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U.S: Extending support and lowering regulatory barriers could energize the recovery from Covid-19

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Swift action by the U.S. government has helped shield households and businesses from the immediate economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as efforts continue to bring the spread of the virus under control. Continuing this exceptional support to unemployed workers and struggling firms – while taking steps to lower barriers to labor mobility and competition – would help to strengthen the recovery, share the benefits across society, and reduce the risk of long-lasting scars, according to a new OECD report.

The latest OECD Economic Survey of the United States says that even as some businesses reopen with the lifting of coronavirus confinement measures, hard-hit sectors like hospitality and leisure will continue to need support, as will newly unemployed or displaced workers who may need to look for jobs in different sectors. The recent extension of the US Paycheck Protection Program by five weeks to August 8 is a welcome move to help small businesses struggling with the crisis. Extending exceptional unemployment benefits beyond the end-July cut-off date would offer a similar lifeline to the millions of households at risk of falling into poverty, as would assistance for job search (such as employment placement services) and support for geographic mobility.

“The U.S. economy is battling a health and economic shock that threatens to set back the significant economic achievements of the past decade and leave permanent scars,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. “Exceptional support to people and businesses should be continued as long as it is needed. And helping people to return to work by removing unnecessary regulatory hurdles to employment and mobility would energize the recovery and help ward off a drop in living standards and equality.”

The Survey projects only a gradual recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic brought a decade-long expansion to an abrupt halt and knocked the employment-to-population ratio to its lowest level on record. The best-case scenario sees GDP growth recovering to 4.1% in 2021 after a drop of 7.3% in 2020, whereas a second wave of outbreak scenario would see GDP growth at just 1.9% in 2021 after an 8.5% drop in 2020.

Improving health policy co-ordination across levels of government, ensuring health insurance systems do not let large population groups fall through the gaps that exist between different programs, and reducing regulatory barriers, would all help to tackle the ongoing health crisis from Covid-19. To minimize the risk of a second wave prompting another large-scale lockdown of the economy, developing testing, tracking, tracing and isolating procedures will be key. Augmenting the capacity of health systems and identifying people who have acquired antibodies will help mitigate the economic impact of a second wave.

On the economic front, all efforts should focus on reviving growth and jobs for the long-term, with concrete policy measures to remove barriers hindering access to employment and future opportunities.

Addressing occupational licensing and non-competition covenants in job contracts that impose barriers to job mobility on roughly one in five workers, particularly those from low-skilled or disadvantaged groups, is a top priority. While regulation is important to ensure the safety and quality of services for workers and consumers, state-level labor market regulation has contributed to a decline in labor market fluidity since the late 1990s, alongside a period of sluggish productivity growth. (See Survey Chapter 3 for an analysis of variations in licensing stringency by state.)

States should be encouraged to delicense occupations where there are limited concerns for public health or safety and act against anticompetitive behavior. Federal law can be used to impose recognition of out-of-State licensures, allowing States to set stricter requirements only if they can prove it is necessary to protect the public. People who face difficulties finding work, for example those without a college education, should be supported through more flexible rules on job qualifications and access to adult training.

Restrictive building policies have also created a barrier to labor mobility just as a shift from industry to high-tech and services is changing the country’s economic geography and creating a need for more elastic housing supply. In the current climate, it is all the more important that people can move easily to take up new jobs. Tax incentives can be a way to loosen over-restrictive building laws, the Survey says.

The Survey also notes that vulnerabilities in the highly leveraged corporate sector will need to be monitored. Over time, given the pre-existing pressures of an ageing population, reforms to pension and healthcare spending to reduce cost pressures and inefficiencies and measures to broaden the tax base will be needed to ensure long-run sustainability of public debt.

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Are we on track to meet the SDG9 industry-related targets by 2030?

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A new report published by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), Statistical Indicators of Inclusive and Sustainable Industrialization, looks at the progress made towards achieving the industry-related targets of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 9 of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The report is primarily based on the SDG9 indicators related to inclusive and sustainable industrialization, for which UNIDO is designated as a custodian agency, showing the patterns of the recent changes in different country groups.

Six years after the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 SDGs, there has been increasing demand for information on whether the SDG targets could be reached, and what actions should governments take to accelerate progress. The UNIDO report introduces two new tools developed by UNIDO to help countries measuring performance and progress towards SDG9 industry-related targets: the SDG9 Industry Index and SDG9 progress and outlook indicators. The SDG9 Industry Index benchmarks countries’ performance on SDG-9 targets over 2000-2018 for 131 economies. In addition, the report develops two measures to answer the main questions:

  • Progress: how much progress has been made since 2000?
  • Outlook: how likely is it that the target will be achieved by 2030?

The global COVID-19 pandemic has inevitably had a negative toll on the progress towards reaching the SDG9 indicators, but the extent of the long-term impact remains to be seen. Industrialized countries continue to dominate global manufacturing industry, but their relative share has gradually declined over the past decade. In 2010, industrialized economies made up 60.3% of global production, which has decreased to 50.5% in 2020. China has been the largest manufacturer, now accounting for 31.7% of global production. This is a trend that has been reinforced by the pandemic.

Progress for the least developed countries (LDCs), at the heart of the 2030 Agenda, is a different story. While economic theory and countries’ experiences across the world have established that industrialization is an engine of sustainable growth, progress among LDCs remains very diverse. Asian LDCs are poised to double their share of manufacturing in GDP and thus meet SDG target 9.2, but African LDCs have stagnated.

SDG9 Industry Index

The SDG-9 Industry Index, consisting of five dimensions, covers three targets and five indicators and assigns a final score to countries. In 2018, the top ten consisted of exclusively industrialized economies, with Taiwan, Province of China, Ireland, Switzerland, the Republic of Korea and Germany making up the top five. In general, industrialized economies perform best in all dimensions of the Index.

The countries at the bottom of the ranking are LDCs, in particular those located in sub-Saharan Africa. Although some African countries have been displaying impressive growth rates, growth has been driven by an extended commodity boom and foreign capital inflows, while industrialization and structural transformation have stagnated. Additionally, substantial data is lacking for a significant amount of the countries. In the SDG9 Industry Index, only 24 out of 54 African countries are included, from which only eight are LDCs. It is clear that national statistics offices need strengthening, as data availability helps countries formulate, review and evaluate their development plans and programmes.

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ASEAN Survey Calls for Joint Action for an Inclusive and Sustainable Digital Economy

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The World Economic Forum launches today the ASEAN Digital Generation Report 2021, a special edition of its annual ASEAN youth survey report series, which examines the impact of the pandemic on personal income, savings and the role of digitalization in the region’s economic recovery. The report’s survey, conducted with close to 90,000 participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam, also flags the gaps needed to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy, namely: access to technology, digital skills training for all generations, and measures to enhance online trust and security.

The survey’s findings confirm e-commerce’s role as the key driver of growth in the ASEAN region. Wholesale and retail trade sector had the highest proportion of people starting new businesses (50%), while the logistics sector had the highest share of people finding new jobs (36%).

Notably, respondents from these two sectors are among those who also reported a decline in income. This could be because when people experienced a fall in income, they started new businesses in the wholesale and retail trade sector to leverage e-commerce opportunities.

A majority of respondents have adapted to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic through significant digital adoption. Across ASEAN, 64% of respondents have digitalized 50% or more of their tasks, as have 84% of respondents who are owners of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Respondents who reported greater levels of digitalization of their work and business reported lower levels of income decline. Similarly, business owners with an online presence were more likely to report an increase in savings (24%) and income (28%) compared to those without one (18%).

However, the benefits of digitalization are unevenly spread across the region. Those who are less “digitalized” found further digital adoption less appealing. As in 2020, respondents continued to point to expensive or poor internet quality or digital devices as the top barriers to digital adoption. While less digitalized respondents pointed to lack of digital skills as a key additional obstacle, more digitalized respondents pointed to trust and security concerns instead.

The identified obstacles were consistent across all six countries surveyed. As such, multistakeholder and regional joint actions are needed to unlock the full potential of ASEAN nations in the digital age and narrow these gaps.

“Through this annual survey, we wanted to understand the views, priorities and concerns of the digital users in ASEAN and gain statistical insights that will help inform and shape relevant regional policy,” said Joo-Ok Lee, Head of the Regional Agenda, Asia-Pacific, World Economic Forum. “The survey showed improving the quality and affordability of ASEAN digital infrastructure, equipping the ASEAN workforce with appropriate skills and enhancing people’s trust in the digital environment are crucial to bring ASEAN over the tipping point for inclusive and sustainable digital transformation.”

“One of the key findings was that digitalization has a ‘flywheel’ effect wherein users who had first experienced the benefits of technology were more eager to deepen their levels of digitalization,” added Santitarn Sathirathai, Group Chief Economist at Sea, a Singapore-based global consumer internet company.“It is critical for the public and private sector to work even more closely to lower any friction and barriers, which may prevent the positive digitalization momentum from taking place. Through this, digitalization can enable post- pandemic recovery in an inclusive and sustainable way.”

Between July and August 2021, the survey polled participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Viet Nam. Some 77% of respondents are youths aged between 16 and 35, 56% female and 10% business owners.

This year’s edition continues tomonitor the impact of the pandemic on respondents, explores how the ongoing digitalization has benefited their life and society in the real economy, what stands in their way of further digitalization and maximization of such benefits, and how to tackle the identified obstacles.

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Trade can play a pivotal role in addressing climate change

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Economies in the Asia-Pacific region need to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including to maintain their trade competitiveness as carbon taxes at borders threaten to rise, according to a new United Nations report.  

Around 16 million new jobs could be created in clean energy, energy efficiency, engineering, manufacturing and construction industries in the Asia-Pacific region, more than compensating for the estimated loss of five million jobs by downscaling industries. 

The Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2021 was jointly launched on Monday by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). 

Climate-smart policies have a significant cost, particularly for carbon-intensive sectors and economies, but the cost of inaction is far greater. Some estimates are as high as $792 trillion by 2100, if the Paris Agreement targets are not met. 

Risks and competitiveness 

Launching the report, Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of ESCAP, remembered that key trade partners are considering border taxes on carbon. 

Ms. Alisjahbana said this causes “strong concerns on the effects on the developing countries since many economies in the region are at risk of being pushed out of key markets”. 

For her, the roll-out of COVID-19 recovery packages could provide opportunities to invest in low-carbon technologies and sectors.  

Room for improvement 

The Asia-Pacific region is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the new report reveals significant room to make these economies greener. 

For example, there are still more barriers to trade in environmental goods than in carbon-intensive fossil fuels and fuel subsidies continue to exist.  

According to the report, the “timely abolishment” of these two policies, and replacement with more targeted measures, could provide much-needed finance and reduce emissions. 

Other proposals are trade liberalization in climate smart and other environmental goods, transition to climate friendly transportation, incorporation of climate issues in trade agreements, carbon pricing and carbon border adjustment taxes. 

For the Bangladesh Commerce Minister, Tipu Munshi, Honourable, these measures “are very much befitting given the crises” the world is facing. 

Positive and negative effects 

In a joint message, New Zealand’s Minister for Trade and Export Growth, Hon Damien O’Connor, and the Minister of Climate Change, Hon James Shaw, said that “one of the most substantial roadblocks in the way of cutting emissions is fusil fuel subsides”. 

UNCTAD chief Rebeca Grynspan, highlighted “the links between trade, investment and climate change are complex”.  

She explained that “the key is to ensure that the positive effects of trade and investment are maximized, such as by promoting trade and investment in renewable energy and low-carbon technologies, while minimizing the adverse effects, like by digitalizing trade and transport systems”.  

According to the report, regional trade agreements can also help, and this change has started to happen. The report points to a general trend towards more environmental provisions in these agreements. 

The Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2021is the first to examine the impact of upcoming border carbon adjustment in the region.  

It is also the first time an index evaluates climate-smart trade and investment policies. 

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