COOPERATION IN ENVIRONMENT, HEALTH AND SCIENCE
Global cooperation on tackling the spiralling challenges of health epidemics, resource scarcity and climate change using the latest research and technology has profoundly influenced the multilateral agenda. In order to build health and environmental resilience over the longer term, it is vital that there is pan-European, transatlantic and global cooperation despite competition and protectionist trends and other tensions. As suggested in Reforming Multilateralism in Post-Covid Times by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies, there is now “systemic competition between different potential world orders,” as the unipolar phase after the fall of the Berlin Wall draws to a close. The current rise in nationalism and polarisation between perceived “winners and losers” from globalisation, exacerbated by an expansion of the role of cyberspace and technology in governance and society.
“The Covid-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst and magnifier of these many trends and tensions…creating a multidimensional crisis with strong impacts on the health, social, economic, political and cultural conditions of all countries. As we recover and transform economies and societies, this is a make-or-break moment for higher international cooperation and it will probably be a turning point shaping the emergent new global order.”
The book suggests we need a renewal of international cooperation with a multilateralism for the 21st century by building a large coalition of forces, involving states, regional organisations, civil society and individuals – a global coalition of progressive forces that develops a common agenda.
In Keeping Channels Open discussions, experts focused on how to recover from the pandemic and deal with the ever-visible threat of climate change and erosion of our natural world, amid fragmentation of the world order and dramatic geopolitical change.
In our dialogues, there was consensus that the Covid pandemic represented a moment of crisis and division in terms of the global world order.
“The pandemic exacerbated existing fault lines including the growing divide between China and the free world and between richer and poorer countries especially in public health. It also speeded up the pull-back from supply chain globalisation.”
It was recommended that the UK, US and Europe work with global partners to revitalise existing institutions such as the World Health Organisation, rather than create new ones, even though the legitimacy of the post-war system had been weakened due to deficits of delivery.
“There are two great forces at work in the world at the moment: On the one hand is the desire for greater control, sovereignty, independence, devolution, look at Scotland, Catalonia, Make America Great, Brexit. This reflects the desire of people who have seen profound change in a short space of time to want a greater say over what happens.
But there’s also the recognition that if we’re going to deal with the great challenges we all face, then cooperation between nation states is absolutely fundamental, more so at this point in human history than any time previously, whether it is tackling climate change, agreeing global trade rules, dealing with rogue states and behaviour and threats to peace and security.”
In terms of vaccines, there were complaints that the G7 leaders’ agreement in June 2020 on distributing a billion vaccines to the rest of the world was disappointing since it fell 10 billion short. The WHO lamented the lack of funding for global health security given the likelihood of future pandemics, calling for the mobilisation of international funding institutions. As former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted: “Everybody is not safe until everybody is vaccinated.”
Some participants in our discussions felt the West had missed a chance during COVID to improve its leverage and image across the world.
“While we talk among ourselves, rebuilding our internal systems and preoccupied with bilateral disputes, the Chinese government is proactively engaging with others and building up its defence capacities, devoting significant resources to both. The Western Alliance has missed some easy tricks by failing to provide enough vaccines and share technology – leaving the door wide open for Chinese and Russian soft power.”
“There is a need for Biden and Western leaders to drive a more vigorous international response, or risk long term damage to the standing of the West.”
New waves of the Covid pandemic emerged constituting a test for the rules based international system, regional cooperation and neighbourhood policies in addressing vulnerabilities at home and across the world. Tensions emerged as opposing political forces and disrupters used the crisis to drive further nationalism, polarisation and protectionism. Rivalries including US-China competition and UK-EU also played out.
Nonetheless, global architecture including EU, UN, G7, G20, WHO and COP offered platforms to come together on policies to address the pandemic, restart global growth, invest in joint scientific and technological solutions and support developing countries. The long road to economic and health recovery provided opportunities for renewed multilateral approaches to address inequalities and build resilience based on more sustainable development.
In 2023, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Perception survey gathered insights on global risks from over 1200 experts. While the cost-of-living crisis was identified as the biggest short-term risk, a failure to mitigate climate change was cited as the major longer-term concern.
Scientists have long warned that climate change effects will affect life for future generations. Research proves we are too late to avoid all the consequences, but taking concrete action now could reduce the potentially devastating impact on human livelihoods and natural habitats including biodiversity loss and natural disasters. Extreme weather events and natural phenomena are already leading to mass population displacement and migration. Access to potable water will decrease, while some countries such as the Small Island Developing States in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, risk being submerged by rising sea levels caused by thawing ice-sheets and glaciers.
Climate change has reshaped the agenda for governments and industry who must respond to massive pressure from civil society demanding a sustainable future. During the last decade, the international political community set ambitious goals to limit global warming, reduce emissions and introduce greener solutions by 2030.
New rules agreed by most of the world mean less room for energy-intensive, polluting industries despite challenge from climate-sceptic interests. Companies will have to follow stricter sustainability standards and assume more corporate responsibility. Governments will have to eventually endorse a minimum amount of environmental regulations to ensure access to the European market. Nevertheless, a lot still needs to be done. Significant investment in technological innovation and scientific collaboration is necessary to solve most climate change riddles.
We have been debating global progress on fulfilling commitments at our Keeping Channels Open roundtables, as the series of UN Climate Summits continues with COP28 in the United Arab Emirates in November 2023.
In December 2015, 196 nations signed the Paris Agreement adopting legally-binding provisions to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The United Nations (UN) set 17 Sustainable Development Goals as part of its 2030 sustainability agenda producing yearly progress reports. In 2020, the EU approved the European Green Deal to transform its economy by promoting clean energy and transport and the taxing emitters. Under this strategy, the EU aspires to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. Outside of the West and its allies, the commitments of China, Russia, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Brazil will be decisive.
2021 was seen as a flagship year, as the US rejoined the Paris agreement under Biden, and the G7 and G20 summits injected further momentum into the climate agenda ahead of COP26 in Glasgow in November. Some in our roundtables feared the final UN Summit wouldn’t go far enough.
“There is a creeping feeling among climate-watching crowds that when it comes to COP26, we are more likely headed for a rerun of Copenhagen than the big leap forward at Paris.”
Others countered that this was a difficult area to negotiate and praised early G7 pledges to end new direct government support for coal power generation overseas by 2022, cut emissions, agree climate finance, halt biodiversity loss, and so on.
The final Glasgow Climate Pact signed by nearly 200 countries pledged to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal production, after opposition from China and India. While there was widespread disappointment, the deal was seen as “the beginning of the end” for coal use. Other fossil fuels like oil and gas were not explicitly mentioned, though countries pledged to adopt policies and technologies that move towards low-emission energy systems including clean power generation. Side deals were also made to stop using methane, reverse deforestation and decarbonise the financial sector.
The deal also called for more funding for developing countries – another contentious area. Signatories agreed to scale up their provision of climate finance to emerging economies, as well as technology transfer and capacity-building for adaptation. Analysts in our discussions urged more action and less ‘blah blah blah’ – echoing activist Greta Thurnberg.
“There is a need to translate commitments into action. Commitments only have credibility if countries have a domestic plan behind them to make the changes required to get to a zero-carbon future.”
In considering the role of the UK as host, it was important to show leadership and cultivate influence.
“The UK cannot be a solo superpower in the world since its agency will derive from clever engagement with others, putting together alliances and working through international institutions. Hosting the G7 summit and COP26 in 2021 presents post-Brexit Britain with such opportunities.”
The UK Government praised the Summit’s achievements as a “big step” towards limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. The UN Secretary General said the world was “hanging by a thread” and called for nations to “go into emergency mode.” As part of the deal, countries agreed to meet again the following year to pledge further cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.
China + Climate Change
Doubts have been expressed at our events about China’s commitment to address climate change despite being the world’s leading coal producer and consumer. Previous Chinese plans showed a net zero target to reduce emissions by only 2060 – too late to ensure the world limits global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Nonetheless, China had shown some good faith by investing in low carbon goods, electric vehicles and other services. However, the rise of ultra-nationalism and narratives against Western hegemony and in support of Russia have politicised the issue. The 25-year-old theory that climate change is a Western plot to impede China’s development has fully resurfaced.
It was agreed that while there was a need to strengthen rules on unfair trade practices, security threats and human rights abuses, the Western alliance must maintain engagement with China on combating climate change since this is existential for us all. Allies must also anticipate and counter waves of anti-climate disinformation, supported by populists, libertarians and industry, as Western Governments attempt to introduce stricter policies, restrictions on business and behaviour change.
Experts in our dialogues have suggested that tackling Covid and climate change represent an opportunity to ‘build back better’ and address widespread inequality.
“Taking steps to get to zero carbon is not going to work if it worsens inequality through costs to replace boilers and other obligations for people who cannot afford their gas and electricity bills…So we have to see the practical steps towards tackling climate change as also being an opportunity to address inequality.”
“A key opportunity in Europe would be to see the green deal as a major foreign policy piece of apparatus, because this will really speak to young people. Through trade, economic and environmental mechanisms, we can fashion some kind of European belt and road approach to apply within the European neighbourhood and beyond, shaping the future of the world in a way that’s aligned with our values.”
The rise of climate migration due to more extreme weather patterns was highlighted as another consequence to raise with countries, as the lack of advance action and a coordinated plan would exacerbate existing spats over migrants arriving on European shores.
“If we do not tackle climate change, how is the world going to cope with environmental climate refugees? People are not going to stay where they are now to drown in floods, or die of thirst because there is no water for their crops. Contemplating these consequences should be a powerful additional incentive for countries to realise the importance of addressing climate change and taking needed steps.”
Leading by Example was cited as key to credibility. A pattern of “low delivery and apparent indifference” makes it very difficult to get buy-in from all nations. It is especially important that the UK as host deliver on its promises in order to inspire others to raise their ambition. Developing policies should involve a wider range of people including youth.
“Too much strategizing still goes on among the elites. The issues we are dealing with will impact future generations and are hugely energising for young people – redesigning our societies and economies around green technology and more resilience, including in our public health systems.
We also have to ensure new technologies enhance our freedoms and don’t restrict them as China and Russia would like. Setting rules for the ethical use of technology and artificial intelligence and nurturing investment and opportunities in these areas is vital. This is being discussed at G7, G20, US-EU and other multilateral levels.”
“It is a very inspiring agenda but it’s not discussed that way with our citizens and that’s one of our real challenges.”
As negotiations continue, climate change is visibly affecting the world’s weather. International scientists commenting on a recent landmark study said many consequences are now irreversible and unless ambitious actions are undertaken, it will be ‘Code Red for humanity.’