Co-Authored with Mari Elka Pangestu
By investing now to build a green, resilient and inclusive economy, countries can turn the challenges of COVID-19 and climate change into opportunities for a more prosperous and stable future.
The decade following the 2009 global financial crisis was characterised by growing structural weaknesses in developing countries, which have been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, worsening poverty and inequality. These weaknesses include slowing investment, productivity, employment, and poverty reduction; rising debt; and accelerating destruction of natural capital. The pandemic has already pushed over 100 million more people into extreme poverty and worsened inequality. The effects of climate change are expected to push an estimated additional 130 million people into extreme poverty by 2030.
COVID-19 and climate change have starkly exposed the interdependence between people, the planet, and the economy. All economic activities depend upon ecosystem services, so depleting the natural assets that create these services, eventually worsens economic performance.
The decade following the 2009 global financial crisis was characterised by growing structural weaknesses in developing countries, which have been further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, worsening poverty and inequality.
Figure 1: Global income losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic
A business-as-usual recovery package that neglects these interlinkages would not adequately address the complex challenges that confront the world nor its structural weaknesses and would likely result in a lost decade of development. Targeting socioeconomic, climate change and biodiversity challenges in isolation is likely to be less effective than a coordinated response to their interacting effects. A continuation of current growth patterns would not address structural economic weaknesses and would erode natural capital and increase risks that affect long run growth. As the depletion of forests, oceans, and other natural assets worsen, the cost of inaction is becoming more expensive than the cost of climate action and it is the poor and vulnerable who are most disadvantaged by it.
The GRID approach
The solution is to adopt a Green, Resilient and Inclusive Development (GRID) approach that pursues poverty reduction and shared prosperity with a long-term sustainability lens. This approach sets a recovery path that maintains a line of sight to long-term development goals; recognizes the interconnections between people, the planet, and the economy; and tackles risks in an integrated way. Research from the University of Oxford, World Economic Forum and Observer Research Foundation has all shown that a green recovery will not just be beneficial for combating climate change but also offer the best economic returns for government spending and yield development outcomes. The GRID approach is novel in two respects.
First, though development practitioners have long worried about poverty, inequality and climate change, the GRID approach pays particular attention to their interrelationships and thus, on the cross-sectoral nature of critical development policies. Second, achieving GRID implies simultaneously and systematically addressing sustainability, resilience and inclusiveness. GRID is a balanced approach focused on development and sustainability and tailored to each country’s needs and its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) objectives. Such a path will achieve lasting economic growth that is shared across the population, providing a robust recovery and restoring momentum on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Research from the University of Oxford, World Economic Forum and Observer Research Foundation has all shown that a green recovery will not just be beneficial for combating climate change but also offer the best economic returns for government spending and yield development outcomes.
Recovering from COVID-19 with GRID
The pandemic has inflicted a particularly harsh blow on developing economies. Most urgently, a fast and fair vaccine rollout is critical to an L-shaped recovery. Vaccine access and deployment presents challenges unprecedented in scale, speed and specificities, which will require strong coordination.
Looking ahead, setting a path to GRID will require urgent investments at scale in all forms of capital (human, physical, natural, and social) to address structural weaknesses and promote growth. Special attention is needed on human capital development to rebuild skills and recover pandemic related losses, especially amongst marginalised groups. While the pandemic has amplified the challenges of providing education for all, it has also highlighted how disruptive and transformational technologies can be leveraged in addition to traditional in person learning to help education services withstand the unique pressures of this time.
Recovery packages are an opportunity to prioritise investments in the infrastructure needed to develop and roll out transformative technologies.
Women must be at the center of the GRID agenda as powerful agents of change. Education for girls, together with family planning, reproductive and sexual health, and economic opportunities for women will accelerate the green, resilient and inclusive dimensions of development.
Technology and innovation will play an essential role in promoting low carbon growth. Recovery packages are an opportunity to prioritise investments in the infrastructure needed to develop and roll out transformative technologies.
One takeaway from Glasgow has been that securing green finance at scale will be essential for the GRID agenda. However, developed countries found it difficult to secure the necessary funding for developing countries to implement the green transition to sustainable and equitable development.
But there may be a silver lining. The global economy is awash with excess savings estimated at around $3.9 trillion that are earning negative or low returns and there are $46 trillion of pension funds in search of reasonable returns. The low carbon transition may offer an opportunity for investors, especially as the returns to green investments begin to exceed investments in more conventional technological choices.
Necessity and urgency of systemic investments and transformations
Transformational actions will be needed in key systems — for example, energy, agriculture, food, water, land, cities, transport and manufacturing — that drive the economy and account for over 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Without significant change in these sectors, neither climate change mitigation nor sustained and resilient development are possible. Such a transition, by addressing economic distortions, will promote greater economic efficiency and reduce adverse productivity and health impacts, leading to better development outcomes.
Domestic resource mobilisation can also be increased by enhancing tax progressivity, applying wealth taxation, and eliminating tax avoidance. There is also a need for greater selectivity and efficiency in spending.
But the fruits of the transition may not be evenly distributed and will require a range of social and labour market policies that address adverse impacts, safeguard the vulnerable and deliver a just transition. The GRID approach, therefore, supports a transition to a low carbon economy while considering countries’ energy needs and providing targeted support for the poorest.
Significant reforms of fiscal systems will be needed to mobilise domestic resources and finance the transition. Taxes on externalities are a large and unused source of potential revenue, which can create incentives for the private sector to invest in more sustainable activities. Domestic resource mobilisation can also be increased by enhancing tax progressivity, applying wealth taxation, and eliminating tax avoidance. There is also a need for greater selectivity and efficiency in spending.
A strong private sector involvement will be needed. The scale of investment needed far exceeds the possibilities of the public sector. Reforms are needed to remove constraints to private investment in appropriate sectors and technologies. Thus, at the country level, a strong partnership and dialogue between the public and private sector is urgently needed. And further developing and implementing green financial sector regulation, such as reporting standards and green taxonomies, can help harness investors’ increasing appetite for sustainable investments, which offer both measurable impacts on the environment and society.
However, sustainable and substantial flows of finance across borders will need to supplement domestic efforts. Multilateral development banks (MDBs) and Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) must focus on catalytic and transformational investments in priority areas to develop green, inclusive and resilient project pipelines that support economic growth, and job and income generation. On this front, MDBs can help lower risks for private capital through guarantees and blended finance. But at the end of the day the most effective way to attract private capital is through policies that correct distortions that render environmental destruction profitable.
Multilateral development banks (MDBs) and Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) must focus on catalytic and transformational investments in priority areas to develop green, inclusive and resilient project pipelines that support economic growth, and job and income generation.
Climate change is a reality shaping lives as we speak and not a distant mirage that will materialise only in the future. From Pacific Island nations facing rising sea levels to the Sahel region struggling with longer dry seasons, climate change is changing lives of the poor and vulnerable across the world. The future for the world’s climate vulnerable groups will remain bleak unless we transform policy and economic thinking and secure the financing that is needed.
Countries face a historic opportunity to establish a better way forward. Despite the damage wrought by the pandemic, the exceptional crisis response offers a unique opportunity for a “reset” that addresses past policy deficiencies and chronic investment gaps. Crisis related expenditures can be used to invest in new opportunities, such as accelerating digital development, an expansion of basic service provision, improvements in regional supply chains, strengthening ecosystems services, and policies to catalyze job creation in growth sectors. Private sector dynamism and innovative financing will need to power the recovery and to create economic growth and employment through investment and innovation. Public-private partnerships and key upstream policy reforms can spur private investment (including FDI), support viable firms through restructuring, and enable the financial system to support a robust recovery through the resolution of non performing loans.
This article was co-authored with Mihir Swarup Sharma.
This article is part of the series The Beijing Heist: Making Global Institutions Serve the CPC Agenda
All good things must come to an end, and so must illusions of the promised common future. A fundamental assumption long held by many in the West is that the multilateral institutions instated over the six post-War decades would serve to constrain and direct the “peaceful rise” of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It was believed that a Beijing that was given the position it thought justified within the multilateral architecture would end up being a responsible steward of these institutions and of the global commons more broadly. The scandal at the World Bank that led to the end of the Doing Business report and index is the third time that this assumption has been proved as naïve, and, indeed, delusional.
The World Bank scandal is directly linked to the Xi Jinping regime’s growing sense of entitlement. An independent report commissioned by the Bank has revealed that its leadership— including a former senior official, Kristalina Georgieva, who is now head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—apparently manipulated the supposedly independent report to placate PRC officials worried about their ranking. The immediate context? Ownership shares at the Bank were going to be “re-calculated”; in other words, the PRC was going to see a big boost in its control of the institution. (Eventually, 52 countries had to reduce their voting share in the Bank to increase China’s.) It was the anticipation of Beijing’s increased power over the institution that led to this episode; it appears a careerist international bureaucracy was all too eager to please the new ownership. Many will now want to more closely examine Beijing’s position on the acrimonious selection in 2019 of a new IMF Chief from within the European bloc.
The World Bank scandal is directly linked to the Xi Jinping regime’s growing sense of entitlement. An independent report commissioned by the Bank has revealed that its leadership apparently manipulated the supposedly independent report to placate PRC officials worried about their ranking
Two other institutional pillars of global governance have already been left powerless and have faced global ridicule as a consequence of Beijing’s actions. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has lost the trust of the world in the two decades since the PRC’s accession; many of its members, developed and developing alike, feel that the PRC has not conducted the reforms that it had promised in order to join. As a result, it has retained an advantage in global trade that the WTO has been unable to rectify, leading to the institution itself being considered worthless. And then there is the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has been seen during this pandemic as prioritising Beijing’s sensitivities over warning the world about a deadly contagion—or even properly investigating its origins. The tight control of information by the Communist Party of China (CPC) means that questions remain unanswered about the virus’ origin, yet what is certain is that the pandemic’s initial spread is in no small part due to the CPC’s machinations and missteps, and the WHO leadership’s complicity with Beijing.
It is time to accept that ceding Beijing the control of the levers of global power leads to disastrous consequences. Liberal democracies such as India and those that designed the post-War multilateral structure understand the need for independent institutions. They may chafe at the pressure such independence brings to bear on their own domestic and geopolitical actions, but appreciation of the importance of institutional strength and independence is in their DNA. This is, of course, not true for the Communist Party of China. Why should anyone expect that a system that permits no independence domestically will not consider it necessary to seize control of global institutions as well? For them, those institutions are useful that perpetuate and further the party line.
Liberal democracies such as India and those that designed the post-War multilateral structure understand the need for independent institutions.
The Ease of Doing Business report and it’s deserved demise should not worry us. Concern about what will follow next should be more widespread. That Georgieva’s name has appeared in this investigation is worrying given that the IMF, in particular, is under siege. Its previous head, Christine Lagarde, explicitly made the point that Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative risked leading to a debt explosion in the developing world that would become the IMF’s problem. Under Georgieva, the pandemic did, in fact, cause an emerging-economy debt crisis in 2020. Other state-run lenders wanted to grant some measure of relief to those countries most under pressure. The PRC’s financial institutions refused to play along, demanding that they be treated like private-sector bond-holders instead. Georgieva seemed to excuse this behaviour, saying in October 2020, “What we are also hearing from China is a recognition that they are a relatively new creditor, but they are very large creditor, and they need to mature domestically in terms of how they handle their own lenders, the coordination among them.” The problem with the PRC’s external lending is not a lack of maturity or of co-ordination. If anything, the problem is the opposite: Too much co-ordination and political control. Will future bailouts spend IMF money to save Beijing’s bad Belt-and-Road loans? In a closed-door meeting in New Delhi some summers back, an American diplomat who had just finished meeting his counterparts in Colombo explained to Indian analysts that its Chinese debt that has ravaged Sri Lanka’s balance sheet and that a IMF bailout was inevitable—as, indeed, it turned out to be.
Unless all of us recognise the danger Beijing poses to global institutions, we will wind up paying for the expansion of Chinese ownership and political control over vast geographies.
An IMF that fears Beijing’s wrath is one that will not protect its shareholders or global private capital. Lending related to the Belt and Road initiative will cause more and more crises going forward, perhaps sooner rather than later, given the effect the pandemic has had on emerging economies’ balance sheets. An IMF intimidated by one activist minority shareholder might well direct the world’s savings into bailing out the PRC’s lending.
Unless all of us recognise the danger Beijing poses to global institutions, we will wind up paying for the expansion of Chinese ownership and political control over vast geographies. This is the global equivalent of the privatisation of profits and socialisation of loss—badly designed projects will create profits, power and growth for the benefit of the CPC, and their adverse economic outcomes will be left to the world to underwrite. The US has mishandled the World Bank already; does the European Union have it in them to save the IMF?