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Amid fears of worst recession in decades, urgent calls for solidarity, a united economic front

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With multilateral cooperation under strain, senior UN officials, Nobel laureates and eminent academic experts, gathered virtually on Wednesday for the launch of a new report recommending “an adjusted approach” to economic development, and a policy dialogue exploring how countries can recover from COVID-19, in ways that lead to real structural transformation.

‘Parallel threats’

“Parallel threats linked to health, economic and social crises have crippled countries and left us at a standstill”, said Liu Zhenmin, Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), as he presented a new report by the High-level Advisory Board on Economic and Social Affairs.

Titled Recover Better: Economic and Social Challenges and Opportunities, it analyses economic trends critical to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and recovery from COVID-19.

Among its recommendations is a greater focus on the environment, he said, as well as promotion of research and development, investment in infrastructure and education, and improvement in economic equality.

“Overcoming the crisis and getting back on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals will require a strengthened multilateralism”, he said. COVID-19 has laid bare how much leadership, foresight and collaboration among all Governments and stakeholders, matter.

First global poverty rise since 1998

In a video message, UN deputy chief Amina Mohammed, said as many as 100 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020 – the first rise in global poverty since 1998.

“We need all hands on deck if we are to rebuild our economies sustainably and inclusively”, she assured. Noting that the report calls for better international tax cooperation and more equitable access to digital technologies, she said the sustainable management of natural resources, and value-added approaches to trading goods, will also be critical.

The 2030 Agenda remains the agreed framework for recovering in ways that accelerate progress on climate change, poverty and gender inequality, and address the fragilities exposed or exacerbated by the pandemic. “We must all do more,” she said.

Equality, structural reform

During two policy dialogues, 12 experts wrestled with whether the world is currently in a recession and if so, what it will take to recover in ways that can thoroughly reform underlying vulnerabilities.

“There is no trade-off between economic efficiency and equality”, said Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), who contributed a chapter on the topic.

45 million at risk

During a panel on the theme, “Ensuring a sustainable recovery through more inclusive and strengthened multilateralism”, she underscored the urgent need for structural change. Between 2000 and 2010, 60 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean moved out of poverty. Now, 45 million risk being pulled back in.

“The market is not going to equalize society. We need a new social and political compact altogether”, she said, pointing out that Costa Rica, Uruguay and Cuba – societies that have high trust in government – have fared better during the pandemic than others.

She also called for a progressive tax system, as countries in the region have a 23 per cent tax burden, lower than those in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as well as more regional integration. “The post-pandemic world is going to be a world of regions, a world of blocs.”

Ricardo Lagos, former President of Chile, suggested the creation of an internationally binding agreement on pandemics, forged under the auspices of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Europe’s social contract

Along similar lines, Marcel Fratzscher of research institute DIW Berlin, said that on 21 July, European countries agreed to establish a €750 billion ($850 billion) recovery fund, transferring resources from stronger to weaker countries with the goal of rebuilding Europe.

“There is an institutional framework being put into place that could ultimately lead to fiscal union help strengthen capital market union”, he said.

Trade Woes

Others drew attention to the significant drop in global trade, which Merit Janow, Dean of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said was occurring in the context of growing nationalism, geopolitical tensions and strain around multilateral institutions – all of which underscores the vulnerability of global supply chains.

The first priority should be to keep the global trading system open, she said. Practical, problem-solving approaches will be needed, which countries might undertake regionally or through “coalitions of the willing”. She pointed out that when the World Trade Organization appellate body disbanded, a cluster of countries agreed on arbitration for some purposes.

Africa needs 4 million teachers

In a second discussion on “Assessing the state of the global economy and recovery pathways”, Cristina Duarte, the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Africa, who is the former Minister of Finance, Planning and Public Administration of Cabo Verde, said that for Africa, recovering better requires a look at why, after 25 years of uninterrupted growth, systems are still lacking.

She said Africa must mobilize itself – beyond emergency solutions – to understand the nature and quality of economic growth. The continent was not socially inclusive before the pandemic hit, lacking jobs for 60 per cent of its young people.

She said Africa needs 4 million more teachers and a further 1 to 2 million health professionals – and importantly – to break away from ideas that equate poverty management with development management. Income redistribution, rather than economic growth, must be at the centre of all recovery strategies.

Heizo Takenaka of Toyo University, said Japan’s experience with COVID-19 revealed the need to carefully consider the governance systems in place during an emergency. “We should be very careful about the possibility of asset inflation from here on, considering that monetary authorities are applying a huge amount of money in many countries.”

Historical lens

Broadly speaking, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz said that at a moment when more global cooperation is badly needed, strong forces are fraying the global economy.

While the “Trump-kind of protectionism” will go by the wayside, he argued, the deeper problem is that supply chains have not been resilient and instead made countries more vulnerable.

He described the disappearance of optimism prevailing after the US-Soviet Cold War era, that countries were converging around liberal democratic models and free-market economies.

Under the turmoil of COVID-19, authoritarianism is now flourishing in some parts of the world, which has led to a split among nations.

“Post-COVID-19, the world is going to have a very different architecture, no matter who is in the White House, no matter what is going on around the world”, he explained.

Worse than the Great Depression?

He said the global economic downturn will be the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s – and in many dimensions, worse than that seismic failure of the global system. “We should use the massive amount of Government intervention in countries…to create a new world that is more in accordance with our views of what our societies should be”.

Countries that have done well, he said, have high trust in Government, high social solidarity, an understanding of the externalities associated with disease spread, and trust in science.

“Forty years of denigrating the role of the State means that in some countries, the State was not able perform a role that was essential,” he added.

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Action on Trade is Necessary for Businesses to Unlock Net Zero Targets

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For businesses to reach their emission targets, the global trading system needs to adapt, and businesses are calling for the change.

These are the main findings of the Delivering a Climate Trade Agenda: Industry Insights Report released today by the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Clifford Chance.

The six-month study is based on research and interviews with global companies, across sectors including transport, energy, manufacturing, and consumer goods. The objective of the research process was to identify necessary changes to the current global trade system and how to better incentivize and accelerate decarbonization. The resulting study outlines eight key actions that, if taken by governments and businesses, could make global trade a better enabler of climate action.

Sean Doherty, Head of International Trade and Investment said: “Traditionally, trade and climate policy-making has happened in separate silos. The urgency of the climate crisis calls for us to break down these silos through public-private cooperation in order to accelerate emissions reductions while achieving prosperity for all. The good news for policy makers is businesses are ready and willing to support this change.”

Jessica Gladstone, Partner at Clifford Chance said: “International trade will play a key role in achieving a just transition to a low-carbon sustainable global economy. Businesses stand ready to lead in this transition, but governments can support by ensuring the right legislative and regulatory structures are in place. Our report explores global and domestic policy actions that can create climate-friendly trade that is fair, transparent, and has technology and innovation at its core.”

Interviews revealed the following ways for trade to support businesses to decarbonize and grow sustainably:

  • Tariff reductions on key goods
  • Addressing non-tariff distortions in parallel
  • Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
  • Building coherence around carbon-based trade policies
  • Supporting trade in digital and climate-related services
  • Encouraging climate-smart agriculture
  • Aligning trade agreements with climate commitments
  • Facilitating green investment

The chart below provides examples of how the global trading system can through continued dialogue between governments and the private sector put trade to the service of climate action.

The report includes a jointly-authored foreword by the World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary welcoming the insights from business. Major intergovernmental meetings will be held under both organisations in the last quarter of this year.

Business can take steps to encourage alignment of trade rules with climate action. The Forum is today launching a two-year work programme – titled Climate Trade Zero – to support public and private exchange on these issues as part of building a more sustainable trading system.

Many companies also recognized that the transition is taking place at different speeds and levels of intensity across countries and sectors. Interviewees highlighted the importance of providing support and incentives to developing countries, and to supply chain partners in developing countries, to undertake the investments necessary to reduce their emissions.

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Appliance standards and labelling is highly effective at reducing energy use

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Policies that introduce minimum efficiency performance standards and energy-consumption labelling on appliances and equipment have led to reduced power consumption, lower carbon emissions, and cost savings for consumers, according to analysis published today by the IEA and the 4E Technology Collaboration Programme (4E TCP).

The report’s findings are drawn from nearly 400 evaluation studies covering 100 countries, including those with the longest running and strongest appliance policies, such as China, European Union, Japan and the United States.

“The findings from the study are important as they provide evidence that standards and labelling are highly effective policy instruments that bring benefits to consumers as well as lower emissions and lower energy demand,” said Brian Motherway, the Head of Energy Efficiency at the IEA.

The study shows the policies have had significant positive impacts:

  • In countries with long-running policies, appliances are now typically consuming 30% less energy than they would have done otherwise.
  • In the nine countries/regions for which data were available, such programmes reduced annual electricity consumption by a total of around 1 580 terawatt-hours in 2018 – similar to the total electricity generation of wind and solar energy in those countries.
  • The programmes that have been operating the longest, such as those in the United States and the European Union, are estimated to deliver annual reductions of around 15% of their current total national electricity consumption. This percentage increases each year as more of the older, less-efficient stock is replaced with equipment that meets new higher efficiency standards.
  • These energy savings represent a significant financial boon for businesses and householders. In the United States alone, utility customers are now economising USD 60 billion each year, or USD 320 per customer.
  • Also, the United States, European Union and China together are avoiding annual CO2 emissions of more than 700 million tonnes, equivalent to the total energy-related emissions of Germany.
  • Well-designed policies encourage product innovation and lead to economies of scale, which reduces the cost of appliances even without accounting for the efficiency gains. For example, in Australia the sticker price of appliances has typically fallen 40% over the last 20 years, while average energy consumption has fallen by a third.

“The message is simple: expanding standards and energy efficiency labelling programmes makes the energy transition challenge easier, more affordable and become a reality,” said Jamie Hulan, the Chair of the 4E TCP.

The IEA will continue to collaborate with 4E TCP to enhance and promote the use of such policies. 4E TCP is an international platform for fourteen countries and the European Union to exchange technical and policy information focused on increasing the production and trade in efficient end-use equipment.

Ahead of this November’s COP26 Climate Change Conference, the IEA is working with the UK Government via the Super-Efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment (SEAD) initiative to coordinate and improve international action on product energy efficiency. The United Kingdom is leading the COP26 Product Efficiency Call to Action, which aims to double the efficiency of key global products by 2030, initially focusing on four key energy-consuming products: air conditioners, refrigerators, lighting and industrial motors systems. The IEA is supporting the implementation of this work and helping expand the number of countries ready to make this commitment.

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Global economy projected to show fastest growth in 50 years

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The global economy is expected to bounce back this year with growth of 5.3 per cent, the fastest in nearly five decades, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

In its new report released on Wednesday, the agency said that the rebound was highly uneven along regional, sectoral and income lines, however.  

During 2022, UNCTAD expects global growth to slow to 3.6 per cent, leaving world income levels trailing some 3.7 per cent below the pre-pandemic trend line. 

The report also warns that growth deceleration could be bigger than expected, if policymakers lose their nerve or answer what it regards as misguided calls for a return to deregulation and austerity. 

Differences in growth 

The report says that, while the response saw an end to public spending constraints in many developed countries, international rules and practices have locked developing countries into pre-pandemic responses, and a semi-permanent state of economic stress. 

Many countries in the South have been hit much harder than during the global financial crisis. With a heavy debt burden, they also have less room for maneuvering their way out through public spending. 

Lack of monetary autonomy and access to vaccines are also holding many developing economies back, widening the gulf with advanced economies and threatening to usher in another “lost decade”. 

“These widening gaps, both domestic and international, are a reminder that underlying conditions, if left in place, will make resilience and growth luxuries enjoyed by fewer and fewer privileged people,” said Rebeca Grynspan, the secretary-general of UNCTAD. 

“Without bolder policies that reflect reinvigorated multilateralism, the post-pandemic recovery will lack equity, and fail to meet the challenges of our time.” 

Lessons of the pandemic 

UNCTAD includes several proposals in the report that are drawn from the lessons of the pandemic. 

They include concerted debt relief and even cancellation in some cases, a reassessment of fiscal policy, greater policy coordination and strong support for developing countries in vaccine deployment. 

Even without significant setbacks, global output will only resume its 2016-19 trend by 2030. But even before COVID-19, the income growth trend was unsatisfactory, says UNCTAD. Average annual global growth in the decade after the global financial crisis was the slowest since 1945. 

Despite a decade of massive monetary injections from leading central banks, since the 2008-9 crash, inflation targets have been missed. Even with the current strong recovery in advanced economies, there is no sign of a sustained rise in prices. 

After decades of a declining wage share, real wages in advanced countries need to rise well above productivity for a long time before a better balance between wages and profits is achieved again, according to the trade and development body’s analysis. 

Food prices and global trade 

Despite current trends on inflation, UNCTAD believes the rise in food prices could pose a serious threat to vulnerable populations in the South, already financially weakened by the health crisis. 

Globally, international trade in goods and services has recovered, after a drop of 5.6 per cent in 2020. The downturn proved less severe than had been anticipated, as trade flows in the latter part of 2020 rebounded almost as strongly as they had fallen earlier. 

The report’s modelling projections point to real growth of global trade in goods and services of 9.5 per cent in 2021. Still, the consequences of the crisis will continue to weigh on the trade performance in the years ahead. 

For director of UNCTAD’s globalization and development strategies division, Richard Kozul-Wright, “the pandemic has created an opportunity to rethink the core principles of international economic governance, a chance that was missed after the global financial crisis.” 

“In less than a year, wide-ranging US policy initiatives in the United States have begun to effect concrete change in the case of infrastructure spending and expanded social protection, financed through more progressive taxation. The next logical step is to take this approach to the multilateral level.” 

The report highlights a “possibility of a renewal of multilateralism”, pointing to the United States support of a new special drawing rights (SDR) allocation, global minimum corporate taxation, and a waiver of vaccine-related intellectual property rights.  

UNCTAD warns, though, that these proposals “will need much stronger backing from other advanced economies and the inclusion of developing country voices if the world is to tackle the excesses of hyperglobalization and the deepening environmental crisis in a timely manner.” 

For the UN agency, the biggest risk for the global economy is that “a rebound in the North will divert attention from long-needed reforms without which developing countries will remain in a weak and vulnerable position.”

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