The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) conducts annual sessions that engage its 193 member states on pressing international concerns that threaten overall sustainability and quality of life. Acknowledging societal challenges, the UNGA enjoins governments around the world to help each other in eradicating poverty and hunger, building resilience and lasting peace, combating climate change, and enhancing the overall quality of life by promoting access to basic human rights.
This year, the UNGA operates around the theme “Building resilience through hope – to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainability, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalize the United Nations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had ravaging impacts on the world, which have only amplified the pre-existing crises experienced by struggling nations. Efforts towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals have also been severely dampened. For these reasons the 76th Session of the UNGA unfolded with a COVID-19 backdrop.
Among the main topics during 2021 UNGA were
- the disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates,
- the struggle against climate change, and
- the gender disparity, amplified by the pandemic.
“We best the science test but we are getting an F in ethics”
– UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres
In his speech during the opening of the UNGA debates, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lauded the record-speed development and production of COVID-19 vaccines. However, he also emphasized the need to close the supply gap so that the pandemic can be brought to a swift end.
Wealthier nations’ surplus of vaccines have expiration dates coming much sooner than public demand, while the majority of the population in developing nations are still waiting for their first dose. During their respective addresses in the UNGA debate, the United States’ President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping reiterated their commitment to bridging vaccine shortage by either tapping their own vaccine supply or coursing their donations through the COVAX facility.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi focused his discussion on the fast rate at which vaccine innovation is progressing in India, with pioneering studies on nasal COVID-19 vaccines currently underway. Modi additionally highlighted India’s capacity for large-scale vaccine production and encouraged vaccine manufacturers to optimize production by tapping India’s available infrastructure. Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives established plans to host a high-level meeting with the specific focus of addressing the obstacles involved in vaccine supply, storage, and distribution, hoping to unify world leaders and correct the lack of political support that seems to be the root cause of these issues.
“We are no longer on the wrong path…we are on the edge of the cliff.” – UNGA President, Abdulla Shahid
UNGA President Abdulla Shahid cited the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 6th Assessment Report released in August 2021 to alert member states of the urgent need for climate action. He acknowledges that climate change has taken a backseat to ending the COVID-19 pandemic as far as global initiative priorities but reminds the General Assembly that “We are no longer on the wrong path… we are on the edge of the cliff.” Action suggested to divert from the edge includes a series of climate action events to prepare for November’s UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). This event will be taking place in Glasgow, where global leaders are expected to make fresh, more ambitious commitments towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions.
The latest IPCC report noted that global warming of 1.5 °C and 2 °C thresholds will be surpassed this century unless steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide, are enforced. Exceeding the minimum 1.5 °C threshold translates into more frequent occurrences of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, droughts, and stronger hurricanes. The window to keep global warming within 1.5 °C is rapidly closing–achieving this would require a cut in total global emissions by 45% before 2030. However, recent government climate change mitigation commitments are estimated to increase global emissions by 60% before the end of the current decade.
There are currently global plans addressing the financial strain associated with advances to alleviate climate change. The landmark 2015 Paris Agreement recognizes the uneven capability of nations to adapt to climate change and reduce their emissions. As such, developed countries began pledging support to developing nations, funding their emissions reduction and capacity-building efforts and boosting their climate change resiliency. Through the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), countries promised to provide $100 billion per year in support to developing countries by 2020. To date, however, this promise has not been met. OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann announced the shortfall in September of 2020 to be roughly $20 billion. At the 76th UNGA, Guterres reminded developed countries that following through with the 20-billion-USD promise to finance climate action projects is necessary to bring about substantial change.
The pandemic has only exacerbated the struggles that women go through in the face of marginalization.
Abdulla Shahid called the pandemic the proverbial “canary in the coal mine,” referring to its effect of highlighting problems that require action if the world is to avoid greater catastrophe.
Guterres, in his speech during the UNGA 76, spoke on the persistent problem of the “gender divide.” He elaborated how women constituted the majority of frontline workers severely affected by the impacts of COVID-19 and that many women’s careers took a backseat as they had to care for loved ones, prioritize domestic work, or lost jobs. Increased time at home amid shelter-in-place orders also resulted in a spike of women’s risk in being subjected to violence and other forms of abuse. The heightened prevalence of all these disadvantages to women in the workforce during the pandemic forecasted a necessity to inform and promote change. Efforts are currently being made to change the tide of the gender divide.
“By following the paths laid out…we can pivot away from destructive practices and embrace a better future.”
– UNGA President, Abdulla Shahid
During its 76th session, the UNGA provided an avenue for its member states to engage in meaningful discussions on pressing international concerns. With the deadline fast approaching for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the COVID-19 pandemic effectively stemming advancement, the focus of the UNGA was rekindling hope and cultivating cooperation within and among nations. Practices are in place and bringing the issues of COVID-19 vaccination disparities, climate change, and the gender divide to the forefront in discussion between nations will motivate more effective alterations to keep up with universal sustainability needs.
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