G20: Will Rich Nations Advance On Climate And Vaccines?

The climate crisis, vaccine equity, energy crisis and global supply chain tangles will be in the spotlight when leaders of the world’s top 20 economies meet at the G20 Summit in Rome, Italy, this weekend. But reaching consensus on pressing issues could be elusive, analysts warn.

The meeting, the first in-person meeting of the leaders of the Group of 20 (G20) since 2019, comes as the global economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic faces a number of challenges, from new strains of COVID-19 to shortages of supply and inflation. It will also signal how close, or how far, major economies are to moving the needle on the climate crisis, with the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP26) starting in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sunday.

But since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to appear virtually at the G20 rather than in person, and the leaders of Japan, Mexico and Saudi Arabia also choose not to go to Rome, finding common ground on pressing issues could turn out. even harder.

“The G20, like any membership association, is as strong as its members want it to be,” said Matthew P Goodman, senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “You would think that COVID-19 would pass the test of a real crisis, but it is difficult to get that group of countries to agree on anything.”

The climate finance gap

The G20 was created in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s to give emerging economies a more prominent voice in global financial affairs. The annual leaders’ summit became a regular feature in 2008, in response to the global financial crisis.

With a list of members that accounts For more than 80 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, 75 percent of world trade, and 60 percent of the world’s population, the club is in a unique position to set priorities and organize the resources to address them.

“The G20 obviously has macroeconomic issues as its traditional approach, but global health security and global warming are the main impediments to prosperity,” Stewart M Patrick, Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Relations Foreign Ministry (CFR), he told Al Jazeera.

A recent report showed that rich countries failed to deliver on their $ 100 billion financing promise to help poorer nations fight climate change. But any G20 climate deal is likely to set a positive tone for the COP26 talks.

G20 leaders may promise to stop funding coal plants outside their borders, but negotiations leading up to the summit are revealing differences over when to phase out coal use at home. Bloomberg News (paywall) reported, citing officials briefed on the talks.

Coal powers about 60 percent of China’s electricity and about 70 percent of India’s, according to the International Energy Agency. Added to that short-term dependency is the current global energy crisis, which along with other supply chain bottlenecks is fueling inflation and creating a headwind for economic recovery.

Faced with blackouts, idle factories and the onset of winter, China has relaxed regulations on domestic coal production.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella meets with US President Joe Biden at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, Italy [File: Francesco Ammendola via Reuters]

“As for the weather, the result is likely to be more incremental than dramatic,” said Patrick of CFR.

He added that US President Joe Biden will surely push for green initiatives, but domestic politics could cast a shadow.

“Biden’s position is likely to be weak given the uncertainty about whether Congress will pass enough green infrastructure and climate-related spending on the two huge bills he is considering,” Patrick said.

The jab split

Addressing the growing gap in coronavirus vaccination rates between rich and poor countries is also exacerbating inequalities between nations.

On Friday, the G20 health and finance ministers said they would take steps to ensure that 70 percent of the world’s population is vaccinated by the middle of next year, half a year ahead of schedule in their previous calendar, the agency reported. Reuters news.

The clock is ticking. Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund warned of a “dangerous divergence” in recoveries between more mature and developing economies, with the availability of vaccines a key factor.

Of the 1.3 billion doses that rich countries pledged to donate to poor nations under the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX) program, only 356 million have been provided.

Earlier this week, Amnesty International urged The G20 countries must put aside “greed and selfishness” and ensure a fair distribution of vaccines, noting that rich countries are sitting on some 500 million doses.

A key hurdle is patent protections, which some nations would like to waive, arguing that they get more hits on more arms.

Last October, India and South Africa presented a appeal to the World Trade Organization on behalf of a group of countries urging to waive patent protections so that those countries can produce generic versions of vaccines.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella attends a meeting with United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres before the G20 summit at the Quirinal Palace. [Paolo Giandotti via Reuters]

But the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and Japan have blocked the efforts. In a surprise move, Biden announced that the US, generally a staunch advocate of intellectual property rights, would support the lifting of patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines.

“The G20 remains divided on liberalizing the vaccine trade and granting intellectual property exemptions to allow for increased domestic production by developing countries,” said Patrick of CFR.

The G20 is also divided on creating a global health board to help countries coordinate action. The United States, the European Union, Japan and the United Kingdom back it, while the BRIC nations, namely Brazil, Russia, India and China, do not, Patrick added.

Debt: ‘Statements of Support as a Matter of Principle’

Another factor driving the growing divisions between the richest and poorest nations is debt.

The debt burden of the world’s low-income countries actually soared 12 percent to a record $ 860 billion in 2020 due to the pandemic, according to a recent report by the world Bank.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro arrives at the Quirinal Palace before the G20 summit [File: Francesco Ammendola via Reuters]

The G20 took action on debt through the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI), which came into effect on May 1, 2020 and benefited 46 low-income countries with payment deferrals. But the program will expire at the end of 2021.

Earlier this week, the US called for faster progress in restructuring the debts of highly indebted nations under the Common Framework for Debt Treatments and blamed “China’s inability to make some decisions.”

“My guess is that the G20 will approve an extension of the DSSI,” CSIS’s Goodman told Al Jazeera. “The Common Framework, which includes debt restructuring and debt forgiveness, I think we will see statements of support as a matter of principle, but it can be difficult to get countries to agree to move forward.”

China has backtracked: its development bank wants to be seen as a private creditor and not as part of the government. And Beijing is reluctant to join the Paris Club, a group of lender countries seeking a common approach to debt restructuring, Goodman added.

“If one country forgives the debt and another does not, the payments obviously favor the second country,” he said, also emphasizing the need for the private sector to also get involved. “If the governments forgive the debt, but the banks get their money back, it will be a problem.”


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