G20 Disappoints on COVID-19 and Climate Crisis, Setting Stage for Non-Action at COP26
G20 leaders pose in front of the Trevi Fountain in Rome, October 2021

There will be no airlifting of COVID-19 vaccines to poor countries struggling to get their immunisation figures into double digits. There are also no concrete plans for wealthy countries to make good on their earlier dose promises to COVAX by giving actual delivery dates. 

And, there is no date for wealthy countries to phase out coal-based power.

Instead, the weekend G20 meeting of the world’s richest nations offered a bland declaration that failed to offer solutions to COVID-19 vaccine equity or the climate change crisis.

Even United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres admitted that he left Rome “with my hopes unfulfilled”.

Ahead of the meeting, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote an open letter to G20 leaders appealing for their support for the WHO targets to vaccinate 40% of the world by year-end and 70% by mid-2022, saying that  “decisions made this weekend may make or break those targets”.

Earlier, the WHO’s newly appointed Ambassador for Global Health Financing, Gordon Brown, called for a “globally coordinated, month by month operational plan and timetable” to transfer unused vaccines being held by the richest countries of the world to the world’s poorest countries.

“If at the G20 summit in Italy, the world’s richest countries cannot mobilise an extraordinary, expedited airlift of doses to the unvaccinated and unprotected of the world, and do so starting immediately, an epidemiological economic and ethical dereliction of duty will shame us all,” said Brown, the former UK Prime Minister.

In fact, the most decisive action at the Rome meeting came on its margins – when US President Joe Biden issued an executive order enabling the release of “strategic and critical materials from the National Defense Stockpile” to ease global supply-chain shortages related to vaccines.

Vague and non-specific declaration

The Rome Declaration, adopted on Sunday after months of negotiation, is bland and non-specific, particularly as far as concrete commitments of money or vaccine doses are concerned. 

Tedros’s letter, co-signed by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, asked for four key actions.

First, in order to close the global shortage of 550 million doses to vaccinate 40% of people in every country by the end of 2021,  Tedros asked for the “speeding up existing commitments of dose donations to COVAX, pledging new ones, executing dose swaps with COVAX, and eliminating export restrictions on vaccines”.

The G20’s answer was vague, lacking commitments to any real targets: 

“We will take steps to help boost the supply of vaccines and essential medical products and inputs in developing countries and remove relevant supply and financing constraints” and “we commit to substantially increase the provision of and access to vaccines, as well as to therapeutics and diagnostics”. 

G20 health ministers were also asked to monitor progress and ”explore ways to accelerate global vaccination as necessary”.

No action on COVAX shortfall

Tedros’s second ‘ask’ was for the G-20  leaders to fully fund the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which currently has a $15.9 billion shortfall in monies needed to fund bigger  rollout of tests, treatment and vaccines.

The G20 simply reiterated its “support to all pillars of the ACT-Accelerator, including COVAX” – without promising a clear amount of new money.

Thirdly, the WHO chief asked the G20 leaders to “hold pharmaceutical companies to higher transparency standards, including publicly shared monthly production projections and delivery schedules to help countries better plan to receive and share doses”.

In response, the G20 simply committed to “enhance our efforts to ensure the transparent, rapid and predictable delivery and uptake of vaccines where they are needed” and called on “the private sector and on multilateral financial institutions to contribute to this endeavour”. 

Finally, Tedros asked for support for the TRIPS waiver in order to “share vaccine technology and dismantle vaccine production barriers”.

The G20’s response on this was predictable: silence on the waiver initiative – although there was a commitment to supporting “increased vaccine distribution, administration and local manufacturing capacity” in LMICs, possibly via  the newly established WHO-supported mRNA hubs in South Africa, Brazil and Argentina, and non-specified “joint production and processing arrangements”.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia, and Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, said that “it would be an understatement to say that the decision of G20 Leaders meeting in Rome to respond to 22 months of the COVID-19 crisis by setting up a Health and Finance Minister Task Force, with no money behind it, is deeply disappointing”. 

The pair, former co-chairs of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, said that the G20 had both ignored its own financing panel which showed why up to $15 billion a year is needed in pandemic preparedness, and failed to support “specific and urgent action to redistribute vaccine doses around the world”. 

Nothing new to stop planet burnout

The G20’s failure to offer new or substantial measures to address planetary burnout – pointed to a lack-lustre outcome for the COP26 climate conference that opened on Monday. 

Rhetorically, G20 leaders committed to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C by 2050. 

But real follow-up on that commitment was marred by the absence of the key leading global polluter, China, which has only promised to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Similarly Russia has stated that it is in no rush to achieve that goal. 

Climate scientists have said that without faster action on cutting climate emissions now – it will be impossible for the world to keep to 1.5°C – and indeed, temperatures are currently on a course to reach 2.7°C  by the end of the century, even if all current commitments are met. 

While the G20 statement included a promise to end international financing of coal-based power generation outside their own countries, the G20 members also did not commit to a date for phasing out coal-based power in their own territories.

Instead, the G20 statement said only said: “Keeping 1.5°C within reach will require meaningful and effective actions and commitment by all countries, taking into account different approaches, through the development of clear national pathways that align long-term ambition with short- and medium-term goals, and with international cooperation and support, including finance and technology, sustainable and responsible consumption and production as critical enablers, in the context of sustainable development.”

They further committed to cooperate on “zero or low carbon emission and renewable technologies” to enable a transition towards “low-emission power systems” – not zero emissions, and only for those countries that wanted to make this transition.

Lack of climate funds

Lack of funds to assist developing countries to mitigate climate change has been a serious obstacle to progress. Previously, developed countries had committed to making $100 billion available every year to do this from 2020 to 2025. But the meeting noted that this goal was only expected to be met in 2023.

“If the G20 was a dress rehearsal for COP26, then world leaders fluffed their lines,” said Greenpeace executive director Jennifer Morgan. “Their communique was weak, lacking both ambition and vision, and simply failed to meet the moment. Now they move onto Glasgow where there is still a chance to seize a historic opportunity, but the likes of Australia and Saudi Arabia need to be marginalised, while rich countries need to finally grasp that the key to unlock COP26 is trust.”

The G20 is made up of countries that produce 80% of the world’s global carbon emissions, comprising of the European Union plus Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the US. 


Image Credits: G20.

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