Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy


G20 Summits |  G20 Ministerials |  G20 Analysis |  Search |  About the G20 Research Group
[English]  [Français]  [Deutsch]  [Italiano]  [Portuguesa]  [Japanese]  [Chinese]  [Korean]  [Indonesian]

Trinity College in the University of Toronto

G20 Information Centre
provided by the G20 Research Group


"It Is Madness": UN Secretary-General António Guterres Calls on G20 to Clean COVID-19 Rescue Packages for Future Generations

Brittaney Warren, G20 Research Group
November 20, 2020

"I believe 2021 can be a leap year…a quantum leap to carbon neutrality," said António Gutteres, Secretary General of the United Nations representing all the world's countries, at a press briefing on November 20, just before the G20 Riyadh Summit's start. Gutteres's remarks were a mix of hope for the possibilities for strong climate leadership in the coming year and concern about the "troubling signs" of climate failure. The most troubling sign was the September COVID-19 rescue packages. Gutteres noted that in those packages world leaders gave 50% more to the fossil fuel sector than to renewables, "borrowing from future generations" and leaving them a "broken and dangerous planet." "It is madness," he proclaimed. Aligning COVID-19 recovery packages with the United Nations 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement was Gutteres's strongest call to the G20, apart from debt sustainability for least developed and middle-income countries and vaccine production and distribution.

Gutteres's other climate calls to the G20 leaders were to put a price on carbon, stop fossil fuel subsidies, stop building and financing coal plants, pay their long-overdue commitment of $100 billion a year for climate finance to poor countries, shift the burden of paying for climate change from taxpayers to polluters, integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all decisions and take the necessary measures for a just transition to decent jobs. He also emphasized the need for inclusiveness and to ensure that people enjoy the full respect of human rights.

Adding Some Missing Links

Gutteres asked for all the right things. He highlighted many of the key essential things the G20 needs to do in order to reverse their emissions. Given that Gutteres could not list everything in one short speech, there are still a few important items to add to his list for G20 leaders to do in the next two days.

First, Gutteres urged the G20 to stand united on the science of climate change, stating "solidarity is survival." But that united stance requires the G20 to commit specifically to the targets of reducing emissions by 45% by 2030 and net zero by 2050 — both only a few years away.

Second, the need to govern holistically on the joint health and climate crises was implied by Gutteres's call to clean the COVID-19 rescue packages. But emphasizing an explicit call for the G20 to recognize the synergies between climate and health governance should be added too. For instance, fossil fuels are a major cause of the air, water and land pollution, which directly cause respiratory and many other diseases and increase the deadly effects of COVID-19. Reducing emissions would greatly help, and is necessary, to meet the pollution-related SDGs, including SDG3 on health.

Third, Gutteres focused, rightly, on the energy sector. But the world's second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions is the global agriculture, forestry and other land use sector. This includes factory farms and large-scale chemical intensive monocrops. When factoring in the food supply chain, this sector accounts for between 21% and 37% of global emissions. The intensive agriculture sector is a major contributor to the climate crisis, to ocean dead zones, to environmental pollution, and to environmental racism and human rights abuses, particularly of migrant workers and Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, the products it promotes are disease inducing, including non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and cancers. Perhaps more troubling, the animal production sector is predicted to be single biggest source of antimicrobial resistance, which already threatens global health and infectious disease spread. Moreover, the majority of global infectious diseases, such as SARS, MERS, avian flu, swine flu, HIV/AIDS, and not least, COVID-19, have their root cause in humans' mistreatment, abuse and destruction of animals and animal habitats. Some of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 have been in meat processing plants worldwide. If the world is going to avoid another pandemic, COVID-19 packages need to include de-subsidizing factory farms and redirecting funds to supporting organic and diversified plant-based crops, as well as closing wet markets and ending legal and illegal trade in wildlife, while finding alternative incomes for the working poor in those trades.

How Will the G20 Respond?

In the G20 leaders' first extraordinary virtual meeting in March 2020, they did not address the root causes of the pandemic. Thus far they have focused on response, with relatively little attention paid to preparing for and avoiding future pandemics. The final communiqué produced at Riyadh will focus on economic recovery and debt relief. According to Guterres, the draft communiqué acknowledges the possibility of extending the debt suspension of least developed countries until 2021. Committing to this would free up money for poorer countries to fight both the pandemic and the climate crisis, which disproportionately affects low-income countries and poor people there.

On the climate issues outlined by Gutterres, the most likely to appear in the communiqué is the economic one of a just transition for green jobs. This is most in line with the Saudi host's own priorities under its 2030 Vision and G20 agenda, such as developing a renewable energy market, managing the health of the Red Sea, fighting desertification and promoting a circular carbon economy. More G20 leaders may commit to the longer-term target of net zero by 2050, as almost half have done so already. But here there is doubt too. Saudi Arabia is not known as a global climate leader and the United States at the G20 is still represented by President Donald Trump, a notorious climate denier. Moreover, some of the less industrialized countries may not be enthusiastic about committing to this goal without the promise of additional climate financing from the more industrialized G20 members, to achieve emissions reduction and build resilience.

Finally, on the COVID-19 stimulus packages, Saudi Arabia is one of only three countries that has provided no support to green sectors. The other 17 members, while their support is comparatively much lower than to the fossil fuel sector, have provided at least some support to renewable energy and low-emissions transportation. This suggests that the G20 host will not push this issue at the Riyadh Summit, and will instead focus on promoting its vision for a circular carbon economy with some attention to its priorities on afforestation and coral reefs as natural carbon sinks.

Still, Gutteres maintained some hope, stating that by early next year countries representing 65% of carbon are likely to make stronger commitments to carbon neutrality. But with atmospheric carbon dioxide at 410 parts per million, the highest they have ever been in millions of years, Guterres was on point to declare "we don't have a moment to lose."

[back to top]


Brittaney WarrenBrittaney Warren is director of compliance and lead researcher on climate change for the G20 Research Group, the G7 Research Group and the BRICS Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at Trinity College in the University of Toronto. She has published on accountability measures in summit commitments, the G20 and G7's compliance and governance of climate change, and the G20's governance of digitalisation. She holds a master's degree in environmental studies from York University. Follow her at @brittaneywarren.


This Information System is provided by the University of Toronto Library
and the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto.
Please send comments to: g20@utoronto.ca
This page was last updated November 20, 2020 .

All contents copyright © 2020. University of Toronto unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.