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Creating an “Arc of Ambition” with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres

On New Year’s Day, Antonio Guterres became the ninth Secretary General of the United Nations. During his political career in Portugal and his decade leading the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Guterres has been recognized as a passionate advocate for social justice and equality, drawing on his skill for consensus building, ensuring that every voice is heard and everyone has a seat at the table.

Guterres reinforced his reputation for inclusion at his first meeting with civil society organizations last December. As many of those present observed, it is the first time an incoming UN secretary general has met with a representative group of civil society organizations. It was a gesture that says a lot about his style: open, engaged and giving voice to all.

I was privileged to participate and witness first-hand Guterres’ unwavering commitment to engage with civil society. He reminded us that while at UNHCR he created the High Commissioner’s Dialogues on Protection Challenges, a unique setting that allowed all stakeholders -- states, non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, the academic and research communities and other stakeholders – to speak at the same level. He stressed the value of a real strategic dialogue with NGOs, and said he was open to ideas about how to ensure a permanent flow of communication between civil society and governments to help structure and advance strategies, policies and actions by the UN. This he considers essential.

Though deeply mindful of the realities of political economies, Guterres showed an invigorating willingness to tackle the root obstacles that hold us back from addressing the historic challenges ahead. These challenges include his three key priorities: peacekeeping, development and preventive action, and reform of UN management. When he expanded on these at the meeting, his unequivocal commitment to human rights, to radical inclusiveness and participation, to gender parity, to the protection and engagement of children and youth, shone through. He also stressed the importance of horizontal integration across the spheres of human rights, peacekeeping and sustainable development.

He has also demonstrated his acute understanding of the role that climate change and resource scarcity play in heightening tensions and instability.  In earlier remarks during his tenure at UNHCR, he highlighted the impact of those megatrends on security and the ways in which they contribute to refugee and migration crises.

Creating an Arc of Ambition

When he took the oath of office on December 12, Guterres told the UN General Assembly  that he believed that the momentum around the Paris Agreement is unstoppable, which I very much agree with – there is no turning back. Now it is up to us to not only move forward, but accelerate our efforts to tackle challenges for which there is a window of diminishing opportunity.

Thus it was encouraging that both he and the deputy secretary general designate, Amina Mohammed, were receptive to a proposal WRI put forward at the gathering with civil society representatives: that together, we create an Arc of Ambition, starting in 2017 as a foundational year and continuing over a series of coming milestones.

Quite simply, the Arc of Ambition is based in the recognition that we have a limited time to act to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels, the lower and safer temperature goal of the Paris Agreement. Beyond that threshold, we enter uncharted climatic terrain that will severely challenge our economies and societies. Our actions must reflect this urgency. The good news is that efforts to combat climate change and promote sustainable development are mutually reinforcing. This short window of time is a unique opportunity to create a trajectory of truly unstoppable momentum to help galvanize action that curbs emissions, builds resilience to climate impacts and delivers on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There are a number of important events and milestones that we must use to our advantage during this Arc of Ambition. This will be a foundational year, with 2018 a pivotal year in many areas. That is when the Paris Agreement calls for a Facilitative Dialogue to lay the groundwork for countries to enhance their climate efforts and when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will issue a major report reviewing the latest science on what it takes to limit temperature rise to 1.5 C. And 2018 is when the rulebook for executing the Paris Agreement will be finalized. There will also probably be an important summit of non-state actors – cities, businesses, investors and others --  to showcase how they are invested in moving forward with climate and related efforts. In parallel, the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development will continue to assess progress on key issues in 2017 and 2018, and in 2019, the high-level Summit for the 2030 Agenda will take place.

We believe that a High Level Climate Summit in 2018 at the UN would reinforce the indelible linkages between climate action and sustainable development, showcase progress on ambitious national climate plans, and create a gateway to the high-level summit on sustainable development the following year.

Each of these moments would become an essential milestone on an Arc of Ambition that sets our global community on a trajectory of inclusion, resilience and sustainability. This trajectory would continue through to 2020, when we look to increasingly purposeful national climate plans under the Paris Agreement, to the 2023 Global Stocktake under Paris, to 2025 with even more ambitious climate action, to 2030 for delivery on the SDGs, and ultimately out to 2050 – the mid-century target by which we must be reaching net-zero GHG emissions.

No one can do this alone. And yet each one of us, and those still to come, depend on exactly such decisive action. It is therefore profoundly encouraging that we set out on this journey with a new secretary general who understands the tough demands that underpin these universal agendas, and who is committed to active and inclusive engagement. He has called for peace. These are indeed the foundations of peace.

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