This year’s 17th annual G20 Leader’s Summit will take place the theme of “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”. Specifically, leaders will touch on the key issues of global health architecture, digital transformation, and sustainable energy transition. The talks will take place in a world disrupted by COVID-19, Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, food and fuel price spikes and gathering economic storm clouds. The G20 hopes to find joint and inclusive solutions for navigating the recovery process and coming up with energy, environment and infrastructure solutions. Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s attendance at next month’s summits, the invasion will dominate discussions. Great power competition means that Mainland China and Russia can fill vacuums left by the West-vaccine vacuums, digital vacuums, and energy vacuums. If the West does not work together to offer a credible alternative, developing countries will work with Mainland China and Russia. Leadership is a choice.
Global Health Architecture
COVID-19 was a global catastrophe. Clearly, the world’s global health architecture needs to be improved and strengthened. Since February 2020, there have been over 631 million reported cases of Covid and approximately 6.5 million people have died. Among all nations, there has been a significant lack of coordination in suppressing the virus, examining and adopting best practices to limit the spread of the disease, and providing adequate resources and equitable distribution of essential supplies such as vaccines, PPE, and medical devices. There has not been a full accounting about “how and why COVID-19 happened.” The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response identified a series of dangerous missteps on the part of WHO leadership, and the WHO has not been held accountable for these missteps. Accountability for COVID-19 will not happen at this summit. At some point there needs to be accountability. After spending a year isolated in our basements, we all now realize we need better pandemic early warning systems and we need better surge manufacturing capacities. We also have learned that depending on one country (e.g. Mainland China) for pharmaceuticals, ventilators or safety suits (“PPE”) is a bad idea. According to the World Health Organization, only 19% of low-income countries are vaccinated. In comparison, the vaccination rates of developed nations are four times higher at 75%. Everyone needs to be vaccinated or new variants will emerge creating global havoc. We will need to improve global health resilience and make the current global health system more responsive to future crises. Mainland China and Russia have used their lower quality vaccines for “vaccine diplomacy.” Over time, if higher quality vaccine alternatives are available we have seen consumers and governments opt for higher quality Western vaccines.
COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation. There were massive increases in e-commerce, e-government and electronic payments. The need for better and higher speed internet is the new electricity. There still remains a severe digital gap between developed and developing nations, as only 35% of low-income nations have access to the internet versus 80% of citizens in advanced countries. This new “digital divide” is going to be closed either by the consortium of Huawei/ZTE/Alipay or by “someone else.” We should strongly prefer “someone else” because of the democratic values embedded in the consortium of “someone else.” The consortium of “someone else” requires intentionality, coordination, creative use of foreign aid, development finance and export credit financing. The West will need to get its act together quickly to solve the digital divide because if we do not every country in the world will work with the consortium of Huawei/ZTE/Alipay. There are also a series of building blocks needed to close the digital divide. Indonesia as G20 president has put forward some key priorities that would help including: digitalizing micro, small, and medium enterprises, expediting digital literacy and skills, expanding financial inclusion, and refining global data governance. However, the G20 must be cautious when discussing potential solutions, as digital transformation can exacerbate higher unemployment rates for low-skilled workers, and the more we are online means the greater risks of digital threats and cyberattacks.
In a G20 meeting that took place in September, it was revealed that the 20 members were unable to produce an official statement regarding commitments towards reaching net zero emissions. This means there will likely be no consensus on achieving a sustainable energy transition. Therefore, it is likely that coal will remain a part of the energy mix of many countries for decades to come. Gas should be enthusiastically embraced as a critical “transition” fuel but some are less enthusiastic about using gas and would prefer only renewables; this is unrealistic. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the critical need for gas not only for Ukraine but for Europe. If we the world is not going to use Russian gas, then other sources of gas will need to be exploited including developing and transporting gas in Canada and the United States Countries that have gas reserves should look at their laws to encourage the development of these gas reserves. The multilateral development banks, export credit agencies, and development finance agencies should support the development of gas as part of a transition strategy. Renewable energy requires metals-a lot of metals. Decarbonization does not mean dematerialization. Renewable energy means a massive increase in mining and mineral processing. The processing of minerals is a new, critical choke point. We need to develop new technologies and a diversity of places where minerals can be processed. Otherwise, the world will end up dependent on Mainland China and Russia where many key minerals are processed for the carbon transition.
Given the geopolitical tensions, the G20 will be able to pull together only the most tenuous of political agreements. The G7 and perhaps a G7 plus is where most of the West’s diplomatic energies should be placed. It is possible that some G20 members, such as the United States, Canada, and England, might walk out of the discussions as happened in the Spring. Perhaps given the rumored interest in a negotiated agreement with Russia over Ukraine, these countries will not walk out. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will impact all the discussions. The key issues at the heart of the coming G20 summit – global health architecture, digital transformation, and sustainable energy transition – require US leadership in partnership with the world’s democracies. The G20 has proven to be an ineffective forum for dealing with some of the world’s challenges. The G7 and the G7 plus are where the action will be at in the future.