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Hope and frustration at UN General Assembly: Vaccine worries, climate anxiety topped agenda

NEW YORK – Large parts of the world are facing the equivalent of a famine when it comes to vaccine equity, says United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) chief Achim Steiner.

Vaccine inequity is self-defeating, he warned, because the pandemic will keep coming back.

At the same time, the international community is still facing a fast-closing window in the fight against global warming, despite new substantial pledges at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) by the United States and China.

In an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the recent UNGA in New York, the UNDP administrator told The Straits Times: “Here is the United States doubling multi-billion dollar financing towards an international climate response. Here is China, a country that often has been pointed at as being the major exporter of coal fired, electricity-generating infrastructure that is being built around the world, announcing that from here onwards, it will no longer export coal fired power stations.”

“Had these announcements been made 10 years ago, they would have been revolutionary” he said. “These are very significant announcements. And yet, here we are in the year 2021, we have lost so much time. The window for us to actually stay within a 1.5 degree world is probably already closing, if not closed.”

Breakthroughs – and failures

On the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Steiner said: “The last 18 months, I think, will go down in the history books as moments of extraordinary ingenuity and breakthroughs – for example the ability to develop multiple vaccines in record time, and therefore, having the means by which to ultimately contain this pandemic.

“And yet also extraordinary failures in leadership, in responses, (and) in, particularly at this moment in time, vaccine equity.”

Indian economist and Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen had once framed the notion that famines do not occur because there is not enough food, but they are failures in the way systems are able to reach people.

“We are in an equivalent of a vaccine famine right now,” Mr Steiner said. “This is something that will leave a deep scar on the psyche of our collective confidence in one another.”

“And yet, as always, this is not only a moment of being hopeless or feeling helpless. We are seeing now a recognition that vaccine inequity is self-defeating to those who are vaccinated, because if the rest of the world doesn’t get access to vaccines, the pandemic will simply keep on coming back,” he said.

“We’re also seeing commitments being made right now that ultimately will address, I hope, maybe (by) the middle of next year… that objective of maybe having 70 per cent of the world vaccinated.”

Mr Steiner added: “The question is, will our political leaders, will the world of financing and will the international platforms that we have for cooperation, truly allow us to achieve that.”

Last chance in Glasgow

Another top issue at the UNGA was the fight against global warming.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, the goal is to limit global warming to well below 2 deg C and preferably to 1.5 deg C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

But speaking to reporters in New York on Sept 20, UN Secretary General António Guterres said based on current commitments, the world is on a “catastrophic pathway to 2.7 deg C of heating, instead of 1.5 deg C we all agreed should be the limit”.

“To limit temperature rise to 1.5 deg C, we need a 45 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 so we can reach carbon neutrality by mid-century,” he said.

Instead, commitments made by countries imply not a decrease, but an increase of 16 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 – and “unless we collectively change course, there is a high risk of failure” at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, in early November.

Three days later, Mr Steiner told ST that announcements by the US and China are “not yet enough.”

“They are very significant themselves, and we have actually seen remarkable things happen – (like) the advent of renewable energy (which) 15 years ago was something that was basically science fiction, it was in the drawers of engineers.”

“Today, we… are already in the midst of an energy revolution,” he said. “There are economies today, industrialised economies, developing country economies where renewable energy already provides 50, 60 per cent of the electricity.”

“And yet what people quite clearly sense, and that is a fact, (is) we are still losing the race in terms of a race against time. That is where we need to accelerate ambition.”

“The curve… is exponential in the sense of decarbonisation. The bad news is we have got far less time left than we had 10 years ago and that is our problem.”

Social contract

As frustrations over various issues grow in the last five to seven years, in more and more countries, people have been taking to the streets to express them, he said.

“You know something is not right. And it has a lot to do with bad governance, where leaders who are elected betray the confidence vested in them, where… corporations take advantage of loopholes and regulatory frameworks, where the new big fintech companies of the world are essentially able to operate in financial dimensions that are almost unimaginable to a normal citizen and then don’t pay taxes.”

“That is what corrodes the confidence of citizens in national governments or indeed in international governance systems,” said Mr Steiner.

“And sometimes also the false promises of a free trade world, which has been phenomenal in driving economic growth and opportunity… (but) has also amplified inequalities, created injustices.”

The 21st century is when we need to rediscover how to define good governance not from an empirical or scientific point of view, but from a consensus point of view, he said.

Yet the UNGA offered hope.

“In the midst of a pandemic, it is painful to see how the world is struggling to come together,” Mr Steiner said.

“And in one sense… here in New York, we see a semblance of what this United Nations General Assembly high-level week is meant to be – the place where everyone, despite differences that they may have, actually comes into one… place and tries to talk rather than fight.”

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