Five Global Issues to Watch in 2021

By Rajesh Mirchandani on December 23, 2020

Much as we may want to consign 2020 to the dustbin of history, it taught us some vital lessons and it sets the stage for the year ahead. It showed us that a global pandemic is not just a health crisis, but also an economic crisis, an education crisis, an inequality crisis, and so much more. We saw rising food insecurity, growing polarization, and surging mistrust of public institutions and leaders, not to mention a devastating and disproportionate toll on women, girls, and other marginalized communities.

At the same time, we have seen such spirited generosity during this crisis and incredible solidarity across countries, communities, and sectors. This crisis has showed that the world can come together when faced with huge shared challenges. Let’s hope we can do the same for other great challenges that loom ahead.

With COVID-19 still far from behind us, though, we must pay close attention to fault lines it has highlighted and deepened, and that lie ahead. We have decisive choices to make that will determine whether the current system we’ve created, one already under siege, is sustainable going forward.

With that in mind, here are five global issues we think should be prioritized in the year ahead.

1. Ensuring Equity and Inclusivity at the Heart of All We Do

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable and marginalized communities around the world, particularly women and girls, people of color, and those already struggling to afford or access basic health care. The pandemic has led to the world’s workers losing more than 10% of their income, or $3.5 trillion in the first three quarters of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019. It is estimated that COVID-19 will push more than 71 million people into extreme poverty. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has pushed for a rescue package of at least 10% of the global economy, with a focus on lower-income countries. We must make sure that how we recover does not make these inequities worse.

A first step is to provide equitable access to diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments. The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and COVAX facility provide the best road map to ensure people everywhere have the same opportunity to benefit from the incredible medical breakthroughs against COVID-19 that emerged in 2020. Not only is it morally wrong that wealth should determine who gets lifesaving treatments first, but the virus doesn’t care: This pandemic won’t end anywhere if it isn’t ended everywhere. That’s just science.

Issues of equality, on which there was already scant progress, have sadly regressed due to the pandemic. Twenty-five years since the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” there is still no place or part of life where girls and women are treated equally to men and boys — and COVID-19 has made that discrepancy worse. We should all be horrified that domestic violence has increased — in some places by as much as 30% — as women are quarantined with their abusers. In addition, the UN estimates that hardships resulting from COVID-19 will drive 13 million more girls to marry before the age of 18. What kind of message does that send to young girls everywhere? Even the ubiquitous hospital-blue masks are bizarrely designed to fit a man’s face, not a woman’s — despite 70% of care workers being women. Gender inequality is, as the Secretary-General put it, “the unfinished business of our time.”

More needs to be done to build back fairer and more inclusively. But we should also pay closer attention to intersectional inequalities that COVID-19 has highlighted. For example, LGBTQ people of color are more likely than white LGBTQ people to have had their working hours cut during the pandemic — just one reminder of how the impacts of COVID-19 are compounded if you bear inequality in multiple ways.

Another area of burgeoning inequality is education, which should be the central equalizer. With classrooms going remote or shifting online, half of the world’s population, lacking a basic internet connection or computer, is put at an unfair disadvantage, one that will only worsen over time. According to the World Bank, 1.6 billion students were out of school at the first peak of the pandemic in April 2020; 700 million still are. In low- and middle-income countries alone, 24 million children and youths may drop out or not have access to school next year. We also know that here in the United States, school closures and disruptions caused by the pandemic disproportionately affect students of color. We can’t let COVID-19 create a “lost generation.”

Before the pandemic struck, we already knew we were off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and we cannot use the pandemic as an excuse to continue leaving people behind. The crisis should act as a wake-up call to tackle the inequality that holds back all of humanity.

2. Accelerating Progress on the Sustainable Development Goals

At the start of 2021, we will have just 10 years left for every nation on earth to deliver on the promise it made to its people to achieve the SDGs by 2030 — a Decade of Action left to deliver a world of greater opportunity and prosperity for everyone on a healthy planet. We face an uphill climb. The pandemic has set back human development by as much as 20 years. Yet at the same time, it has clarified why the SDGs are so important to begin with — this past year crystallized how interconnected our challenges are.

One burgeoning area of promising activity is the groundswell of subnational actors, as regional governments, cities, states, businesses, networks of young activists, and protest movements like Black Lives Matter are pushing the frontiers of sustainable development. They are driving solutions and forging new partnerships, even in the midst of a pandemic. We see evidence of enterprising grassroots efforts at the local level to meet SDG targets. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, launched the first-of-its-kind voluntary university review following a university-wide effort to understand how its teaching, research, and practices contribute — positively or negatively — to the SDGs. Hawaii established its so-called Voluntary Local Review, becoming the first U.S. state to track and report on its SDG progress, mirroring the Voluntary National Review process that country governments undertake. Cities, too, are stepping up. Under the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles announced a new SDG Activities Index, described as “a living encyclopedia” of the people, organizations, and companies advancing the SDGs in Los Angeles. This comes on top of the city’s open-source dashboard tracking local progress on the SDGs, which has become a model for cities around the world.

All over the world — and encouragingly also here in the U.S., as we have seen firsthand among the 20,000-plus members of our United Nations Association of the USA sister organization — local action, local implementation, and local leadership on the SDGs are flowering in exciting ways.

3. Making Peace with Our Planet

Pandemic and poverty aside, we are facing a broader ecological crisis as ecosystems are collapsing, biodiversity is disappearing, and oceans are acidifying. Even though the slowdown in economic activity due to the pandemic created a brief drop in global carbon emissions, we cannot escape the cumulative effect of generations of unchecked human activity or ever afford to return to our pre-pandemic emission trajectory. This past year was on track to be one of the three warmest years on record globally, with record-breaking wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and droughts around the world. 2021 will be a decisive year for determining the health of our planet for centuries to come.

There will be a steady drumbeat of calls to action throughout the next year, culminating with landmark UN climate and biodiversity summits at the end of the year in Glasgow, Scotland, and Kunming, China. The UN Secretary-General will also host a Food Systems Summit during UN General Assembly week to galvanize the international community to minimize agriculture’s impact on the environment, while fundamentally shifting the way we produce food to address rising hunger and food insecurity. 2021 will be the time to press the world’s major emitters, responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas pollution, to submit enhanced 2030 climate targets. A flurry of climate activity and commitments in 2020 — including net-zero commitments from the world’s largest emitter, China, and aggressive medium-term targets from the likes of the European Union and the U.K. — will be a foundation to build on in the year ahead.

In fact, more than 110 countries have now committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and China by 2060. Countries representing more than 65% of global carbon dioxide emissions and more than 70% of the world economy will have made ambitious commitments to carbon neutrality. Indeed, a recent Climate Action Tracker update finds that global warming by 2100 could be as low as a 2.1°C increase over preindustrial levels if all the net-zero pledges announced as of November are achieved. And there is hope for renewed, vigorous action from the U.S., where the new administration has pledged to join the ranks of these 110-plus countries with its own carbon neutrality target.

More and more companies have placed sustainability at the heart of their business models, while investors are hastily moving out of fossil fuels. In addition, as my colleague Pete Ogden, the UN Foundation’s vice president for energy, climate, and the environment, recently told the BBC, the economics of clean energy have in fact only gotten more attractive in the past four years — which further enhances the opportunity for the incoming administration to make clean energy a driver of post-pandemic economic recovery in the United States.

4. Confronting a Looming Humanitarian Catastrophe

While a small bright spot at the end of 2020 was the World Food Programme (WFP) being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, such deserved recognition comes against a bleak backdrop. 2021 is shaping up to be a humanitarian catastrophe, “the worst humanitarian crisis year since the beginning of the United Nations,” according to the WFP’s executive director, David Beasley. The numbers look grim: A record 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection, a near 40% increase from 2020, which was already the highest figure in decades. If all the people who need humanitarian aid year lived in one country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest nation. Worse, we are seeing crisis levels of hunger across large swaths of Africa and the Middle East.

Despite the Secretary-General’s call for a Global Ceasefire in 2020, violence surged across the globe. Combined with the effects of COVID-19 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the uptick in violence caused the number of locals facing food insecurity to jump from 15.5 million to 22 million. Likewise, in Burkina Faso crisis levels of hunger tripled to 3.3 million people as COVID-19 compounds displacement, insecurity, and access problems. Even previously stable countries like Ethiopia have experienced internal conflict that threaten to undo decades of development and create serious humanitarian problems.

As we continue to understand more clearly, issues such as conflict, hunger, and climate change are deeply interlinked. In 2021, the UN’s planned Food Systems Summit during the General Assembly will be an important moment, as well as a yearlong focusing mechanism, to help move the world toward a more sustainable model that addresses all these issues and more. Once again, the summit will underline the reality we faced starkly in 2020 — that our world’s shared problems can be solved only if we work together at all levels of society, with a greater diversity of voices.

5. Reimagining Multilateralism

The UN commemorated its 75th anniversary in 2020 by launching a global conversation on the future we want and the UN we need to get there. Over a million people participated. The conclusion from the survey was overwhelmingly clear: More than 87% of respondents believe that global cooperation is vital to deal with today’s challenges, and that the pandemic has made international cooperation more urgent.

At the UN Foundation we were humbled to witness such global solidarity in action through the more than 650,000 people, businesses, and organizations that donated to our COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, contributing more than $238 million toward the World Health Organization’s global response.

Whether it’s greater preparedness and cooperation against the next pandemic, or working together to tackle the climate crisis, dismantle inequality and racism in all their pernicious forms, or building peace so people can achieve their dreams, we have never needed to remake and reimagine global cooperation more.

In the UN75 global survey, 6 in 10 respondents believe the UN has made the world a better place. Looking to the future, three out of four see the UN as essential in tackling challenges. But despite such support, respondents still indicated they want the UN to change and innovate: to be more inclusive of a greater diversity of actors in the 21st century and to become more transparent, accountable, and effective.

2021 will see the Secretary-General lead work to reinvigorate global action and strengthen coordination to respond to current and future challenges. A key aspect of this effort is building multilateralism that is more networked and inclusive. That means, in a nutshell, including greater voices from civil society, cities, businesses, and other local leaders — making the UN look and sound more like the world it represents.

There should be hope for reimagined multilateralism. We have done it before — including right at the end of the Second World War when nations, faced with collapse, chose to come together to create the United Nations, with the U.S. at the head of the table. The world did it more than 40 years ago to eradicate smallpox, and again to close the ozone hole. And again in 2015, all nations came together at the UN to sign on to the collective promise of the SDGs — and then again three months later to the Paris Agreement.

And now with the incoming U.S. administration loudly reaffirming the U.S. commitment to international agreements and institutions, starting with the Paris climate accords, it rejoins other powerful global actors already there, giving us reason to be hopeful for real progress on some of our biggest shared problems.

So, yes, let’s not mourn 2020. But let’s build on what it taught and showed us. While the pandemic knocked us even further off track to meet our goals, it feels like 2021 could offer a moment when vocal social movements, political will, economic necessity, and humanitarian emergency all align to give us the momentum and urgency we need to really kick-start transformative change for everyone everywhere. The risk of choosing a different path is great — but the opportunity ahead is inspiring.