As the G20 approaches its Riyadh Summit about a month from now, the world is wondering if it can cope with the unprecedented, proliferating array of health, economic, social and sustainability crises that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought.
Yes it can, and probably will. Since their start in 2008, G20 summits’ performance has risen to a substantial level. G20 leaders have picked up the pace in 2020, pivoting to confront the Covid-19 crisis, while acting on its economic consequences, and supporting their ministers work on the broad agenda Saudi Arabia as chair had set from the start. The critical outstanding question, however, is whether they will control the current existential crisis of climate change.
Since 2008 G20 performance has risen to respectable and robust levels in making precise, future-oriented, politically binding commitments and complying with them before its next summit comes. Its 14 regular summits have produced 2,668 commitments, starting with 95 in 2008, soaring to a peak of 529 at Hamburg in 2017 and settling at 143 at Osaka in 2019.
Compliance with these commitments averaged 70%, starting at 75% for 2008’s and rising rather steadily since 2010 to peak at 79% for Buenos Aires in 2018. Compliance has been led by the United Kingdom at 85%, Germany and the European Union 84%, Canada at 83% and Australia at 82%.
G20 commitments and compliance have risen robustly on the subjects taking centre stage this year.
On health, spurred by the deadly Ebola outbreak in Africa, G20 summits made 75 commitments from 2014 to 2019, with the 14 commitments at Osaka showing strong support for the World Health Organization. Compliance with those at Hamburg was 98% and those at Buenos Aires 93%.
On macroeconomic policy, G20 summits made 476 commitments since 2008. It started with six in 2008, peaked amidst the European financial crisis with 91 at Cannes in 2011, and produced nine at Osaka, when the global economy was finally doing well. Compliance averaged 80% since 2008.
On development, the critical economic subject for most G20 members and outside countries, the G20 made 296 commitments. It began with four in 2008, peaked at 75 in Hamburg in 2018 and produced 24 at Osaka. Compliance averaged only 67%, but rose to 93% for Hangzhou in 2016, and came in at 73% for Buenos Aires in 2018.
On climate change, however, performance lagged. G20 summits made 91 commitments, with only a slight rise, peaking at 22 in Hamburg, with 13 at Osaka. Compliance with them averaged 68%, but was 78% for Buenos Aires.
In 2020, G20 leaders have picked up the pace, to provide promising prospects for Riyadh. By May 10, 2020, with over half a year to go before the Riyadh Summit, compliance with Osaka’s priority commitments was already 67%, with health at 69%, macroeconomic policy at 89%, development at 78%, and climate change at 75%.
Moreover, G20 leaders returned to full time work for the first time since 2008-2010, by holding a second summit this year. This emergency virtual summit on March 26th produced 47 commitments. Health came first with 22 and another six explicitly related to health. Macroeconomic policy had nine and development had three (all on aid). Yet climate change, crowded out by COVID-19, had none. Moreover, a mere two months later, compliance with these commitments had already reached 72%, with health at 63%, macroeconomic policy at 88% and development at 75%.
The unprecedented intensity and breadth of G20 ministerials in 2020 tell a similar tale. Starting on February 22 the G20 mounted 24 ministerial meetings by October 12. They comprised separate meetings for 11 different ministers – those for finance (and central bank governors), trade (and investment), energy, health, agriculture, labour, tourism, digitalization, educations, foreign affairs and the environment, and with several meeting twice and a joint meeting of finance and health ministers added on. Yet environment ministers met only once, at a late stage in on September 17, and were unable to agree on public communique. Climate change was left out yet again.
G20 leaders must make the space at Riyadh to act on climate change, which was a key priority set by the Saudi presidency and one that the accumulating science and climate catastrophes now put at centre stage. At a minimum, amidst their crowded Riyadh Summit agenda, leaders should agree to hold another summit under the Italian presidency in early 2021, when the US president will come with a new four year mandate and perhaps full control of his Congress, and when the impact of Covid-19’s current second wave and prospects for an effective, accessible vaccine will be better known. If G20 leaders at their first summit on November 14-15, 2008 could agree to meet 18 weeks later on April 1-2, 2009 to control the global financial crisis erupting then, surely their successors at Riyadh on November 21-22 can agree to meet even earlier next year to address the far more deadly crises ravaging their countries and the global community now.