2020: The year a virus thrived in a G-Zero world

Art by Annie Gugliotta

The year kicked off with a US strike on a top general that put Iran on the brink of war with America. US President Donald Trump survived impeachment, Brexit became official, Jared Kushner unveiled a (one-sided) US peace plan for the Middle East, India became a "rogue state," and we learned about the first cases outside China of a mysterious new virus that originated in Wuhan.

COVID-19 unleashed a pandemic that upended the world by mid-March. As entire countries shut down their economies, and the death toll climbed, first across Europe and then the US, China deflected blame. The entire world was impacted by the worst global crisis since World War II and prepared for an economic hit that would far exceed the last worldwide recession.

The summer saw major street protests, first in the US over racial justice following the killing of George Floyd, and then to oust decaying regimes in Belarus and Thailand. We covered political, social, and economic crises in Lebanon, the South Caucasus, Ethiopia, and Venezuela. Jair Bolsonaro went through ups and downs in Brazil, and local journalists around the world braced for a bitter US election in the fall — which Joe Biden won.

As we look back at this annus horribilis, here's what we learned about the state of geopolitics today.

First, we live in a world that is a lot more G-Zero now than just twelve months ago.

A G-Zero world is one in which the G7, G20, and G-everything else gives way to a more broadly fragmented global power structure with no leadership compass. Faced with a once-in-a-generation crisis in 2020, global cooperation was almost entirely absent, with most countries dealing with the common COVID enemy on their own (as Trump did by walking away from the World Health Organization).

The crisis did, however, spur unprecedented progress in the vaccine race, and forced a rare consensus within the European Union on a rescue package for the bloc's economic recovery.

In a global power vacuum, China saw an opening to make its move on Hong Kong, where democracy is now officially over. China also clashed with India over their Himalayan border, and the US-China rivalry heated up with tussles over the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Second, the pandemic exposed deep fissures in our societies.

Crises always do, but COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on the poor, minorities, and women in the US and other countries. When the George Floyd protests went global, we looked into the broader r issue of policing in America, and racial equality around the world.

The pandemic also revealed the fragility of the US economy, took an enormous toll on mental health, and cast a light on widening inequality — which multilateralism is struggling to address (along with climate change) as the United Nations turned 75.

Third, the US election turned out to be every bit as contentious and contested as we expected.

As the Joe Biden campaign gathered momentum, we predicted what his foreign policy would look like, and discussed how to hold a safe election with a surge in mail-in voting amid a pandemic. We later analyzed how taking office will be no walk in the park for Biden, whose administration's future success in part depends on the result of a January runoff election in Georgia for control of the US Senate.

Even as individual states certified the results, Trump still refused to concede, and his efforts to question the legitimacy of the vote will reverberate for years to come. Biden inherits a deeply divided country.

Looking ahead: The good news is that 2020 is almost over, and we are ending it on a (cautiously) optimistic note with vaccine rollouts in a host of countries, and continuing hopes that the Brexit saga ends with a trade deal. But the pandemic won't be over anytime soon, and just as no one saw COVID coming one year ago, 2021 will surely bring this G-Zero world a few challenges that no one will have foreseen.

A sector that's rapidly expanding, domotics - domus (home) plus robotics - are smart houses that manage temperature and lighting to minimize wasted electricity. For example, smart thermostats sense your presence and set the temperature according to your needs, saving 20% a year on heating bills. Watch this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series to learn how domotics save money and increase a home's value.

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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Listen: In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer, Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert assesses the current state of the climate crisis and answers a simple question: how screwed are we? And as the climate continues to warm at a record pace, she unpacks some of the more extreme climate solutions that some increasingly desperate nations are starting to consider. Such measures may sound like stuff of science fiction (see: injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere or shooting millions of tiny orbital mirrors into outer space) as times become more desperate, their appeal is growing. Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

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Want to tackle climate change? If so you'll have to reach out to China, which is currently responsible for over a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing will certainly take your call, as climate is a huge priority for President Xi Jinping.

Xi has promised that China will go "net zero" — meaning its carbon emissions will be offset by equal amounts of either natural or tech-driven carbon capture — by 2060. Is a decade later than most of the top 10 polluting countries fast enough for the rest of the world? It is for the Chinese, who want to help but have their own ideas about how.

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When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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Can "the Quad" constrain China?