The Debate

The G20 Comes to Japan: Making Sense of the Osaka Agenda

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The Debate

The G20 Comes to Japan: Making Sense of the Osaka Agenda

How do the outcomes of the G-20’s eight engagement groups factor into this year’s Osaka Summit?

The G20 Comes to Japan: Making Sense of the Osaka Agenda
Credit: G20/Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As the Group of 20 (G-20) Summit approaches this weekend, attention will shift to Osaka, Japan’s third largest city, to see how the leaders of the world’s largest economies will tackle a number of pressing global issues relating to trade, the environment, data, and demographics at a time of unsettling friction and frustration. While there will certainly be a lot to watch at the Osaka Summit — including hotly anticipated bilateral sideline meetings — the G-20 system is not solely about the state summitry that will unfold this coming weekend, but also the legwork and outcomes of a number of meetings around Japan that preceded (and will succeed) the Osaka Summit. Half of the eight ministerial-level meetings (Agriculture, Finance, Environment and Energy, and Trade and Digital Economy) took place in the lead-up to Osaka and the summits of the G-20’s eight engagement groups have resulted in a number of recommendations, policy briefs, and communiqués that offer business, science, research, local government, and civil society sector insight for tackling key issues on the Osaka agenda.

As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted in a recent op-ed, the Osaka summit will emphasize three key issues: free and fair trade, the digital economy, and tackling environmental problems with innovation. In his G-20 message, Abe writes that Japan aims to “realize and promote a free and open, inclusive and sustainable, human-centered future society” and recognizes the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as being at the core of the development agenda and other global issues. With this in mind and in addressing some of the Osaka Summit’s eight overarching thematic areas — global economy, trade and investment, innovation, environment and energy, employment, women’s empowerment, development, and health — what takeaways from the G-20 engagement groups can we bring with us to Kansai this weekend?

Global Economy: Financial Stability and Society 5.0

The G-20 is considered the premier forum for economic cooperation and the Leaders’ Summit finds its origins in an attempt at crisis management in a time of global instability. It is therefore not surprising that how best to confront and minimize impending economic risks and shocks in the global system is designated a high — if not the highest — spot on the list of Osaka priorities and also drives discussions in a number of G-20 engagement groups.

The Think Tank 20 (T-20) included a task force dedicated to this topic, highlighting that since the 2008 financial crisis the speed of financial transactions has accelerated and become more accessible due to technological advances, leading to challenges when it comes to the pace of capital flows and how exchange rates can potentially become volatile. To address this, the T-20 Communiqué suggests significant reform of international financial architectures, specifically IMF governance, as well as measures to modernize financial systems through Fin-Tech promotion and regulatory coordination among G20 countries.

Global economy discussions in the G-20 engagement groups revolved not just around tariffs and trade friction, but also around how to best assess the state of the global economy and work collectively to achieve stable and sustainable growth. Here, the Business 20 (B-20) came up with comprehensive joint recommendations to realize Society 5.0 for the SDGs, based on idea that society is moving to “a fifth stage” that is “human-centered” (also a key message of Japan’s G-20). One B-20 representative likened Society 5.0 to a “sampo yoshi society” where developments are not only good for the buyer and seller, but also for society.

Environment and Energy: Protecting and Governing the Oceans

Harnessing the power of technology and innovation has been lauded as a key cross-cutting theme on the Osaka Summit docket and one that is also to be applied when tackling international environmental challenges. A major issue topic for the 2019 Summit will be addressing threats to coastal and marine ecosystems and conservation of the ocean environment.

To this end, the Science 20 (S-20) issued a unanimous joint statement noting that it is important to not only take action but also to simulate the future of plastics in the ocean by using soft data and science. The T-20 also provided recommendations for improving the governance of oceans, underscoring that the G-20 is a gathering of coastal states and that the oceans will play a crucial role in realizing the 2030 agenda, and especially SDG 2: Reducing hunger and SDG 14: Conserving and sustainably using the oceans.

These engagement group contributions were further reinforced at the Environment and Energy Ministerial Meeting on the June 15 and 16 in Karuizawa, where the outline of a new, voluntary framework was agreed upon and will pave the way for further measures in Osaka.

Employment: Human-Centered Technological Innovation and Establishing Interactive Platforms

The G-20 work on employment comes hand in hand with delivering on the SDGs (particularly on SDG 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth and SDG 10: Reducing Inequalities). Challenges in the world of work are front and center for the Labor 20 (L-20) with agenda items addressing the timeless topics of how climate effects the workplace and how to build both sustainable economic and work models in an era of mounting unrest about wages and social security.

In their priorities pitch to the G-20 leaders, the L-20 addressed how the cross-cutting issue of technology applies to the global workforce, advising that the political leaders need to focus on “human-centered” technological innovation. As the transformative technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), such as artificial intelligence (AI), will bring about major change to human life, the rights of the individual and worker will also undergo transformation. Here the L-20 calls on the G-20 to create an international, multilateral framework outside of the WTO to address the issues inherent in such change and to create standards concerning topics such as: personal data protection, access, and use, including workers’ data, the protection of workers’ rights in face of often-discriminating algorithmically generated decisions, and the regulation of the taxation of digital activity.

The Urban 20 (U-20) — the newest G-20 engagement group launched in 2017, which addresses the role of cities as major hubs of economic activities — shared a similar message in its communiqué. Discussing the 4IR developments that will significantly alter global society, namely AI, ubiquitous internet-connected devices and big data, and the digital divide that could have divisive outcomes in urban spaces, the U-20 encourages G-20 leaders to harness digitalization and technology when tackling urban challenges but to also be wary of the socioeconomic inequalities that they can create.

Furthermore, the Youth 20 (Y-20) made the “Future of Work” one of their three prioritized themes, recommending that G-20 countries address life-long learning by providing a free and accessible virtual hub focused on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) and 21st century skills that would offer training programs and a peer network to be utilized by learners and educators of all ages.

Women’s Empowerment: Monitoring Implementations, Digital Gender Gaps, and a Call for National Action Plans

The Women 20 (W-20) is the lead G-20 engagement group addressing women’s participation in economies and societies, while closely collaborating with other engagements groups, such as the Civil 20 (C-20), on the cross-cutting theme. In their 2019 communiqué, the W-20 focused on upgrading targets from women’s inclusion to gender equity, emphasizing the need for G-20 leaders to monitor implementations and normative transformations on SDGs concerning gender. At the W-20 Summit, held in March in tandem with the Government of Japan’s Fifth World Assembly for Women (WAW!), they called for not only closing labor market participation and pay gaps but also for addressing digital gender gaps where women are often underrepresented in the design and development of digital technologies. Echoing the message of the W-20, the C-20 policy pack recommends that the G-20 leaders institutionalize a gender mainstreaming strategy across the G-20 agenda, as the G-20 Argentina presidency did in 2018.

In the only joint statement emanating from the G-20 engagement groups in 2019, the C-20, L-20, W-20, T-20, S-20, and Y-20 addressed labor market participation, calling on the G-20 leaders to adopt concrete and effective actions on gender issues, particularly concerning monitoring the 2014 Brisbane Summit commitment to reduce the gender gap in labor market participation by 25 percent by 2025 (“25 by 25”). In doing this, the joint statement urges the G-20 leaders to implement National Action Plans targeted at eliminating gender gaps and inequalities in the labor market, further reinforcing the 2030 agenda’s pledge to leave no one behind.

Engaging in Osaka and Beyond

We can anticipate that the 2019 G-20 will be about keeping its core — open markets and global trade — intact and coming up with solutions to reduce risks and economic instabilities. While the comprehensive work of the G-20 engagement groups is often overshadowed by the more prestigious ministerial meetings and the Summit, their contributions to the G-20 system and policy proposals to the leaders are vital to the overall process of finding common ground and ensuring international financial stability.

A major challenge for the agenda of the G-20 is that it risks being overly ambitious. This tendency is perhaps also an expression of the fact that better international coordination is sorely needed in many areas in today’s world of interdependencies. When the Osaka Summit concludes on Sunday, Japan’s run as host of the G-20 will not end there. Four ministerial meetings (Labor and Employment, Health, Tourism, and Foreign Ministers) will be held later in the year, as will the L-20 Summit, allowing for the opportunity to reinforce and advance the Osaka Summit outcomes, to continue to flex Japan’s global leadership muscle, and to set the agenda as the G-20 baton is handed over to Saudi Arabia in 2020.

Wrenn Yennie Lindgren is a Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and an Associate Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI).