By Rishikesh Ram Bhandary, Mari Luomi, and Jennifer Allan

In November, Group of 20 (G20) leaders met virtually for their annual Leaders’ Summit. With countries under the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences, many have been advocating for a multilateral response that integrates the global commons, such as climate change, biodiversity, and ocean, across the multilateral diplomacy landscape to allow countries to “recover better.” Ambitious action in these domains can facilitate economic growth and protect public health.

The outcome of the Summit, the G20 Leaders’ Declaration, delivers mixed results in this regard. It describes conserving biodiversity, preserving oceans, and tackling climate change as “among the most pressing challenges of our time.” It pledges support to the upcoming multilateral meetings in Kunming, China, and Glasgow, UK, and contains a pledge by the signatories of the Paris Agreement on climate change to commit to its full implementation. It also makes reference to calls for countries to update their Paris Agreement pledges, provide climate finance, and communicate long-term strategies for reducing emissions. However, the declaration stops short of calling on countries to align their COVID-19 recoveries with development trajectories that are compatible with addressing these major global commons challenges.

In April 2009, the G20 leaders’ communiqué pledged to “build an inclusive, green, and sustainable recovery” from the 2008 financial crisis. The leaders expressed determination to “make the best possible use of investment funded by fiscal stimulus programmes towards the goal of building a resilient, sustainable, and green recovery.” While the current crisis differs from the Great Recession of 2008, the imperative to place sustainability at the heart of all recovery efforts has only grown stronger. At the same time, recent estimates indicate that COVID-19 stimulus and recovery packages have not been entirely green. An analysis by Vivid Economics from November 2020 suggests that environmental aspects are “net negative” in 16 out of the 20 G20 nations, even though there are considerable opportunities for climate action to rapidly create jobs and spur sustainable economic growth, as identified in two May 2020 studies by Oxford University. The studies highlight the significant economic potential of climate-friendly recovery policies, such as supporting renewable energy and electric vehicle infrastructure, modernizing electricity grids, and clean research and development.

COVID-19 is challenging the governance of the global commons in an unprecedented way. With the Glasgow Climate Change Conference, the Kunming Biodiversity Conference, and the negotiations on an international legal instrument on marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) – all of which anticipated watershed moments in 2020 – postponed at least until 2021, the G20 faces challenges and opportunities to strengthen governance of the global commons.

Climate change

Convening at a time that is crucial for the future credibility of the multilateral, rules-based climate regime, the G20 leaders reaffirmed their commitments to submit new or updated nationally determined contributions (NDCs), but stopped short of recognizing the urgency of the situation. In the Chile Madrid Time for Action, the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference encouraged parties to the Paris Agreement to take this “ambition gap” into account when submitting their updated or new NDCs in 2020. Without tackling this ambition gap, countries’ collective ambition, based on current pledges, needs to increase threefold in order to stay below 2°C of global warming and at least fivefold for 1.5°C. Many developed countries have answered the Paris Agreement’s call for long-term low-emission development strategies (LEDS) with net-zero targets by the mid-century. The December 2020 Climate Ambition Summit will provide another opportunity for more countries to announce their plans. Whether net-zero targets provide the long-term confidence in one another’s commitments to climate action remains to be seen.


Globally, biodiversity is in sharp decline. None of the 2020 Aichi Biodiversity Targets have been met. The G20 has previously recognized the linkages between protecting nature and adapting to climate change. While the 2020 UN Biodiversity Conference, which was expected to finalize a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, has been postponed to 2021, momentum should not be lost. G20 leaders were urged to present commitments that would signal an intensification of efforts and ambition to halt biodiversity loss. These commitments would tackle the drivers of biodiversity loss, support the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and advance efforts to realize a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.

In September, 70 governments, along with numerous non-state actors, signed the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, committing to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030 through ten specific actions. The G20, too, reiterated its commitment to tackling biodiversity loss in advance of the Kunming Biodiversity Conference, and placed emphasis on a collective effort to advance global pandemic preparedness. However, the G20 Leaders’ Declaration could have drawn the links between the destruction of ecosystems and public health more clearly. Encroaching on natural habitats increases human-animal conflict and is the leading cause of zoonotic diseases. More research is needed to connect environmental and health issues in both physical and social sciences, including fostered scholarship in the Global South to encourage appropriate solutions and promote global equity.


Progress on the ocean in 2020 was mixed overall. The G20 Leaders’ Declaration launched the Global Coral Reef R&D Accelerator Platform. This initiative will add momentum behind the global effort to promote the conservation of coral reefs. Similarly, the leaders reaffirmed their commitment to reduce marine plastic litter by recalling their support for the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision. There is considerable scope for further action on increasing global capacity for plastics recycling, building capacity to implement the Basel Convention decision requiring prior informed consent for the import of plastics into developing countries, and research into compostable alternatives to plastics.

Another area in need of further attention is the negotiations on a legally binding instrument under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). The negotiations have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Draft treaty text has been under consideration since 2019, and further rounds of negotiations will be required to reach a robust agreement to protect the high seas. The G20 could play an important role in helping to shepherd a strong outcome.


On debt, the G20 extended its Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) by another six months. While this brief reprieve is welcome, many felt there was considerable space for greater ambition, arguing that ad hoc postponements do not address the core problem of unsustainable levels of debt. The G20 could display further leadership on finance by launching an initiative that engages in comprehensive debt restructuring, in particular, by engaging private creditors that have been hesitant to take part in these discussions. Without debt relief, many developing countries will not be able to provide fiscal stimulus to their economies. The G20 has the opportunity to lead a global effort that provides debt relief and directs spending towards a green recovery.

The G20 Summit outcome underscores what is already well-known, which is that most countries remain locked in an inward-looking phase as they try to tackle the pandemic at home. However, global challenges require global solutions. Like the pandemic, climate change, biodiversity, and the ocean require global, coordinated, and concerted action. Amid current uncertainties, G20 leaders provided a direction of travel in some areas, but details still need to be hashed out to ensure the worlds builds back better and greener.

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This article was written by Rishikesh Ram Bhandary, Mari Luomi, and Jennifer Allan.

Rishikesh Ram Bhandary is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Climate Policy Lab at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He obtained his doctorate in international affairs from The Fletcher School. His research interests include international climate finance, the sustainability dimensions of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and international climate negotiations. He has been a part of the ENB team since 2012. 

Mari Luomi is an independent Abu Dhabi-based consultant, and Team Leader, Earth Negotiations Bulletin, IISD. She has written on regional climate governance and SDG implementation in the Arab region, and on engaging non-state actors in the Arabian Gulf states in climate action.

Jennifer Allan is a Lecturer at Cardiff University, and Team Leader, Earth Negotiations Bulletin, IISD.