G-20 summit fails to bridge divides on pandemic and climate change

President Biden joins other world leaders for the traditional "family photo" on the first day of the G-20 summit.
President Biden, far left, joins other world leaders for the traditional “family photo” on the first day of the G-20 summit in Rome.
(Kirsty Wigglesworth / Associated Press)
Share via

Jetting across the Atlantic Ocean a few days ago aboard Air Force One for two international summits, one of President Biden’s top aides seemed pleased that China and Russia wouldn’t be attending.

Without them, it will be “the U.S. and Europe together driving the bus on the significant global issues,” national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters.

But even if they’re at the wheel, it’s been a bumpy ride. Despite Biden’s success at patching up disputes with allies like France and the European Union, new fissures are spreading across the globe, undermining the unity needed to resolve ongoing crises and forestall future ones.


President Biden, meeting with European leaders to plot strategy for nuclear talks with Iran, offers to lift sanctions if Tehran ‘changes course.’

Oct. 30, 2021

Some of these gaps appeared to widen during the G-20 summit in Rome, where Biden spent the last two days before he heads on Monday to Glasgow, Scotland, where he’ll spend another two at the COP26 conference on climate change.

“The world is becoming more divided,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “We are seeing this divergence between a constellation of authoritarian countries and a constellation of democratic countries.”

He said rivalries between powerful nations, most notably the U.S. and China, have created a “negative synergy” where global problems are escalating but there’s less cooperation to address them.

Developing nations are running out of patience with the slow distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and world leaders made little in the way of new commitments to speed up the process. Rich countries appear to be slingshotting out of the pandemic while others continue to suffer the economic aftershocks.

The G-20, which brings together the world’s most powerful countries to discuss economic and other issues, also did not produce the desired momentum toward COP26, undercutting hopes for success at preventing the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

The leaders were only able to muster a promise to reach carbon neutrality by around the middle of the century and to end the financing of coal plants overseas.


Only four heads of state from Pacific island nations can attend the climate summit.

Oct. 31, 2021

The joint statement failed to accelerate the fight against climate change because it only echoed pledges that were already made by China, the world’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions, earlier this year.

During a news conference Sunday, Biden blamed Russia and China for the lack of progress. He said they “didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change. There’s a reason people should feel disappointed with that. I found it disappointing myself.”

The lack of action contradicted the urgent warnings that characterized the summit, which was held in a convention center known as “the cloud,” where a billowing white structure is suspended within a rectangular glass building.

“Either we act now, face the costs of the transition and succeed,” said Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who hosted the G-20, “or we delay acting, and pay a much higher price later, and we fail.”

The underwhelming joint statement seemed to fulfill the fears expressed by António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, before the summit began.

“Let’s be clear — there is a serious risk that Glasgow will not deliver,” he said Friday. “Several recent climate announcements might leave the impression of a rosier picture. Unfortunately, this is an illusion.”


The rest of the world may suffer the consequences if the U.S. and China don’t work together on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Oct. 27, 2021

Climate progress is being jeopardized, in part, by a global energy crunch. A senior administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about ongoing negotiations, said Biden has used the G-20 summit to push oil-rich countries to increase their production to alleviate rising prices.

The official said Biden “made the point that we need to see adequate supply of energy in this moment as we make the long-term transition to a carbon-free economy.”

U.S. officials had tried to downplay expectations that the G-20 would lead to progress on the pandemic. They described a conference organized by Biden during the U.N. General Assembly in September, where the U.S. boosted its own commitments and elicited more from other countries, as a more significant development.

But the lack of progress on vaccine distribution remained a notable absence at a summit as large as the G-20, which has typically aspired to serve as a platform for global cooperation.

The U.S. has been trying to patch things up with France after cutting them out of a new security partnership.

Oct. 29, 2021

The People’s Vaccine, an international coalition of advocacy organizations, had called on countries to suspend intellectual property rights to make it easier to manufacture more doses and tests around the world. No such commitment was made.

J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the world would need to administer 2 billion doses in the next two months to meet its goal of vaccinating 40% of the population of each country by the end of the year. He said the G-20 had failed to produce a “concrete action plan.”


“The pandemic is going to change in nature to one that’s predominantly impacting the poorest countries that are the least equipped and the most disadvantaged,” he said. “It’s going to be very hard to avoid new variants coming forward.”

In addition, there remains lingering friction over how the pandemic began in China. President Xi, who delivered remarks virtually, said that “stigmatization of the virus and politicization of origins tracing run counter to the spirit of solidarity against the pandemic.”

The U.S. intelligence community on Friday released a report saying it was unable to determine whether the coronavirus began with a lab accident or transmission from an animal to a human, and it blamed the uncertainty in part on China’s refusal to cooperate with international investigations.

Despite the global turmoil, Biden chalked up some significant victories on economic issues during the summit.

His administration helped forge a sweeping agreement to implement a global minimum tax, which is intended to prevent corporations from seeking overseas tax shelters. The deal was endorsed by the G-20 participants, and it’s scheduled to take effect in 2023. It remains uncertain whether Biden can get such a tax enacted by Congress.

Biden also resolved a trade dispute with the European Union that began during the Trump administration. Under the deal, the U.S. will implement a quota system under which the tariffs will be levied on metal imports only exceeding a certain amount.


The E.U., meanwhile, will drop retaliatory tariffs on American imports of whiskey, motorcycles and other items.

“Today is a testament of the power of American diplomacy and strong partnerships to deliver tangible benefits for American workers and the middle-class families in America,” Biden said during a Sunday appearance with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.