By Anne-Marie Slaughter, Ilona Szabó, Jayati Ghosh, and Poonam Ghimire*
Our collective future hinges on a transformative shift in our relationship with the planet. This week, during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, negotiations will begin at the ministerial level to plan the Summit of the Future in 2024. Coming together to save our common home must be at the top of the agenda.
The triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution has accelerated and intensified in recent years. Moreover, the world is coming perilously close to irreversible tipping points, such as the collapse of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, bleached coral reefs, and a substantial loss of tropical forests. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that global warming is set to reach or exceed the internationally agreed target of 1.5º Celsius in the coming two decades, even in the best-case scenario of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
A green and equitable economy is possible
Despite these risks and challenges, it is still possible to achieve a green and equitable global economy. A good starting point would be for countries and communities that have benefited the most from decades of planetary exploitation to acknowledge that they bear a special responsibility to help alleviate the climate crisis.
Rich countries around the world are responsible for around half of historical carbon emissions, which have been essential to their development. The Paris climate agreement thus explicitly emphasizes that environmental governance must proceed on the basis of “common but differentiated responsibilities” – a core principle of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
But the onus of committing to a green and just transition rests upon all of us. In wealthy countries, where the rich are responsible for far more emissions than the poor, environmental solutions must differentiate between high and low emitters. And while low- and middle-income countries have an undeniable right to pursue growth, they must develop more sustainably for the benefit of their citizens. Bilateral cooperation, as well as multilateral institutions, should help them align their policies with emissions-reduction targets, biodiversity protection, and a shift toward a circular economy.
To generate the necessary political will to commit to a just green transition, countries need a vision of energy abundance, rich biodiversity, and a thriving planet. To this end, as members of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB), we propose that a Pact for the Future, which has been proposed as the outcome of the Summit of the Future, include the set of recommendations to rebalance the relationship between people and planet outlined in the report that HLAB submitted to the UN Secretary-General in April.
A healthy planet is a global public good
Our proposals recognize that a healthy planet is a global public good that benefits all of humanity. It would align existing treaty commitments, raise collective ambition, and marshal the resources to enable states and non-state actors to build a net-zero future.
For developing countries, the green transition offers a chance to join the ranks of the world’s high-income countries. While they lack the financial means to fund ambitious policies like the US Inflation Reduction Act and the European Green Deal, many of these countries have abundant natural resources, such as forests that must be safeguarded to preserve the planet and the critical minerals and rare earths required to achieve the energy transition. Moreover, global power shifts have given them additional leverage to pursue new funding options and fairer agreements to address climate challenges.
As active participants in the negotiations for a Pact for the Future, low- and middle-income countries can increase their green ambitions, take a lead in creating a sustainable future, and push back against the old “international division of labor,” in which their natural resources were exploited to create wealth and accelerate decarbonization in advanced economies. Instead, at the upcoming Summit of the Future, they can propose and negotiate multilateral agreements and financing mechanisms to deliver a just climate transition alongside the Sustainable Development Goals.
Tackling climate change is not a zero-sum gain
The foundations of a Pact for the Future that works for people and planet have already been laid. The first step is to reaffirm existing treaty obligations – including the Paris climate agreement, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, and others – and to accelerate progress with time-bound targets. The pact should also commit to net-zero emissions; the phase-out of fossil fuels; the provision of clean energy to the 800 million people lacking access to electricity; a halt to deforestation (including a new incentive mechanism to protect standing forests); biodiversity targets that respect the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities; the regeneration of natural systems; and a pollution-free planet.
The problem is that, without investment, these commitments will remain paper promises. HLAB thus endorses the recommendations of the UN High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities in 2022, which specify the scale of investment required to achieve net-zero emissions and the practical steps that member states and multilateral banks must take to begin meeting these needs.
HLAB also emphasizes that, in addition to mobilizing financial resources, a just green transition requires transfers of knowledge and technology. And it highlights the importance of pricing and regulating carbon emissions, eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies, increasing transparency concerning emissions and carbon capture, and offering incentives to accelerate the shift to clean energy.
Contrary to popular belief, tackling climate change is not a zero-sum game. Regaining balance with nature would not only ensure the survival of future generations, but would also generate countless opportunities for current ones. To succeed, however, the pact must include strong commitments and establish clear expectations. With preparations for the Summit of the Future underway, now is the time to start imagining our shared path to a sustainable and equitable transition.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of policy planning in the US State Department, is CEO of the think tank New America, Professor Emerita of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the author of Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics (Princeton University Press, 2021).
Ilona Szabó, Co-Founder and President of the Igarapé Institute, is a member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism.
Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a member of the Club of Rome’s Transformational Economics Commission.
Poonam Ghimire is a member of the United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism.