The General Debate of the UN General Assembly’s 77th session took place between 20 and 26 September this year with the theme “A watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges”. The theme contemplates in particular the shared roots of crises such as COVID-19, climate change and conflict.
Unsurprisingly, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and climate change were a particular focus of UN representatives’ private sector-oriented remarks. Businesses’ human rights obligations also featured in statements made during the course of the high-level week. Key remarks of UN representatives of particular interest to the business community are set out below.
SDGs, climate change and human rights: key remarks
- In his opening speech at the General Debate, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for the launch of an “SDG stimulus” – led by the G20 – to boost sustainable development for developing countries. This would involve (among other things): (i) multilateral development banks increasing concessional funding linked to investments in the SDGs; (ii) introducing a debt relief mechanism for middle-income countries in debt distress; and (iii) a redistribution of Special Drawing Rights in a way that would better enable developing countries to invest in recovery and the SDGs.
- Guterres emphasised the importance more generally of “rescuing” the SDGs, warning against them being neglected in light of contemporary challenges. He called for finance and investment from both the public and private sectors in order to fulfil the SDGs.
- Guterres gave a stark warning to private sector actors investing in fossil fuels, calling for fossil fuel companies and their “enablers” (financial institutions that “continue to invest and underwrite carbon pollution”) to be held to account. Relatedly, Guterres called on all developed countries to tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies – such funds to be re-directed to countries and people in need.
- UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed highlighted the business community’s responsibility to protect global environmental commons. Mohammed emphasised in particular that businesses should be looking to invest in biodiversity – a strategy that “makes both environmental and economic sense”.
- The Assistant Secretary-General of the UN Global Compact Sanda Ojiambo called on all companies to set: (i) near-term, science-based targets, aligned with the 1.5 degree pathway; and (ii) long-term, science-based targets aligned with the new net zero standard. Ojiambo emphasised that companies must ensure their targets are verifiable, up to date with the latest climate science and are being reported and monitored transparently; self-declared goals are not sufficient.
- Ojiambo added that the UN General Assembly’s recent recognition of the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right paves the way for businesses, among others, to accelerate the implementation of environmental human rights commitments. Relatedly, Ojiambo announced the UN Global Compact’s Business & Human Rights Accelerator, a programme designed to assist companies in establishing ongoing human rights due diligence processes.
Calls on the business community to keep pace with the UN’s SDGs and global environmental commitments are particularly elevated ahead of COP27 (November 2022) and the 2023 SDG Summit, with particularly stern words being directed towards fossil fuel investors. The UN has urged continued dedication to the fulfilment of the SDGs on the part of both public and private sectors, emphasising the need in particular for measurable and verifiable climate targets from businesses. Businesses looking to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and stay ahead of changes that domestic legislators and regulators may introduce in the near future, can usefully look to the UN’s announcements to see what developments may be on the horizon.