“We are faced with the greatest cascade of crises of our lives,” declared United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in his opening address to the UN General Assembly. When debating the two main crises facing humanity, climate change and the pandemic, it was the leaders of small and developing countries, rather than those of the world’s major powers, who they conveyed a more authentic sense of urgency.
Niger’s Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou, for example, highlighted the “devastating effects” of climate change in his country. These effects include the intensification of droughts, such as the 2010 one in Niger, which killed an estimated 4.8 million head of cattle, 25% of the country’s herd, at a cost of more than $ 700 million.
Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten to cause irreversible changes in the ecosystems of the Pacific island countries and even submerge them. “Will Tuvalu remain a member state of the UN if it finally submerges?” Asked Prime Minister Kausea Natano.
The fact that many developing countries face such immediate threats underscores the moral imperative of climate cooperation. But developed countries should also act for pragmatic reasons. The European Central Bank estimates that, without policies to mitigate the effect of climate change, Europe’s GDP would contract by 10%, leading to a 30% increase in corporate bankruptcies. The increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events will also threaten global food security.
But our chances of avoiding the worst effects of climate change are rapidly shrinking. According to the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, reduce global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or even 2 degrees, it will be impossible.
The leaders of the global South in the UN General Assembly were necessarily forceful in relation to the global response to covid-19. For example, the President of Namibia, Hage Geingob, referred to the “apartheid of vaccines ”due to their manifestly uneven distribution. Our multilateral system has by no means met its commitments to ensure vaccine equity in all countries. As former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently noted, only 2% of adults in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, compared with more than 50% of adults in most more developed economies.
Humanity has proven to be very efficient in manufacturing covid-19 vaccines: we now produce 1.5 billion doses per month. However, we have proven ineffective in its distribution, with unfortunate consequences. According to Airfinity, a major research company, 100 million doses will expire by the end of this year, if we do not act now to redistribute them. The covid-19 Vaccine Global Access (Covax), which aimed to distribute at least 2 billion doses to low-income countries by the end of 2021, has so far only distributed 300 million doses.
As with climate action, equity in vaccine distribution is a moral imperative and a pragmatic issue for advanced economies. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more likely it is to mutate into new, more transmissible and vaccine-resistant variants. Even in countries with high vaccination rates, such as Israel, which in August had administered two doses to more than 60% of its population, they had to re-impose restrictions last summer, due to the spread of the Delta variant, against which available vaccines have been less effective.
Beyond ensuring vaccine equity, the international community must strengthen the World Health Organization (WHO) for public health emergencies. Early detection of future crises will only be possible if we have a capable and well-funded multilateral body. But regular contributions represent less than a quarter of WHO’s budget, so it relies heavily on voluntary contributions.
The need to overcome these global challenges comes at a time of growing geopolitical confrontation, which has manifested itself more frequently in the Indo-Pacific. Following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the United States established a new security and technology alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom, Aukus, increasing tensions with China.
An escalation of tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, which represents approximately 65% of the world’s population, 62% of world GDP and 46% of total merchandise trade, would have devastating consequences. Taiwan is proving to be a particularly dangerous sticking point in US-China relations. Military exercises on the island are becoming more and more frequent, increasing the chances of miscalculation or accidents.
In the current context of tensions between the two powers, climate cooperation is becoming increasingly difficult. The recent trip by US Special Climate Envoy John F. Kerry to Tianjin demonstrated how strained bilateral relations have become in numerous fields including trade, human rights, and defense and security at sea. of southern China. Speaking to Kerry via videoconference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that climate cooperation would be unsustainable without diplomatic concessions in these areas of interest to China.
Tensions between the US and China are also an obstacle in overcoming the pandemic. “Vaccine diplomacy”, whereby world powers export vaccines in order to increase their geopolitical influence in some regions and countries, works against their fair and safe distribution. This approach also makes a global exit from the pandemic more difficult. Among other things, because it ignores many countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, where the virus is more likely to continue spreading and mutating uncontrollably.
The UN General Assembly meeting left its audience with a sense of extreme urgency and already seen. As the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Motley, lamented: “How many more times will we repeat the same thing over and over again, to come to nothing?” The answer depends, in large part, on the UN.
Despite its imperfections, the UN has long been the heart of the multilateral system. As we head towards the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, the international community must show that it can translate its commitments into results. And you must not forget to listen to the South.
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