In a special address at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2024, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged leaders to tackle the existential threats posed by climate change, the unchecked development of artificial intelligence (AI) and international governance reforms.
Despite climate and AI garnering significant attention, “we have no effective global strategy to deal with either,” he said. “Geopolitical divides are preventing us from coming together around global solutions.”
Guterres sounded the alarm that 2023 was the hottest year on record – with droughts, storms, fires and floods wreaking havoc on countries and communities – and that the planet is heading for a scorching 3°C increase in global temperatures.
“Let me be very clear,” he stressed, “the phase-out of fossil fuels is essential and inevitable. We must act now to ensure a just and equitable transition to renewable energy.”
The Secretary-General noted that in addition to climate change posing risks to humans and the environment, many countries battered by “climate chaos” are also experiencing financial hardship. He said that more than half the world’s poorest 75 countries face debt distress, and after decades of reductions in poverty and hunger, progress has slowed and, in some countries, gone into reverse.
He also said it is crucial to close the digital connectivity gap, share data and build digital public goods to meet the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Flagging the risks that AI poses to human rights, personal privacy and societies, Guterres called on the private sector to join a multi-stakeholder effort to develop a “networked and adaptive” governance model for AI. This should be in addition to a UN advisory body on AI governance offering recommendations on the benefits of the new technology while mitigating its risks.
“We need governments urgently to work with tech companies on risk management frameworks for current AI development, and on monitoring and mitigating future harms,” he said, emphasizing the need for a systematic effort to increase access to AI so that developing economies can reap its enormous potential. “We need to bridge the digital divide instead of deepening it.”
In addition to addressing climate and technology, the Secretary-General called for the need to update institutions and frameworks of global governance – from the UN Security Council to the Bretton Woods system – which were created 80 years ago.
“We live in an economic system that was designed after the Second World War and basically designed by the developed countries, and we see the emerging economies with a bigger and bigger weight in the global economy, but not a similar weight in the institutions that rule the global economy.”
Guterres then announced that the UN will host a Summit of the Future in September 2024 to consider essential reforms to the global financial architecture ensuring it is responsive to today’s challenges.
“Rebuilding trust will not happen overnight, but I am convinced that it is both essential and possible,” Guterres concluded.