Summary report, 18–20 September 2023
UN Summits Week 2023
As the General Debate of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly got underway, world leaders also convened for two Summits at UN Headquarters in New York under the overall theme of accelerating action on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and on climate change. While dignitaries were flocking to Manhattan’s East Side, protesters lined the streets of New York and many other cities around the world with calls for urgent climate action and demands to bridge global inequalities. Their message reverberated within the halls of the UN, with many delegations giving passionate voice to the impacts of insufficient progress on sustainable development and climate change.
The week opened with the SDG Summit, as the second meeting of the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development to convene under the auspices of the UN General Assembly since the 2030 Agenda’s adoption in 2015. It marked the crucial “half-time” check on the implementation of the Agenda’s 17 SDGs. This was followed by the Climate Ambition Summit convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to accelerate action by governments, business, finance, local authorities, and civil society.
More than 290 Heads of State and Government and other high-level dignitaries participated in these two Summits that convened from 18-20 September 2025 at UN Headquarters in New York.
A Brief History of the UN Summits
Every year in September, world leaders gather at UN Headquarters in New York to engage in the General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Leveraging dignitaries’ presence, a series of high-level events often convenes alongside the UNGA, forming a “UN Summits Week.” The topics for these focal moments vary from year to year, with recurrent themes including sustainable development, climate change, and finance, and the events attract various stakeholders.
In September 2015, leaders at the UN Sustainable Development Summit adopted “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” (2030 Agenda)—a global commitment that includes 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 169 targets, and a framework for follow-up and review of implementation. As part of this follow-up and review framework, the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) meets to review progress every July under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and every four years at the level of Heads of State and Government under the auspices of the UNGA. The aim of the HLPF is to:
- provide political leadership, guidance, and recommendations for sustainable development;
- follow up on and review progress in the implementation of sustainable development commitments;
- enhance the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development; and
- foster a focused, dynamic, and action-oriented agenda, ensuring the appropriate consideration of new and emerging sustainable development challenges.
Annual HLPF sessions: The annual HLPF sessions are typically attended by ministers and vice-ministers, as well as other representatives from governments, intergovernmental organizations, and civil society. At each session, a number of governments present Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs), which aim to facilitate the sharing of experiences, including successes, challenges, and lessons learned, with a view to accelerating the implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The sessions also feature a review of progress on several selected SDGs, and a ministerial declaration is typically adopted, except in years when the HLPF meets under the auspices of the UNGA. Sometimes, the adoption of the declaration or individual paragraphs therein has to be subject to a vote.
2019 SDG Summit: The 2019 SDG Summit, which took place 24-25 September 2019, was the first session of the HLPF to convene under the auspices of the UNGA following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda. This first SDG Summit provided a “wake-up call” that efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda were not reaching the scale needed to achieve the SDGs and transform the world. In the outcome document from the Summit, world leaders called on the UN Secretary-General to organize an “annual moment to highlight inspiring action on the Goals” as part of every high-level week of the UNGA.
SDG Moments: Building on the mandate from the 2019 SDG Summit, the UN Secretariat developed plans for an “annual temperature check” of the SDGs throughout the Decade of Action to 2030. These SDG Moments convene during the annual General Debate, aiming to keep the SDGs at the top of the political agenda. They serve to highlight successes and identify where more action is needed through a snapshot of progress.
The cornerstone of the international political response to climate change is the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was adopted in 1992 and sets out a framework for action aimed at stabilizing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to avoid “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” The parties to the UNFCCC and its related agreements, including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, meet annually at the Conference of the Parties (COP) to review progress and define next steps. These conferences are instrumental in engaging both state and non-state actors in climate change action. At times, the UN Secretary-General also convenes high-level meetings on climate change to help mobilize political will and drive action by all governments and stakeholders.
2014 Climate Summit: This Summit was convened by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to mobilize the political support and momentum necessary to reach a global agreement on climate change in 2015 and galvanize action on the ground across all sectors.
UNFCCC COP 21: In December 2015, parties to the UNFCCC adopted the Paris Agreement, calling for nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to be implemented with the overall goals of:
- holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels;
- increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low GHG emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; and
- making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low GHG emissions and climate-resilient development.
2019 Climate Action Summit: UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened this Summit to encourage accelerated action to implement the Paris Agreement. The Summit was attended by over 65 Heads of State and Governments, in addition to leaders of sub-national governments and the private sector. A number of participants announced carbon neutrality commitments and climate finance pledges.
2020 Climate Ambition Summit: On the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the United Nations, United Kingdom, and France, in partnership with Chile and Italy, co-convened a high-level event to mobilize government and non-governmental leaders to demonstrate their commitment to the Paris Agreement and the multilateral process.
Report of UN Summits Week
The 78th session of the UNGA featured a series of high-level events, including the SDG Summit and the Climate Ambition Summit.
The SDG Summit took place on Monday, 18 September and Tuesday, 19 September. Marking the half-way point to the deadline for achieving the 2030 Agenda, the Summit aimed to provide renewed impetus and accelerate action.
UNGA President Dennis Francis opened the meeting highlighting how a combination of factors, including the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the war in Ukraine, have compromised the sustainable development trajectory. He emphasized the need for transformative action, inviting Member States to announce bold commitments at the Summit.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres asserted that the 2030 Agenda is a promise to all people to “build a world of health and progress, leave no one behind—and pay for it.” Emphasizing the need for an SDG rescue plan, he called for delivering USD 500 billion per year and an effective debt relief mechanism. He urged reforming the “outdated, dysfunctional, and unfair” international financial architecture.
Paula Narváez, President of the Economic and Social Council, said the Summit should serve as a turning point to rescue the SDGs and implored delegates not to let the opportunity slip away.
Delegates then adopted the Political Declaration, whose negotiation had been co-facilitated over the course of several months by Qatar and Ireland.
The SDG Summit featured opening remarks by groups and six leaders’ dialogues on:
- scaling up actions on key transitions to accelerate SDG progress;
- building resilience and leaving no one behind;
- applying science, technology, innovation, and data for transformative action;
- strengthening integrated policies and public institutions for achieving the SDGs;
- strengthening the multilateral system for enhanced support, cooperation, follow-up, and review; and
- the mobilization of finance and investments and the means of implementation for SDG achievement.
During the closing segment, Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, looked back on the discussions held during the SDG Summit, noting convergence on the following points:
- building resilience to address the existential threat of climate change;
- expanding social protection to leave no one behind;
- localizing SDGs in conflict-afflicted and fragile states;
- pursuing transformative action through science, technology, and innovation;
- leveraging digitalization to speed up progress on the SDGs;
- strengthening integrated policies and mainstreaming SDG implementation at the national level;
- renewing multilateralism as an imperative for effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda;
- mobilizing finance and investment, including through the SDG stimulus, climate finance, debt relief, and a reform of the international finance architecture; and
- going beyond GDP, including through considering the multidimensional vulnerability index.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada, Co-Chair of the Sustainable Development Goals Advocates group, underscored that “stability benefits us all” in a world of looming uncertainty, climate change impacts, and conflicts. He emphasized the critical relevance of ending poverty and hunger, and called the Global Sustainable Development Report 2023 “sobering” and “alarming.” He reminded delegates that the SDGs are not a “luxury” but the “building blocks of success in each and every country and community.”
UN Secretary-General António Guterres, recalled the conclusions of the Global Sustainable Development Report 2023, and called upon leaders to accelerate SDG progress by focusing on seven key areas:
- mobilizing at least USD 500 billion for sustainable development per year, ideally with the help of a leaders’ group to outline concrete steps to get funding flowing in 2024;
- shifting the focus of Voluntary National Reviews towards accountability of commitments made at the Summit;
- strengthening support for food security, energy, digitalization, education, social protection and decent jobs, and biodiversity;
- bringing to life the Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection;
- fulfilling the goal of 0.7% of gross national income (GNI) for official development assistance (ODA) in 2024;
- using the next meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to accelerate SDG progress, including through recapitalization, rechanneling of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), restructuring debt on longer and more affordable terms, and developing concrete proposals for a reform of the global finance architecture in time for the Summit of the Future in 2024; and
- arriving at UNFCCC COP 28 with concrete plans to support developing countries in achieving a just transition to renewable energy and to operationalize the loss and damage fund.
“This development to-do list is not just homework, it is hope work,” Guterres underscored, calling for leadership and for countries to take these discussions to heart when preparing their national budgets for 2024.
UNGA President Dennis Francis said the Summit had clarified current challenges and underscored the need for timely cooperation and the mobilization of financial resources on reasonable terms. “The people do not want our excuses, they want decisive action and progress,” he stressed, closing the meeting at 6:34 pm on Tuesday, 19 September.
Political Declaration: Leaders adopted a Political Declaration as the outcome of the SDG Summit, and recommended its endorsement by the UNGA, following a reportedly difficult negotiation process, which began in late 2022 and was led by the Permanent Representatives of Ireland and Qatar to the UN.
The Co-Facilitators convened eight rounds of informal consultations among governments, complemented by a series of informal exchanges with governments and other stakeholders, to craft the Declaration. In July 2023, they placed a draft under the silence procedure with the hope of achieving consensus, but a number of delegations “broke silence,” indicating dissatisfaction with elements of the text. A revised draft was submitted on 30 August 2023 with revisions to four paragraphs, which addressed ODA, SDRs, and reform and capitalization of the multilateral development banks. On 1 September, the President of the 77th session of the UNGA, Csaba Kőrösi, announced that the negotiations on the draft had concluded.
The Political Declaration opens with a statement of leaders’ shared commitment. Governments reaffirm their intent to implement the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs “effectively,” and note that the Agenda remains the “overarching roadmap” not only for achieving sustainable development but also for overcoming multiple current crises. They describe the continuing rise in GHG emissions as cause for profound alarm. They reiterate the need to reach the furthest behind first, and assert the SDGs aim to realize human rights for all. The shared commitment also underscores that the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development (AAAA) must be fully implemented in order to realize the SDGs.
A section titled “Our changed world - Progress and remaining gaps and challenges” provides an update on the context within which the second SDG Summit took place and against which the SDGs must now be implemented. The leaders speak of drastic changes since the first SDG Summit in 2019—primarily the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term impacts, climate change, and armed conflicts—although it notes that by 2019 the SDGs were already off track. They point to increased inequality exacerbated by weakened solidarity and a shortfall of trust to jointly overcome these crises. The Declaration additionally expresses deep concern about the “marked increase of the estimated SDG financing gap.”
The Declaration sets out a call to action on “turning our world towards 2030,” comprised of 20 commitments by governments related to poverty, food and hunger, gender equality, education, the digital divide, water, health, cities and settlements, consumption and production, energy, disaster risk reduction, climate, biodiversity, desertification, oceans, plastic pollution, science and technology transfer, data, policy integration, and implementing the AAAA.
In a series of commitments on boosting the means of implementation for developing countries, leaders’ call for:
- advancing the UN Secretary-General’s proposed SDG stimulus to address the financing gap;
- rechanneling SDRs to countries most in need, on a voluntary basis;
- scaling up and fulfilling ODA commitments, such as the commitment “by many developed countries” to contribute 0.7% of GNI to developing countries;
- supporting reform of the international financial architecture and specifically the multilateral development banks as a “key” for large-scale SDG-related investments; and
- encouraging the potential use of a multidimensional vulnerability index to inform concessional finance decisions.
The Declaration’s paragraph on the upcoming review of the HLPF by governments (during UNGA 78) commits to strengthening the follow-up and review process of SDG implementation, including by harnessing data to track progress on implementing the Goals and targets, and strengthening analysis of interlinkages across SDGs and targets including their synergies and tradeoffs.
The Declaration concludes by looking towards the 2024 Summit of the Future as an opportunity to accelerate implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.
Climate Ambition Summit
The Climate Ambition Summit took place on Wednesday, 20 September. It was convened by UN Secretary-General António Guterres to demonstrate there is collective will to accelerate the pace and scale of a just transition to a more equitable renewable-energy based, climate-resilient global economy. The Summit included a plenary session showcasing “first mover and doer” leaders, followed by three thematic sessions and a special meeting on loss and damage finance.
During the closing segment, the rapporteurs of the thematic sessions shared key messages.
On credibility of “net zero,” rapporteur Laurence Tubiana, CEO, European Climate Foundation, said greenwashing remains a distraction from real efforts, and noted calls for more action by authorities to ensure that transitions have scientific credibility. She also conveyed speakers’ emphasis on bringing ambition into line with the 1.5°C target.
On adaptation and early warnings for all, rapporteur Seve Paeniu, Minister of Finance, Tuvalu, highlighted the first two partnerships formed to deliver adaptation finance and planning through the UN’s Adaptation Pipeline Accelerator. He cited joint commitments from regional development banks to support the development of early warning systems, as well as the Green Climate Fund’s commitment to support the Early Warnings for All initiative and the Adaptation Pipeline Accelerator, in line with its mandate to allocate half of its funding to adaptation.
On industrial decarbonization and energy transition, rapporteur Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency, said clean energy is moving faster than many realize and highlighted emissions improvements in the power and transportation sectors. He noted calls for governments to set targets and milestones for decarbonizing industry, which is lagging behind. He reported that producing one ton of steel emits the same amount as it did 20 years ago. Finally, Birol underlined the need for global guidelines to ensure fairness in extracting and refining critical minerals required for the clean transition.
The event on loss and damage finance served as a platform for discussions between representatives of multilateral development banks, bilateral development finance institutions, global climate funds, insurance and risk financing institutions, foundations, and civil society. It was attended at the highest level and served to inform the ongoing negotiations on funding arrangements for loss and damage and the operationalization of a loss and damage fund, as agreed under the UNFCCC. Speakers highlighted the need for, among others:
- an effective fundraising campaign, using sovereign funds to unlock private capital and leveraging innovative sources, notably through taxation;
- using a combination of needs- and performance-based criteria to develop a uniform approach to funding allocation; and
- clear and unified signals from shareholders.
In closing, Guterres noted the event had “started as a climate ambition summit and ended as a climate hope summit.” He expressed disappointment over the G20’s recent conclusions on climate change, saying geopolitical divides are preventing the required “historic compromise” among developed countries and large-emitting developing countries. However, he emphasized, many actors are willing to align with the 1.5°C target. He urged all the climate “doers” to scale up action, bring people together, and “take no prisoners.”
The main outcomes of the Summit will be captured in a Chair’s Summary.
A Brief Analysis of the Summits
“Rescue plan, course correction, acceleration, step change, revolution”—these are some of the idioms used to describe the only way out of the predicaments facing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and global climate action.
Halfway to the deadline for the 2030 Agenda, the assessment is dire: we are not even close to being on track towards reaching the Goals. Progress on more than half of SDG targets is weak and insufficient and progress on a number of others has stalled. Some in the sustainable development community tend to emphasize that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) were always meant to be “aspirational.” Even so, the fact that progress is literally reversing on a number of Goals, including key targets on poverty and hunger, leaves no doubt about the collective failure to live up to the Agenda’s objectives.
The same goes for climate action: greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are still rising along with governments’ spending on fossil fuel subsidies, and adaptation efforts are insufficient to deal with the mounting climate impacts destroying livelihoods and taking lives around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine are easy culprits to point to. But the series of Global Sustainable Development Reports, reports by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and assessments by others paint a different picture. These crises surely complicated matters, but we were not on the right track even before 2020.
It is amid this gloomy setting that UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened the 2023 SDG Summit and the Climate Ambition Summit alongside the 78th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA). This brief analysis looks back on these events, reflecting on why they were needed, how they went, and what new commitments they brought forward.
Why Such Summits?
When Guterres was appointed Secretary-General in 2016, then-President of the UNGA Peter Thomson expressed confidence that the long-time diplomat would “be the voice of our collective conscience and humanity.” Guterres has done just that, speakers noted during the Summits, moving climate change higher on the international agenda, championing the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, and “clarifying what we are up against,” in the words of Californian Governor Gavin Newsom.
Guterres uses his ability to convene high-level events to engage in frank exchanges, delivering concise messages that are easy to understand and resonate far beyond diplomatic circles. He does not mince his words and calls for leaders to step up and live up to their responsibility. Building on the metaphor he conjured in 2022 that “we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” he opened the 2023 Climate Ambition Summit with the vivid claim that “humanity has opened the gates of hell.”
But there is only so much the head of one organization can do. Going forward, governments need to do their homework, and Guterres asked political decision makers to take the discussions held during Summits Week to heart when preparing their national budgets for 2024.
How did the Summits Go?
Both the SDG Summit and the Climate Ambition Summit were held at the highest possible level. They featured a long lineup of Heads of State and Government, directors of multilateral development banks, subnational government leaders, business CEOs, and well-known civil society dignitaries. The objective was to platform “first movers and doers,” and have leaders bring concrete commitments to the table. Speakers were asked to be concise and deliver their statements within three minutes.
At the SDG Summit, microphones were automatically turned off after a short grace period. This kept the pace of the meeting dynamic—if sometimes awkward—and allowed everyone to speak on schedule. Statements nevertheless remained generic. Even those speakers who made concrete action points seldomly went beyond reiterating past promises. Noting how statements were “not exactly overflowing with ambition and new commitments,” one delegate quipped that it was “not a big miss to have chatty leaders cut off.”
At the Climate Ambition Summit, speakers were not automatically cut off—with the result that one thematic session ran so late that the last several speakers on the list were simply canceled. However, the statements tended to include more concrete proposals, and the longer and livelier statements, such as those by Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, Californian Governor Gavin Newsom, Chilean President Gabriel Boric, and Colombian President Gustavo Petro, even garnered enthusiastic applause. These leaders’ statements made the absence of others—such as French President Emmanuel Macron, US President Joe Biden, and Chinese President Xi Jinping—all the more notable.
Overall, delegates who sat through the three days of Summit meetings listened to a whopping 270 individual speeches by the world’s highest level officials—not counting the multiple times Guterres took the floor and the dozens of leaders who spoke during the loss and damage event. The “leaders’ dialogues” were dialogues in name only. “This feels like a missed opportunity,” reflected one delegate, “after all, it is not every day that you get the who’s who of global decision making together in one place.”
This assessment rings especially true for the special event on loss and damage finance. Speaking to colleagues from the World Bank, Green Climate Fund, and many other key players, the director of a regional development bank even said it gave him a “warm and fuzzy feeling” to see such an impressive lineup of people, noting that “once upon a time they saw each other as competition, but are now united in their efforts to address disasters.” With the very skilled Rachel Kyte in charge of moderation, a little more time to engage in an actual discussion could have gone a long way towards informing the ongoing negotiations on operationalizing funding arrangements and a new fund on loss and damage—which is one of the big ticket issues facing the 28th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 28) to the UNFCCC later this year. One can only hope that the leaders made good use of time in the corridors to engage in bilateral discussions.
What Commitments did the Summits Bring Forward?
The list of actionable, new commitments announced at the Summits may not live up to the scale of the challenges, but it is safe to say that discussions held this week increased expectations for a number of upcoming meetings, particularly the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in October 2023, UNFCCC COP 28 in November 2023, and the Summit of the Future in September 2024, where leaders are expected to adopt a wide-ranging “Pact for the Future” as a demonstration of solidarity. The Summits essentially offered three key insights into these processes, which will arguably determine the long-term future for all of us.
First, the Political Declaration adopted at the SDG Summit did not deliver much more than the bare minimum. Governments reaffirmed their intent to implement the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs “effectively” and note that the Agenda remains the “overarching roadmap” not only for achieving sustainable development but also for overcoming multiple current crises. In times of geopolitical tensions, we might have to take what we can get, but “anything less would have been a sign of moral destitution, really,” noted an observer. Thematic references to hunger, health, and other Goals remained a far cry from actionable commitments. The Summit marking the halfway point towards 2030 delivered few signs of resolve to address the built-in weaknesses of the Agenda and its follow-up and review, which does not bode well for the deliberations on the Pact for the Future.
Second, and more positively, the Summits showcased that quick and substantial reform of the international financial architecture is no longer a niche aspiration. Many developing countries lamented having to choose between urgent disaster recovery and long-term development and being caught in a debt trap. Many developed countries also addressed the matter and underscored their support for increasing developing countries’ capacity to invest in implementing the SDGs and climate action. Mapping out the way forward, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva emphasized reallocating fossil fuel and other harmful subsidies to free up fiscal space and also directly called upon “better off countries” to re-channel their Special Drawing Rights so vulnerable countries can benefit from better lending conditions. Talks of progressive levies on aviation, maritime transport, and fossil fuel production also appear to be gaining traction, and countries are putting forward concrete measures to “de-risk” private investment with public finance. At this point, there is no backpedaling. The question is rather how quickly the World Bank and other international financial institutions will put their money where their mouth is.
Finally, it is notable that climate talks are no longer just about emissions—an endpoint of a process that also has a beginning. More attention is now on fossil fuels as the main culprit of the climate crisis. Participants will remember that Californian Governor Newsom and Colombian President Petro directly called out the deceit and corruption of the fossil industry and that Iceland and Denmark announced plans to stop oil exploration and production, respectively. And island states like Tuvalu reminded delegates of pending climate litigation—seemingly in the hope that the threat of judicial accountability may sway reluctant governments and businesses towards embarking on the necessary transformation.
Delegates who followed news from outside of New York could put two and two together and imagine a reason for the conspicuous absence of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak from the Climate Ambition Summit: his much-decried watering down of fossil fuel phaseout commitments was announced while the Summit was in full swing. How the topic of fossil fuel phaseout will be addressed at COP 28—under the leadership of the United Arab Emirates–—remains to be seen. But many noted one thing is clear: an outcome of the first Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement without clear provisions on fossil fuel phaseouts will not deliver the necessary course correction to live up to the 1.5°C target.
As the impacts of interconnected crises ravage lives around the globe, the existential stakes for action are becoming increasingly salient. In a world on fire, the future is knocking on the door, or, in the words of the legendary Dolly Parton, “Liar, liar the world’s on fire… Whatcha gonna do when it all burns down? Fire, fire burning higher, Still got time to turn it all around.”