5 Global Issues to Watch in 2022

By Kaysie Brown on December 21, 2021

At Mawlana Hatefi school for girls in Afghanistan, only grades 1 to 6 have returned to learning. Photo: Sayed Bidel /UNICEF

Our Vice President for Policy and Strategic Initiatives unpacks five key global issues to watch in 2022, laying out both the challenges and opportunities of global cooperation in ensuring an equitable, sustainable global response and recovery.

As if 2020 and 2021 weren’t unpredictable and challenging enough, there is no doubt that 2022 will be another year of tests: from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to worsening climate impacts, devastating humanitarian crises, and the continued unraveling of hard-won gains on everything from curbing poverty to closing the gender divide. The coming year will also test our commitment and resolve in our ability to galvanize and build trust within and across communities to address the multitude of challenges that demand we work together.

In the year ahead, here are five key issues to watch.

1. Covid-19 response and recovery remain paramount

As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the remarkable speed at which vaccines were developed and the rapid design and implementation of revolutionary new partnership models — including the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and its COVAX pillar — to ensure equitable access to tests, treatments, and vaccines. And yet this year was another cautionary tale for us all. Instead of global solidarity led by science, we saw slow and fragmented action, tepid leadership, and geopolitical infighting. These realities hindered our collective ability to prevent and slow the Delta and Omicron variants, get shots in arms, and protect the world’s most vulnerable people. As a result, reported cases of COVID-19 have surged to more than 270 million people worldwide, and the death toll has surpassed 5 million — though we know the real tolls are far higher.

2022 must be the year that we close the massive gaps in the global pandemic response and meet the global target of getting 70% of people in every country vaccinated by midyear. Without meeting this goal, we are resigning ourselves to a vicious cycle. To meet this target, we need to tackle the vexing persistence of vaccine inequality head-on. While 66% of people in high-income countries had had at least one dose in arms as of Dec. 15, only 9% in low-income countries had. Marshaling high-level leadership of this response will be paramount.

Source: UN Development Programme

This pandemic has also cast the importance of people-centric health systems into sharp relief, which will be an increasingly important topic of focus as the world community looks ahead to the High-level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage in 2023. So, too, will be strengthening collective capacities on prevention, preparedness, and response to future health threats through new financing instruments, surveillance and detection, and new partnerships to battle dis- and misinformation, for example. On financing, there will be several replenishments and financing needs for the world to contend with, including for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). More broadly, and looking ahead to building deeper and sustained reforms, countries have agreed to start negotiations on a new agreement on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response that will begin in earnest in 2022.

"Government leaders this year talked about the need to tackle this pandemic and be better prepared for the next one, but continue to not put in the commensurate political and financing muscle to ensure it."

Kate Dodson

Vice President for Global Health, UN Foundation

2. Poverty reduction, the promise of leaving no one behind, and the sdgs

Even before the onset of COVID-19, the world needed a much more ambitious focus to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on our collective efforts to eradicate poverty, reduce inequalities, and create a more prosperous and healthy planet for all. Essential health services continue to be severely disrupted, millions of people have lost their jobs, childhood education opportunities are interrupted or have disappeared, and inequality has worsened.

A devastating number of people have slid back into poverty, reversing gains that had been made over the past decade. It is projected that between 100 million and 150 million individuals were pushed back into extreme poverty in 2021 as a result of the compounding effects of COVID-19. Many of these people live in fragile, conflict-prone, climate-risk environments, making the nature of the challenge even harder. Countries that are bearing the greatest burdens and setbacks are those least able to respond due to limited domestic resources and high debt burdens.

While the SDGs provide a framework for action, much more is needed to rally global political commitment, accelerate sustainable financing, and ensure that we are living true to the promise of leaving no one behind. On extreme poverty, January kicks off with a conference dedicated to helping Least Developed Countries deliver on the SDGs and will be an important agenda-setting moment for the year to come. This comes shortly after countries came together in December to replenish the International Development Association (IDA), the World Bank fund aimed at helping the poorest countries.

2022 also marks the halfway point to the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs. That means the way forward requires tapping into and working with the best of what different actors have to offer, from local governments to CEOs, universities, and community foundations. It also requires a better understanding of how to achieve global transformations needed to meet the SDGs. Over the next year, a group of scientists appointed by the UN Secretary-General will prepare the next Global Sustainable Development Report, due to be released in 2023, which will help ground approaches in scientific evidence.

"2022 also marks the halfway point to the 2030 deadline for achieving the SDGs. That means the way forward requires tapping into and working with the best of what different actors have to offer, from local governments to CEOs, universities, and community foundations."

Kaysie Brown

Vice President for Policy and Strategic Initiatives, UN Foundation

2022 is also an opportunity to deepen the base of support for the basic principles and approaches of the SDGs — for people and planet, and applicable to high- and low-income countries alike. It will also provide an opportunity to connect local solutions and tools to this global agenda and to propel greater focus on ensuring that we are recovering better and more sustainably for all.

3. accelerating climate ambition, impact, and accountability

This year saw the most anticipated UN Climate Change Conference (COP) since countries met in 2015 to negotiate the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C over preindustrial levels. An important element of the Paris Agreement is a ratchet mechanism to ensure that actors come back to the table every five years to put forward more ambitious climate goals and to keep the promise of Paris on track. It was against this backdrop — albeit with a one-year delay due to the global pandemic — that the world community met in Glasgow, Scotland, at COP26, serving as a significant deadline and test to see how and whether leaders would step up.

There, certain progress was made. Many countries raised their ambitions. New pledges and multistakeholder coalitions were forged to address methane gas pollution, deforestation, coal financing, and shipping, among other issues. The U.S. and China put aside their differences and agreed to boost cooperation around combating climate change in the years ahead. Private sector actors and the investor community continued to make bold commitments to reach net-zero, balancing off new greenhouse gas emissions with an equivalent amount of emissions removed from the atmosphere. And evidence demonstrates that the ambition and action we need to avert a climate catastrophe is starting to build.

But we are nowhere near where we need to be to meet the promise of the Paris Agreement. Commitments made at COP26 were decidedly incremental, and glaring gaps were revealed around financing, support for those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and the overall level of ambition and urgency that the nature of the crisis demands.

2022 will be a year to keep laser focus on building greater ambition and accountability. It will face some serious headwinds. Carbon emissions rebounded in 2021, despite a slowing economy amid an unrelenting pandemic. Extreme weather events accelerated, and biodiversity loss is taking place at alarming speed. 2022 may see record-setting global demand for coal and with that record-high greenhouse gas emissions, as well as woefully insufficient green COVID-19 recovery policies and programs to ensure a more sustainable and equitable future.

At COP27, to be held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, countries will be asked to return — not five years later as originally agreed but one year after Glasgow — with updated climate pledges to push for faster action. Greater attention must be placed on adaptation and finance and finding ways to ramp up developed economies’ support for countries most threatened by climate change and facing irreparable losses, including small island developing states. Transparent and robust accountability has to be the name of the game in translating the plethora of net-zero pledges into results from governments, subnational actors, and the private sector alike. Propelling greater action of these sector-based coalitions, including around methane, food systems, and transportation, will be an important marker, as will ensuring a successful outcome to the Convention on Biological Diversity negotiations to put stronger targets into place and plans and policies to prevent the catastrophic destruction of our forests, plants, animals, and ecosystems.

"The clock to COP27 next year in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, is already ticking. There is no time to lose."

Pete Ogden

Vice President for Climate, Energy and the Environment, UN Foundation

4. Propelling Urgent action on gender equality and the rights of girls and women

The world is all too aware of the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on girls and women, as well as the pervasive and systemic challenges that prevent progress on closing the gender rights and opportunity gaps, and the impacts of shrinking civic society space on local and global women’s movements. But there are also rays of light on an otherwise dim horizon: a vibrant and powerful group of dedicated actors across geographies and sectors are working, against the odds and on the right side of history, to make gender equality a reality.

Two historic Generation Equality Forums (GEF), held in Mexico City and Paris in 2021, mobilized more than $40 billion of pledged commitments from governments, civil society, youth activities, and the private sector to accelerate gender equality. In 2022, these commitments to issues ranging from economic justice and rights to feminist movements and leadership, will need to be translated into action. That means building bridges across communities and issue areas, such as climate. It also means continuing to model a new form of multistakeholder engagement and feminist multilateralism, leveraging the strength and energy of youth leaders, the corporate sector, and dedicated national governments, among others.

Scene from the Opening Session of the Generation Equality Forum, held in Paris, France on June 30, 2021. Photo: Fabrice Gentile /UN Women

Turning promises into action necessitates clear and usable accountability mechanisms that can stand the test of time, and learning from and building off good models and practices. For example, certain companies have been increasingly outpacing governments when it comes to setting and implementing policies to advance gender equality. From standardizing equal pay, offering paid parental leave, and advancing women’s leadership, the business community is making strides for women in the workplace.

But this also demands dedicating resources and attention to critical areas of focus. On this, the WithHer Fund — a funding vehicle created by The Spotlight Initiative and UN Foundation — is worth watching. By walking the talk with its funding criteria and principles rooted in feminist grantmaking, this new fund will provide resources directly to grassroots women’s organizations around the world fighting gender-based violence (GBV) in their local communities, especially as they navigate the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"For decades, tireless and tested activists have shown us that we must back strong, independent, women’s rights movements to eliminate violence against girls and women. Now, the broader funding and advocacy community is beginning to invest in these."

Michelle Milford Morse

Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy, UN Foundation

5. growing humanitarian crises and conflicts

The world is facing unprecedented levels of humanitarian need. In 2022, 274 million people are expected to need humanitarian aid, an almost 20% increase from already record high numbers in 2021. Digging into the data reveals a number of troubling trends: increases in forced displacement, more people on the edge of acute famine, the concentration of the vaccine inequity reality, increased intersections between issues like climate and hunger with conflict, a rise in authoritarianism, and a surge in conflict and violence.

In Afghanistan alone, approximately 5 million more people will require assistance than in 2021. Likewise, the growing conflict in Ethiopia is expected to place an additional 5 million people in need of assistance. This correlates with increased funding requirements at a time when the financing gaps around humanitarian assistance are widening. If trends continue, the scale of the response will fall far short of the need.

The crises and conflicts that are a significant driver of humanitarian need cannot be kept neatly inside national borders, making a central purpose of the founding of the UN — to prevent conflict — harder than ever. This demands greater global cooperation to better understand and resolve conflicts and to reduce suffering of civilians who increasingly find themselves in the crosshairs. Thankfully, research shows that investments in prevention and peacekeeping not only work, but pay dividends.

2022 will be an important year for the UN and the wider global community to rally resources and policies around reducing insecurity and halting the disturbing trends around hunger and conflict. Peacekeeping missions in South Sudan, the Congo, the Central African Republic, and Mali will continue to dominate attention, and uncertainty around Afghanistan and Ethiopia will remain top of mind. The UN will also be engaged in numerous discussions aimed at responding to current and future needs. A high-level meeting on sustainable financing for peacebuilding will take place, identifying new approaches and methods to ensure that these critical tools and instruments have the requisite funding. The Secretary-General will provide a report on future directions for peace operations transitions. And the UN will continue to develop new approaches around issues such as the role of digital technologies in peacekeeping as well as climate and security.

the stakes for the year ahead

Earlier this year, the Secretary-General laid out his vision statement for his second term, underscoring the stakes of the current moment: “The choices we make now will determine our trajectory for decades to come.” That reality, and the urgency and acceleration of the challenges and opportunities before us, were the impetus behind the recently released Our Common Agenda report, which makes the case for stronger action and more networked and inclusive global cooperation to deliver against the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. In that call, it recognized the critical role of youth leaders in crafting our current policies to ensure a prosperous and peaceful future. 2022 will be the first year of the Secretary-General’s second term and will mark an opportunity to deliver on his vision, against the backdrop of global crises that underscore the necessity of international cooperation.

We have our work cut out for us: sharpened geopolitical divisions, accelerating climate risks, unrelenting domestic demands, and the real prospect of a two-track COVID-19 recovery ushering in a two-track world.

Yet we also see space for finding common ground in some areas, including on major global threats of our time like COVID-19 and the climate crisis. Of course, distrust is on the rise as well as the battle over values and norms, but failure to deliver will only further feed disillusionment.

Heading into another year of the pandemic, it can seem difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But 2022 offers important opportunities to ensure that we make real progress in achieving a more equitable, prosperous, healthier world. Will we take them?