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Climate, pandemic and conflicts to dominate meetings in New York

Secretary General Guterres's report calls for systemic reforms to counter weakening of multilateralism

There is consensus at the UN General Assembly about the main themes of the high-level meetings which started in New York on 20 September: reaching agreement at the climate summit, ending the pandemic, and trying to repair the creaking multilateral system. There the agreement ends.

There are vast differences about what should be done in each area. The international system is haunted by failure to organise equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and a succession of damning reports showing that the richest and fastest growing economies continue to flout targets to reduce greenhouse gases (AC Blog 26/09/19, Assonance and dissonance at the UN).

On 20 September UN Secretary General António Guterres and British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who is co-host of the UN Climate COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, opened the week with a meeting to elicit stronger commitments on carbon reduction from the leading economies. With some 40 heads of state attending, it was one of the few in-person events at the UN headquarters in New York this week.

It followed a report on 17 September from the UN climate chief, Patricia Espinosa, showing that greenhouse gases are set to rise 16% by 2030 compared with levels in 2010. This suggests that many of the countries that signed up to cuts in carbon emissions at the Paris summit in 2015 are yet to make progress.

Far from meeting the targets set in Paris of limiting global warming to well under 2 degrees centigrade, preferably 1.5°C, some signatories have been increasing emissions. The report forecasts catastrophic global warming of 2.7°C by the end of the century on present trends.

Ahead of COP26, China, Japan and South Korea are due to submit more ambitious national cuts but Brazil and Mexico are abandoning their earlier targets for less onerous ones.

African delegations are also pushing for a fairer share of the US$100billion a year that rich countries promised by 2020 to allocate to developing economies for adjustment to the effects of climate change (AC Vol 62 No 13, Gabon ires fellow Africans at the UN).

Until now Africa has had just 3% of that fund, with the bulk going to India and China. United States President Joe Biden is due to announce this week that Washington will step up its contributions to the fund, following its return to the Paris climate accord in January.

On 23 September, Ireland is to host a debate at the UN Security Council on the links between climate change and conflict, which was a major theme of the conference organised by Africa Confidential, International Crisis Group and the Royal African Society on 14 September (a recording of the conference is available on the International Crisis Group's YouTube Channel).

Some Security Council members, such as Kenya, Tunisia and Niger, emphasise how climate change can exacerbate conflict, but others, such as China, India and Russia, argue that economic and political factors are the main drivers of conflict and that climate should discussed in fora on economic developments, not at the Security Council.

Management of the Covid-19 pandemic has provoked almost as many national rivalries as the climate emergency. Earlier expressions of international solidarity were quickly eclipsed, exposing sharp inequities in healthcare.

Of the 5.7 million vaccines against Covid-19 administered, 73% have been administered in just ten countries; less than 4% have reached Africa. Addressing that is a priority for the African Union, the World Health Organization and UN Secretary General António Guterres: they back the US$50billion plan drawn up by the International Monetary Fund to vaccinate 40% of the world by the end of this year, and 70% by mid-2022.

Yet the G20, representing the world's biggest economies, has failed to agree on contributions to the plan. Nervous politicians in the West want to show domestic voters they are jealously guarding national vaccine stockpiles. Some are giving booster or third shots of vaccines when healthcare workers and the most vulnerable in developing countries are yet to get their first shot.

Instead, individual countries have made ad hoc but inadequate contributions to Covax, which was set up to speed distribution. David Miliband, President of the New York-based International Rescue Committee, says there is a shortfall of 500 million vaccine doses expected by Covax before the end of the year.

On 22 September, President Biden will make another attempt at the UN to hammer out an agreement among the richest states, and leading producers such as India, to agree a global vaccine plan.

This will test his diplomatic skills as US relations with China plumb new depths, and a row with France over submarine contracts and security in the Indo-Pacific, further complicate transnational initiatives.

Most ambitious of all on the agenda in New York this week is Guterres's plan to redesign the international system, for UN organisations to claw back some relevance in an era of nationalism, populism and shrinking budgets.

The UN review released this month, 'Our Common Agenda' follows extensive consultations over the past year and calls for closer coordination of economic and political security issues, renewed focus on conflict prevention and ways to cut the risk of cyber-attacks and nuclear proliferation.

Up for debate at the UN General Assembly, the Guterres plan aims to hold a 'Summit of the Future' next year to debate and agree on some new international architecture. Previous attempts to reform the 75-year old UN system have foundered over arguments about the power of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (AC Vol 48 No 20, Debuts on First Avenue).

This plan focuses more on global economic governance, calling on the international financial institutions (IFIs), the UN's Economic and Social Council and G20 leaders to work together more closely. This would include strategic global economic dialogue every two years and a world social summit in 2025.

In the past, Guterres has advocated an economic security council, to boost coordination between IFIs such as the World Bank and the IMF (which are formally part of the UN) and the UN's political and specialised agencies based in New York, Geneva and Nairobi.

His supporters say that the challenges of the pandemic and climate change make better cooperation between the economic, social and political agencies more vital still. Despite the inauspicious and highly restrictive backdrop, this year's General Assembly could be one of most important for the future of the UN system.

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