Comment: Paul Polman argues that global leaders must rise to the unprecedented challenges facing humanity by crafting a coordinated international response to Covid-19 that protects both people and planet

The G20 Summit in November could not have come at a more crucial time, as governments work to bring a second wave of the coronavirus under control to protect lives and livelihoods.

The world’s leading economies have already taken decisive action, including expanding funding and R&D for global vaccine trials, injecting $5tn into the global economy and freezing debt payments for poor countries.

But there’s much more the G20 can – and must – do when it meets, starting with reaffirming its commitment to multilateral cooperation.

Runaway climate change threatens to make Covid-19 look like a dress rehearsal.

It’s worth remembering that history is strewn with examples of governments joining together in times of crisis, built on common values and shared interests. The League of Nations that followed the first world war; the United Nations, founded after the second world war; the G7 that emerged to deal with the 1973 oil crisis; and the G20 itself, renewed in 2008 to manage the repercussions of the financial crisis.

Covid-19 is a challenge of unprecedented magnitude and now, more than ever, we need again to recognise the urgent need for a coordinated international response. Whether that’s improving testing and tracing systems, scaling medical and food supplies, or crucially working to develop and distribute a vaccine. Now is the time for unparalleled collective action, with the heaviest load carried by the wealthiest nations.

The B20 – which represents the global business community across G20 member states – has been playing a pivotal role in helping to build momentum for deeper international collaboration. This includes submitting comprehensive policy recommendations to G20 leaders that have been carefully designed to accelerate sustainable and inclusive growth in order to protect our people and planet.

Coronavirus antibodies in a test tube – the virus needs a coordinated global response. (Credit: Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

Central to the B20’s work is an unequivocal call for governments to resist nationalist instincts – too often seen in times of insecurity and fear – by maintaining free trade and open markets. This requires bold reform of international trade rules, a more prominent role for smaller countries and trade liberalisation that promotes positive social and environmental outcomes.

Unlocking the international market for trade finance is especially important to powering an economic rebound. Governments must therefore allow export credit agencies to play an enhanced role in the recovery, by underwriting more trade transactions, particularly in developing countries that have been disproportionately impacted, so that banks have the confidence to extend the credit needed.

There is also a real risk that our biggest crisis – our climate emergency – will increasingly attract less focus and attention as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic grows. Indeed, other than the European Union, there is scant evidence of governments prioritising a green recovery. This would be a calamitous mistake, as runaway climate change threatens to make Covid-19 look like a dress rehearsal.

By working together, governments and business will be able to create a self-reinforcing 'ambition-loop'to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C

In September, G20 environment ministers failed to agree a joint statement due to divisions over climate change, sounding the alarm about the true political commitment to the climate transition the world needs. Heads of state must do much more in their communique at the G20 Summit to telegraph an unmistakable message that addressing our climate crisis is the top priority.

The private sector is already fully engaged in calling for a rapid shift to a carbon-neutral world. This includes, for example, strengthening the resilience of infrastructure so that it can better withstand climate hazards, and doing more to reverse nature loss and safeguard freshwater systems and oceans as vital carbon sinks. By working together, governments and business will be able to create a self-reinforcing “ambition loop” that helps limit our average global temperature rise to 1.5C in support of the Paris Agreement.

Nor should we forget the world’s greatest business plan, the Sustainable Development Goals. Forged through international diplomacy and a deep understanding of shared prosperity, they are perhaps the best modern example of multilateralism in action. Attaining the SDGs would be worth at least $12tn and generate 380 million jobs a year by 2030 – at a time when we need them most. Investment in the SDGs has been lagging for too long and we are sadly paying the price for ignoring our planetary boundaries. Now is the time to double down with vim and determination to deliver this crucial development agenda.

It’s astonishing to think that the G20 Summit will be the first major international gathering since January. When our leaders convene to decide their priorities for building back better, they would do well to be guided by the only doctrine that has ever worked in overcoming previous crises of historical significance: multilateralism. We cannot allow this to become empty rhetoric, else we face an even more painful and protracted recovery, which none of us can afford or want to see.

Paul Polman is co-chair of the B20 Energy, Sustainability and Climate Taskforce; honourary chair of the International Chamber of Commerce; and co-founder and chair of IMAGINE.

Main picture: Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz speaking at a virtual G20 summit on Covid-19 in March 2020. (Credit: Reuters)


g20 summit  Coronavirus  Covid-19  climate change  B20  SDGs  ICC 

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