Climate, COVID-19 dominate UN as Biden and Xi up their promises

  • September 22, 2021
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The United Nations headquarters building is seen from inside the General Assembly hall in New York City, Sept. 21, 2021. — REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ/POOL

JOSEPH R. BIDEN and Xi Jinping boosted their efforts to help other nations address climate change as fears over the global environment and the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic dominated the first day of world leaders addressing the annual United Nations General Assembly.

President Biden said in his speech Tuesday morning that the US would double funding to aid developing countries cope with climate change, helping bring the world closer to a $100-billion annual target sought ahead of a climate conference in Scotland next month.

“Making these ambitious investments isn’t just good climate policy, it’s a chance for each of our countries to invest in ourselves and our own future,” Mr. Biden said.

China’s President Xi, speaking hours later in a prerecorded video, said his country will stop financial support for the construction of coal-fired power plants abroad, a move long sought by climate activists.

“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” Mr. Xi said.

The moves by leaders of the world’s two biggest economies signaled the importance placed on climate change as governments globally face mounting costs from extreme weather events.

Continuing the focus on climate, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he’ll submit the Paris climate accord to his nation’s parliament for approval, while the president of the Maldives, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, said rising global temperatures would be a “death sentence” for his island nation.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres praised the announcements by Mr. Biden and Mr. Xi Tuesday but said in a statement that “we still have a long way to go” to ensure the conference next month “marks a turning point in our collective efforts to address the climate crisis.” 

Sounding a bleak tone for the gathering, Mr. Guterres warned in remarks earlier Tuesday that the world is hurtling toward ecological destruction and that the “climate alarm bells” are “ringing at fever pitch.” Calling current global efforts insufficient, he forecast a “hellscape of temperature rises” if emissions aren’t cut more than currently planned.

“We are weeks away from the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, but seemingly light-years away from reaching our targets,” Mr. Guterres said. “We must get serious. And we must act fast.”

Global leaders are in New York this week against the backdrop of a world that’s increasingly fracturing into polarized camps. 

Repeating vows to work more collaboratively with allies and global institutions, Mr. Biden urged the world to turn from conflict toward cooperation. While that message is meant to contrast with former President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to the world, Mr. Biden found himself trying to assuage frayed nerves among key allies.

Some foreign leaders were upset over the hasty withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. French officials also remain outraged over a new defense alliance that calls for the US and UK to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.

The deal cost Paris a $66-billion contract to build Australia a diesel-powered submarine fleet. In response, France last week recalled its ambassador from Washington for the first time.

“It’s not so much about breaking a contract,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters at the French mission in New York on Monday. “It’s about unilateralism and unpredictability, the absence of consultations between allies.”

VACCINE INEQUITY
Even UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared caught by surprise by positive news: The US decision to ease travel restrictions on foreigners who can show proof of vaccination. European nations had long called for US travel barriers to be eased.

With the UNGA taking place in a hybrid mode — many leaders stayed home and delegations in New York were kept smaller than normal — the global COVID-19 pandemic continued to be a key issue.

Mr. Guterres decried the vaccine inequity that has left rich countries with surplus doses and considering booster shots as developing nations have barely started vaccinating their populations.

“Perhaps one image tells the tale of our times: The picture we have seen from some parts of the world of Covid-19 vaccines in the garbage, expired and unused,” he said. “It is an obscenity.”

Reviewing the mistrust and lack of unity he says have undermined global efforts to address Covid and climate, Mr. Guterres said, “Instead of the path of solidarity, we are on a dead end to destruction.” While millions go hungry, Mr. Guterres said, they see “billionaires joyriding to space.”

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro  — who was bashed by Mayor Bill de Blasio for coming to New York without being vaccinated, though he had previously contracted COVID-19 — sought to strike a moderate tone in a bid to improve his nation’s image abroad.

In a speech that kicked off the day’s addresses by leaders, the conservative president highlighted efforts to open the Brazilian economy to foreign investment, defending his environmental policies and his track record during the pandemic. The South American nation suffered the world’s largest COVID-19 death toll after the US and faces broad condemnation over lax policies to protect the Amazon.

WOMEN’S RIGHTS
And while the UN, like many institutions, has placed renewed emphasis on gender equity, the difficulty of doing that at a national level was highlighted by the opening day’s agenda, which featured just one female head of government.

Slovakia’s President Zuzana Caputova sent a video speech to the General Assembly in which she urged the international community to stand up in particular for girls and women in Afghanistan, where the Taliban-led government that has taken power was condemned in the 1990s for its harsh human rights record.

“Over the past two decades, girls and women in Afghanistan could exercise their legitimate rights,” she said. “These must not be taken away.”  Bloomberg