‘The green economy is the future,’ UN chief says in Beijing, urging climate solutions that strengthen economies, protect the environment

Winning the race against climate change to keep our planet livable and on a healthy trajectory requires action rooted in sustainable solutions aligned with the Paris Agreement and the UN-driven 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, Secretary-General António Guterres said on Saturday.

UN China/Zhao YunUN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends the Leader’s Roundtable on Promoting Green and Sustainable Development to Implement the 2030 Agenda in Beijing, China

“To put it simply, we need green development.  We need sustainable development.  And we need it now,” the UN chief told world leaders in Beijing, discussing ways to boost green development as part of a conference on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Painting a sobering picture of the challenges ahead – for the planet and the broader effort to secure improved human well-being while reducing environmental risks – Mr. Guterres recalled that the last four years were the hottest on record and that natural disasters have wreaked havoc in nearly every region of the globe.

“No country or community is immune. And, as we know, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer, and the worst hit,” said Mr. Guterres, warning that the climate crisis threatens decades of progress and jeopardizes all our plans for inclusive, sustainable development.

“And the clock is ticking.  Science has clearly told us that we have only 12 years for this transformation, if we want to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”

Yet the race to head off a climate catastrophe and ensure a safe and secure planet for all can be won, he said, with global action rooted in solutions that are sustainable and aligned with the landmark Paris accord and the UN 2030 Agenda.

To help generate ambition and to showcase practical, feasible and ambitious solutions to meet globally agreed goals, Mr. Guterres is convening a Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September.

UN China/Zhao YunLeader’s Roundtable on Promoting Green and Sustainable Development to Implement the 2030 Agenda was held in Beijing, China on 27, April, 2019

“I am calling on leaders to come with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by 2020,” he said, referring to efforts by each country under the Paris Agreement to reduce national emissions and adapt faster to the impacts of climate change.

The Secretary-General said these plans must show how greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 45 per cent over the next decade and how the world can get to net zero emissions globally by 2050 through strong mitigation and adaptation measures.

“It is why I have been asking leaders around the world to adopt carbon pricing that reflects the true cost of emissions, end subsidies on fossil fuels, and stop construction of new coal plants beyond 2020,” he explained, noting that he is also counting on leaders to make sure their plans include women as key decision-makers and address the disproportionate impacts many women experience from climate change.

In all this, Chinese leadership will continue to be crucial, said Mr. Guterres, stressing that new renewable energy jobs in China now outnumber those created in the oil and gas industries.  China also played a pivotal role in building bridges and securing an agreement at last December’s UN Climate Conference in Katowice – and will host next year’s second Global Sustainable Transport Conference.

The Belt and Road Initiative, with its huge volume of investment, said, Mr. Guterres, is an opportunity to propel the world into a green future and help countries transition to low-carbon, clean-energy pathways with new infrastructure that is sustainable and equitable.

“The momentum for transformational change is growing,” said the Secretary-General, stressing that the “green economy is the future,” and more governments, cities and businesses than ever understand that climate solutions strengthen economies and protect the environment at the same time.

New technologies are delivering energy at a lower cost than the fossil-fuel-driven economy, he continued, and solar and onshore wind are now the cheapest sources of new power, in virtually all major economies.

A world first: Women at the helm of every UN Regional Commission

Although United Nations Regional Commissions have been in existence for more than 70 years, for the first time ever, each one is currently headed by a woman designated by Secretary-General António Guterres. This accomplishment underscores that, since the day he took office, the UN chief has been determined to achieve gender parity by 2030 as part of the Agenda for Sustainable Development.

UN Photo/Eskinder DebebeUN Secretary-General António Guterres is flanked by the Heads of Regional Commissions, from left to right: Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC); Oľga Algayerová, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE); and Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), February 2019.

UN News spoke to some of these women leaders, about the steps being taken to make Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5), on women’s empowerment, a reality.

Latin America and the Caribbean: Alicia Bárcena

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), by UN ECLAC

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, known as ECLAC, detailed some of the battles her region faces, such as slow economic growth, high debt, a deterioration in quality employment and increased poverty.

She sees these “long-term challenges” as threats to gender equality, such as “gender gaps in labor markets, the overload of women’s unpaid work, their limited access to credit and productive assets, and women lacking their own income”.

At the same time, incorporating technological change “raises new questions about its disruptive effects on societies and especially on gender equality”.

Ms. Bárcena pointed out that although their political participation across the region has risen steadily over the past few decades, women only hold 30 per cent of seats in the region’s parliaments, which is far below the parity-based target.

“There is an urgent need to remove the key barriers hindering women’s participation in order to generate the conditions for the full exercise of women’s citizenship and autonomy in decision-making”, she stated. “To do so, it is important to achieve parity in the distribution of power, resources and time”.

Proudly, she said that under her leadership, ECLAC has achieved gender balance among in senior management, adding “and I am now progressively pushing forward for achieving a similar balance at other levels”.

Europe: Oľga Algayerová

Oľga Algayerová, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)., by UN Photo/Mark Garten

Oľga Algayerová, Executive Secretary for the Economic Commission for Europe, called UNECE, told UN News that by appointing women as UN Regional Commission heads, the Secretary-General is making “a clear call” to ensure that gender parity is “a reality in our regional organizations”.

“In the UNECE region, the political and economic landscape now looks far more balanced than it did some decades ago”, she asserted.

Ms. Algayerová explained that as a women leader, she is especially sensitive to women’s situations and needs. And as such, she can be more persistent in searching for gender-responsive solutions and broad-based decisions “in consultations with women’s groups” and others.

“I am often approached by women of different ages from civil societies, academia and governments, and I listen to their concerns”, she said.

“Gender equality and the empowerment of women has always been very dear to my heart”, she continued. “In all my previous positions which I have held both in my country, Slovakia, and abroad, I have been a strong advocate for gender equality”.

According to the ECE chief, meeting SDG5 means: ending all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls; valuing unpaid care and domestic work; and ensuring decent work for all.

“It is a gigantic task, requiring urgent action and pooling all resources to eliminate the root causes of gender inequalities”, she argued. To address this, Ms. Algayerová flagged the need to measure inequalities and provide data to identify what drives gender gaps and why imbalances persist in all spheres of life at country, regional and community levels.

“Only policies based on empirical evidences can be effective instruments to tackle the multifaceted forms of gender inequalities” she concluded.

Armida Alisjahbana: Asia and the Pacific

Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP)., by ESCAP/Diego Montemayor

For her part, Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, or ESCAP, told UN News that while “significant progress” has been made in her region, economic and social inequalities persist.

“Growing disparities in income and wealth disproportionately affect women, especially those in vulnerable situations”, she said, pointing out that “for every 10 men who are in employment, there are only six women working”.

What’s more, she lamented, “women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs, with little social protection provisions” and “have less access than men to financial services and productive assets, including land, capital, and information technologies”.

On the political front, Ms. Alisjahbana said that women’s representation in Asia and the Pacific continues to be low in comparison with other regions of the world.

“As of 2018, the proportion of seats held by women in the national parliaments is 18 per cent, while the global average is 24 per cent”, she stated. 

“Addressing such gaps is not only a matter of attaining fundamental rights for women, but also critical to the inclusive economic growth and sustainable development of the region as a whole” Ms. Alisjahbana stressed.

Western Asia: Rola Dashti

Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), by ESCWA

Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary of Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), shared with UN News her view that leadership is “not a privilege” but a “responsibility with accountability”.

Woman or man, an “all-weather leader” must work “in a responsible, efficient and effective manner to achieve the desirable goals”, she believes. 

Ms. Dashti expressed pride in that she could be “a good example” of women’s ability to “carry out substantive tasks and achieve the mission assigned”.

Against the backdrop of an Arab region embroiled in conflicts, war, displacement and grave economic and environment crises, the ESCWA chief said this situation aggravates the already “complicated task” of meeting SDG5.

She painted a picture of the existing problems facing women, “such as domestic and sexual violence; unemployment; and discrimination in public office” and recommended, “within the few years remaining until 2030”, as “the best course of action”, to “identify common priority areas” across Arab countries to help implement responses at the regional level that would “benefit all”.

She assured that ESCWA places women’s issues “at the forefront of its work” and underlined that “despite gender stereotypes and cultural barriers”, the aspirations of women and girls “are attainable” with “self-recognition, confidence and perseverance”.

“To every woman and girl, she concluded by saying: “Your horizon is your dream!”

Although UN News was unable to arrange an interview with Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), prior to publication, it is clear that she too is committed to the Secretary-General’s 2030 Agenda and working tirelessly in support of gender equality on the continent.

Future of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh ‘hangs in the balance’ – UNHCR chief

The critical needs of 1.2 million mostly Rohingya refugees in south-eastern Bangladesh were top of the agenda for a fact-finding mission to the region by three senior United Nations officials, who called for continuing support on Friday for them from the international community.

© UNHCR/Will SwansonEmergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock with a group of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Kutapalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh on 26 April 2019.

At the end of a joint visit to the country, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock, head of UN migration agency (IOM) António Vitorino, and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Filippo Grandi, reiterated their commitment to find safe and sustainable solutions for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, as well as helping them to make a safe and dignified return home.

Since August 2017, nearly 900,000 minority Muslim Rohingyas have fled violence across the border into Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar region, joining several hundred thousand others that had already settled there in overcrowded camps.

Mr. Lowcock painted a picture of “the most appalling brutality imaginable” during his first visit in 2017, when he “met with children who had seen parents killed” and women who, “just holding on”, recounted “horrendous stories of sexual violence they had survived”.

After visiting Cox’s Bazar this trip they noted that almost half of the 540,000 refugee children under the age of 12 are missing out completely on an education, while the remainder are only able to access very limited schooling. Moreover, just a handful of teenagers are currently able to access any form of education or training.

“With the current crisis almost two years on, we must give refugees the chance to learn, build skills and contribute to their communities while also preparing for reintegration when they can return to Myanmar,” said Mr. Grandi. “The future of the Rohingya refugees hangs in the balance.”

The visit came just prior to the onset of cyclone season, which is followed by the arrival of monsoons, both posing serious risks of flooding, landslides and disease outbreaks to thousands of vulnerable women, men and children.

“We are concerned for the welfare of the Rohingya refugees who live in such vulnerable circumstances in Cox’s Bazar, as well as for host communities which also face significant challenges, particularly in the lead up to the monsoon season,” said António Vitorino.

The UN leaders discussed with the Government ways that the international community can further support preparedness and response efforts.

“The Rohingya community is made up of so many young people who are in need of hope and opportunities if they are to build successful lives upon their return to Myanmar”, Mr. Vitorino added.

They also met families undergoing a joint Government-UNHCR registration process, receiving documents that for many are a first to confirm their identity in Bangladesh and enhance their rights to access services and protection.

“This remains one of the world’s biggest refugee crises,” maintained Mr. Grandi. “I saw a great deal of progress, but their situation, especially for women and children, remains fragile”.

While in the camps, they assessed ongoing work to address weather-related risks, including strengthening shelters, improving infrastructure, and training volunteers while recognizing the critical role the refugees themselves are playing in these efforts.

“A wise, far-sighted approach would see a stronger focus on helping the refugees not just recover from the horrors they have experienced, but also to prepare for a dignified longer-term future,” concluded Mr. Lowcock.

Aid preparations gear up as Mozambique braces for second massive storm

Emergency measures are being stepped up by the UN and partners in northern Mozambique, amid fears that another devastating tropical storm could batter coastal areas on Thursday evening, weeks after Cyclone Idai claimed hundreds of lives and flooded vast swathes of the south of the country.

© UNHCR/Luiz Fernando GodinhoFamilies affected by the Cyclone Idai leave temporary shelter of IFAPA, in Beira, to a transit center closer to their places of origin in the district of Buzi, Mozambique (20 April 2019).

“We are expecting that heavy rain will provoke flash floods and landslides impacting the north-eastern provinces of Cabo Delgado and Nampula,” Word Food Programme (WFP)  spokesperson Herve Verhoosel said.

“Another storm would be an additional blow for the people of Mozambique and further complicate the response in all areas.”

Confirming that the agency is “closely” watching the approaching weather system in the north and helping provincial authorities to prepare for the worst, Mr. Verhoosel explained that a joint WFP/ International Organization for Migration (IOM) assessment team, is already in place.

WFP has an office in the coastal town of Pemba – where the cyclone is expected to make landfall – and it also has some 300 metric tons of food aid in the northern coastal towns of Palma and Mocimboa da Praia, where humanitarian partners have been advised “to prepare the warehouses to protect the food and to weather the storm”, Mr. Verhoosel explained.

‘More than a million’ people still struggling after Idai devastation

Hundreds of kilometres away to the south, where Cyclone Idai made landfall six weeks ago causing massive devastation, a major aid operation is still ongoing.

“More than a million people (are) struggling to get back on their feet,” although floodwaters have receded in most areas, Mr. Verhoosel said.

In another development of serious concern, sex-for-aid allegations relating to food distribution for Idai victims in Nhamatanda district, Sofala province, have been strongly condemned by WFP.

Reacting to “shocking” allegations that emerged over the weekend of sexual exploitation and abuse relating to food distribution, the WFP spokesperson insisted that “no staff from WFP, or any UN agency or implementing partner” was involved.

“Upon learning of the allegations, which concerned demands for sex in exchange for food, WFP launched an immediate inquiry, interviewing women who said they had suffered abuse,” he said.

“Staff members heard of several cases of women and girls being asked for sex in exchange for food by community volunteers running food distributions.”

Stronger protection measures for vulnerable

In a bid to stamp out any sexual exploitation and abuse in the recovery effort, WFP intends to meet Government representatives to put in place “strengthened” protection measures for the most vulnerable, Mr. Verhoosel said.

Those affected by the alleged abuse will also receive additional support from UN agencies, the Government and NGOs, while partners in Mozambique are also receiving training to inform communities – before aid is distributed – that any person subjected to sexual exploitation and abuse should seek support from Government partners.

“WFP does not tolerate sexual harassment, exploitation or abuse (SEA) in any form. It is especially shocking if committed against those we serve and in the communities we serve,” Mr. Verhoosel said. “Zero tolerance means that a culture of impunity and complacency toward sexual exploitation and abuse is not accepted.”