Frankly speaking: the Pope, the summit, and altering course

Catholic Church Ew Flickr
Image: Catholic Church of England & Wales / Flickr

Hubris, humility and hybrid Fiat 500s at the UN's Sustainable Development Goals Summit in New York City

Big, bold, vibrant - New York City is nothing if not an exciting epicenter of thought and action, and never more so than the weekend of September 25-27, when over 100 Heads of State gathered to celebrate and formally adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the United Nations (UN) Summit.

The hubris was evident everywhere: large convoys of limousines and hulking security vehicles in black paraded throughout the town, accompanied by the wail of sirens and an army of federal, state and city security officers.  Entire streets were cordoned off and carefully parsed and guarded to ensure safe passage.

But among this mayhem, and well below the din of hubris, the Pope arrived in a small, grey Fiat 500, decked out with a little yellow flag; and after addressing UN Staff alongside the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, sat humbly in an oversize chair waiting his turn to address the General Assembly.

Drawing liberally from his recently released Encyclical, “Laudato Si”, he acknowledged that given the grave state of the situation, he felt compelled to speak frankly.

And this is what he said:  “The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion.  In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action…”

Thus began the General Assembly, kicking off the weekend in which the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were born and baptized.

My special concern was SDG 8, which focuses on "sustainable and inclusive growth, with full employment."  Many of us who have sought to advance the concept of a sustainable economy, a greener and more inclusive economy, came to New York to witness the birth and also celebrate the partnerships that, together, can make the goals achievable for the countries subscribing to them - that is, to all the countries.

“The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged, either because they are differently abled (handicapped), or because they lack adequate information and technical expertise, or are incapable of decisive political action…”

Pope Francis

With a packed room of around 150 participants, the German Minister of Environment, Barbara Hendricks, opened the event with a reflection on Germany's experience and the key design decisions needed to alter course, focusing on the energy transition and the critical role of political choice and leadership.

This was followed by an interactive discussion moderated by Magdy Martínez-Solimán, Assistant Secretary-General for UNDP, which featured contributions from the International Labour Organization (ILO), the European Commission, as well as from Minister Molewa from South Africa and Minister Sundtoft from Norway.  UNEP’s Executive Director Achim Steiner flagged the critical role of partnerships and how the UN can come together to support countries seeking to make the 2030 Development Agenda a reality.  

At the event, two very significant things happened: first, UNEP used the occasion to share a publication on "Uncovering Pathways towards an Inclusive Green Economy: A Summary for Leaders".  This report, coming on the back of two decisions from the UNEP Governing Council in 2013 and UN Environment Assembly in 2014, builds on the original green economy report and expands and deepens it to include notions of equity, distribution, and sustainable consumption as well as allocative efficiency and sustainable production in both brown and green economic sectors.

Second, UNEP announced a call for expressions of interest for the new and emerging Partnership for Action on Green Economy (PAGE), opening the way for interested countries to seek engagement and analytical support as they seek to uncover and adopt their own unique and tailored transition pathways.

I felt a special tinge of excitement when the Minister from Germany, in her opening remarks, commented on how partnerships like PAGE can contribute to achieving the SDGs, with a special focus on “modelling the employment and growth effects of investment in green sectors, and giving tools to progressive policy makers."

Tools for progressive policy makers, once they have decided to alter course: the mix of fiscal policies and tax reforms that could drive such an effort; the flanking and supporting social policies to ensure that “no one is left behind” (in the words of the Norwegian Minister); and the reigning in and governance of financial markets, overcoming their growing tendency to short termism and misallocation of capital away from the real economy and job creation that will be needed for sustainable and inclusive growth.

In this, we have something more to look forward to: on October 8th, UNEP's Inquiry into the Design of Sustainable Financial Systems - a pioneering effort to understand and chart new pathways unlocking the vast stocks of capital that underwrite and underpin our current economy and that will finance the investments of our future one – will launch its much awaited flagship report at the upcoming World Bank/IMF Annual meetings in Lima.

Finance3
Image: Jeshiva Delirium / Flickr

Of course, at the end of the day, how and why countries alter course will require a large dose of courage and conviction, in addition to any policy tools and analytical support that UNEP or others can provide.

Which brings me back to one of the central contributions of the Pope at the UN Summit: speaking frankly. 

If we truly want to alter course, we must face up squarely to some of the difficult decisions that lay before us, and speak clearly and truthfully to those decisions and to the many who who will carry and bear their consequences for years to come.

To speak clearly and truthfully to those who will make the decisions upon which the fate of many depend almost entirely; and particularly, on decisions affecting how public goods and wealth - including the natural environment - are stewarded and distributed.

And to speak clearly and truthfully to the pathways that remain to be uncovered, such that the hidden and often undervalued contributions of our ecosystems and natural wealth can be nurtured and carefully stewarded for a restored planet, and a healthy environment – and a healthy humanity.

Because, speaking frankly, the time left to us to alter course is short and fleeting; and it will take great courage - as well as informed choices - to make the decisions needed to do so.

So, time to hop into our own proverbial Fiat 500's - hybrids preferably - make our way across the great city, and tell it like it is.

Steven Stone, UNEP


This article has been reposted from the UNEP Green Economy portal. The original is available here.

Image credit: "Pope Francis" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by Catholic Church (England and Wales)