Frankly Speaking: The Pope, the Summit, and Altering Course

Written by: Steven Stone, Chief of UNEP's Economics and Trade Branch (ETB)


"We human beings are part of the environment any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity."

 25 September 2015 - Pope FrancisAddress to UN Summit            

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 occasion at this summit was an event entitled, "Powered by Inclusive Sustainable Growth: Why and How We Decided to Alter Course" which we at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) were fortunate enough to host with colleagues from Germany and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

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.