When the world’s leaders gather in New York this month for the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), they will be grappling with multiple emergencies of catastrophic proportions, from COVID-19 to climate change. The situation in Afghanistan is also likely to assume center stage as many countries voice grave concerns about a hasty United States withdrawal and a country in tatters after 20 years of war.
Front and center: How the world deals with health emergencies and inequities needs to be radically reconsidered to address the continually growing division between rich and poor. Lack of trust in governments, the media, scientists, and in each other has made addressing these challenges together all the more difficult. Moreover, in the past year the effects of climate change have accelerated, with wildfires, floods and droughts wreaking ever more havoc in many countries.
At last year’s UNGA, U.N. Member States agreed on a plan to build back better from the pandemic for a more equal, resilient, and sustainable world. They recognized that efforts toward the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must be fast-tracked to confront pressing interrelated health, climate, and security issues.
Here are five areas we are following this year:
1. Global Health Security
Governments will be pushing to enhance the role of the World Health Organization (WHO) in responding to global health emergencies, calling for further investments to strengthen WHO’s technical portfolio, and its work to encourage sustainable national health care systems.
Leading members of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (established by the WHO), have called on the Assembly to more swiftly identify and respond to pandemics by creating a Global Health Threats Council to keep countries accountable and committed to working collectively to prepare for and respond to the next pandemic.
The G-20, an intergovernmental forum of 19 countries and the European Union, has set up a High-Level Independent Panel on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The panel calls for investments of at least US $75 billion in international public funding to address gaps in pandemic prevention and preparedness. Meanwhile, an upcoming World Health Assembly Special Session will also consider an international treaty on pandemics.
2. Promoting Vaccine Equity
It is clear that vaccines are critical to tackling the COVID-19 crisis. Many governments will be seeking access to vaccines, as well as supplies, diagnostics, and treatment. They are also likely to push for strengthening the role of the Access to COVID-19 tools (ACT) Accelerator and its COVAX Facility through WHO and its partners. The ACT-Accelerator is a global collaboration to advance the development, production, and distribution of COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines in order to better guarantee fair and equitable access for every country. The COVAX, (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) vaccines project was set up to provide doses for at least 20% of countries’ populations, and to actively manage timely vaccine delivery.
One year on, it has secured 1.4 billion doses and shipped more than 40 million doses to 119 countries. While this is a major accomplishment, there is clearly more work to do. Rich countries are buying up almost all of the global supply of vaccines and fewer than 15% of their pledges to support COVAX have actually come in.
Recent decisions by the United States, Germany, France, and Israel to begin administering booster shots have been widely criticized since so many people around the world have yet to get even their first shot. In Africa, for example, only 2% of the continent’s 1.3 billion people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and the disease is on the rise.
The United States is planning a summit during the General Assembly to focus on ending the COVID-19 pandemic and boosting its pledges for vaccine distribution and public health resources as the delta variant surges. U.S. President Joe Biden committed to donating 500 million vaccine doses globally, and nearly 5.30 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 69 doses for every 100 people. Despite these efforts, there is still a sharp gap between vaccination rates in rich and poor countries.
3. Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals
The COVID-19 pandemic has severely set back efforts to achieve the SDGs—ambitious pledges by governments to end hunger, eliminate poverty and inequality, and reverse climate change and biodiversity losses. But with less than 10 years to deliver on the lofty commitments by 2030, just two of the 17 goals — eliminating preventable deaths among newborns and under-5s, and getting children into primary schools — were on the brink of being met before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic has further delayed progress on noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, which kill 41 million people each year and account for 71% of all deaths globally. A decade ago, at the first U.N. General Assembly high-level meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases, governments pledged ongoing support to tackle NCDs. But a significant financing gap still impedes countries’ efforts to achieve SDG 3 (to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) and its target to reduce premature mortality from NCDs by one third. Financing actions to prevent and manage NCDS will be a key discussion during UNGA, with advocates encouraging governments to incentivize investments from development banks and aid agencies.
Vital Strategies will participate in a forum during UNGA focused on obesity which is a leading cause of NCDs, and now affects more than 1.9 billion adults.
To put global development financing on a more equitable scale, some argue that the African Union should be invited to join the G-20. Others remain skeptical, observing that while some African economies are growing, many countries still struggle with extreme poverty, environmental risks, and political instability.
4. Addressing Climate Change
Global climate change is threatening ecological systems and endangering human livelihoods and health at a far faster rate than was predicted even 10 years ago. Climate change has dramatically increased the likelihood of extreme weather events. It is also an urgent public health crisis as excessive heat and air pollution contribute significantly to cardiovascular deaths, respiratory diseases, and asthma. Moreover, extreme heat has brought on more widespread drought conditions, which are a leading cause of malnutrition and famine.
Member States will likely discuss the Paris Agreement which was adopted by most governments in 2015 to arrest the negative impacts of climate change, reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and limit temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That President Biden has rejoined these talks is a welcome addition.
Discussions at UNGA will also focus on the upcoming United Nations Climate Conference (COP 26) to be held in Glasgow, United Kingdom in November, and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The IPCC calls on G-20 leaders to reaffirm their commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 by stopping coal projects and using stimulus spending for climate action in order to deliver on the developed world’s pledge of $100 billion per year in climate finance. G-20 countries, including the European Union, account for nearly 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. But without codified treaties, trans-national and national enforcement of emissions reductions, and the proper pricing of carbon emissions, we should not be optimistic that these goals will be met in time to avert a global catastrophe.
5. U.N. Secretary-General’s Food Systems Summit
The U.N. Food Systems Summit, to be held alongside the U.N. General Assembly, will seek to advance an agenda for Sustainable Development Goal 2, which focuses on an approach to food that is more respectful and protective of local farmers and indigenous people’s rights. Ideally, the summit will bring some attention to the difficult work of wresting control of food systems away from profit-driven corporations and return it to local food producers and communities.
The Food Systems Summit is expected to give rise to initiatives to reduce food waste, develop innovative food production technologies, promote healthier diets, and mitigate climate change. Some are concerned it may be yet another opportunity for agro-industry to validate its initiatives while continuing to monetize the global food system.