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A U.N. General Assembly Marked by COVID-19 and Climate Change

Vital Strategies

In September, world leaders gathered virtually and in person in New York for the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), with COVID-19 and climate change high on the agenda. The meeting is an important agenda-setter for global health, as it signals top priority items that will likely dominate discussion over the net year.

Here are key takeaways from five leading areas we were following over the last couple weeks:

1. Global Health Security

The COVID-19 pandemic has already claimed more than 4.7 million lives. Leaders broadly aligned with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target of vaccinating at least 70% of the global population in every country within one year, with a shared urgency for ensuring accountability and monitoring progress. 

The U.S. is donating an additional half a billion Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines to low- and lower-middle income countries around the globe, with shipments starting in January 2022. European Union representatives and  countries including Canada, and South Africa, made new commitments to share vaccine doses and double or triple previous pledges for vaccine delivery, oxygen and testing support.

2. Promoting vaccine equity

To date, 73% of all COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in just 10 countries. WHO is calling on countries to fulfil their sharing pledges immediately and to  donate their near-term vaccine deliveries to COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access) and AVAT (African COVID-19 Vaccine Acquisition Task Team), and to offer more support for regional vaccine manufacturing. Higher-income countries were criticized by African nations for backtracking on promised vaccine donations to COVAX. As it currently stands, nearly 80% of African nations will miss not only their short-term COVID-19 control targets but also those set for attainment next year.

3. Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals

At the High-level Dialogue on Energy, leaders announced upwards of 130 commitments to help ensure clean and affordable energy for all  by 2030 (SDG 7). In his opening remarks, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said that the dialogue was long overdue, given that three-quarters of a billion people still lack access to electricity; energy production is still responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions; air pollution from dirty cooking fuels is still killing millions of people annually, mainly women and children; and one-quarter of health clinics in Africa have grinded to a halt during the pandemic because they have no power.

During the dialogue, 35 member states made voluntary commitments to action—known as Energy Compacts—with financial commitments totaling approximately USD $400 billion.

4. Addressing Climate Change

Looking ahead to COP26, the U.N. Climate Conference taking place in early November, member states advised big polluters to take bold and ambitious actions.

Guterres asked member states to shelve plans for any new coal-fired power plants after 2021 and to mobilize USD $100 billion a year for climate action. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that it is critical to meet the target of keeping global heating to within 1.5 degrees, and stressed the need to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. China announced it will stop funding construction of overseas coal-fired power plants, which is a critical step. Currently, China is the largest public financier of coal projects in the world and the world’s biggest emitter of carbon.  

5. Food Systems Summit

The People’s Coalition on Food Sovereignty staged a three-day counter-summit “The Global People’s Summit,”  in protest of corporate influence in the U.N. Food Systems Summit’s initiatives. Michael Fakhri, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to food, also pressed leadership to consider the role of major corporations in shaping food systems, but was met with significant pushback.

In addition, A new study from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization found that global agricultural subsidies, which total $540 billion, are damaging to the climate, nature and human health. Yet the Summit failed to chart a clear course toward more sustainable food production. Agroecology (applying ecological approaches to the production of agriculture) has been found to increase crop yields by almost 80%; improve people’s access to food and reduce hunger; boost farmers’ earnings; and build resilience in the face of floods, droughts and other shocksbut it remains underfunded.

At the Summit, 130 countries made pledges on related issues including free school meals, reducing food waste, healthy eating, biodata and carbon capture. In total, 300 commitments were made to transform food systems.

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