this must be materialized beyond the pretty words.

We are living at a time where we see increasing national isolation and protectionism measures, rather than the international cooperation we need to tackle our shared challenges. The SDGs and its implementation can be a catalyst in bringing countries closer together again at the U.N.

Moreover, there is currently a lot of criticism on your institution, not all of it unfounded. I would urge you to strongly focus on bridging the gap between the global elites and the common people on the ground. We need a bigger effort to make the first words of the U.N. Charter a reality — in the end, it is really all about "we the peoples."

I look forward to seeing you in action to deliver on the milestones of 2015, including the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, and in particular to implement what the SDGs stand for inside the United Nations. Students and many other stakeholders are eager to collaborate — as long as the U.N. itself also practices what it preaches.

Together, we can deliver on the global transformation we need to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change by 2030 — and that is sooner rather than later.

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