As the world prepares for the United Nations Climate Change Conference next month in Glasgow, Scotland, we must step back and look at the big picture. For nearly three decades, these sessions and other global forums have convened during an era of convergence, in which lower-income countries were growing faster than wealthier, more technologically-advanced nations. Over that time, a billion people rose out of poverty and became healthier, better educated, better nourished, and more secure.
Unfortunately, that trend has reversed. Almost two years since the Covid-19 outbreak began, the world is experiencing a great divergence. One part of the globe has the vaccines to protect themselves, the electricity to pursue their dreams, the food to nourish their families, and the resources to rebuild what the pandemic destroyed and build what’s needed for tomorrow. The other part goes without. As a result, hundreds of millions of people are more vulnerable to the next Covid-19 variant and the crises still to come — the pandemics, famines, and extreme weather events driven by climate change.
Our job at The Rockefeller Foundation — and in philanthropy more broadly — is to see that big picture. At a moment when too many might accept divergence, and the risks and inequities that come with it, we must remind the world that humanity can do better – can aspire to, and achieve, a better, more equitable future. That’s why our foundation has been working to convene partners and marshal the resources needed to meet this moment. And it’s why, before COP26, in Glasgow, and afterwards, we will help bring the world together behind the actions required to end this pandemic and begin an equitable, sustainable recovery — for everyone.
The Great Divergence and its Risks
When Covid-19 erupted nearly two years ago, it brought an end to a remarkable era in human development. After the destruction of World War II, global leaders committed themselves to not only reconstructing developed nations, but also constructing a new, stable economic order. The goal was convergence, in which capital, technology, and connectivity could flow more freely and help lower-income nations grow fast enough to dramatically improve living standards. The result was decades of progress — especially over the last 30 years — followed by a reinvigorated commitment in 2015, when the world adopted the ambitious U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
Unfortunately, Covid-19 has not only killed more than 4.5 million people around the world; it has also driven a great divergence between rich and poor nations that could go on for a decade or more. Wealthier countries have spent trillions of dollars to stoke their economies, vaccinate their citizens, and adapt or transition their economies to be more digital and climate friendly. Meanwhile, lower-income countries, with fewer resources and options, have had to wait or go without vaccines and economic stimulus.
This divergence — and its risks to people and the planet — is not inevitable. Covid-19 did not divide the world between rich and poor; choices by leaders, governments, and institutions did. As a result, leaders can choose to return to convergence. What is required is not novel ideas. Humanity knows how to end the pandemic and restart growth. After all, advanced nations have already pursued efforts to ensure sufficient vaccination rates and boost economic growth in their own countries. Instead, what’s required is the conviction that unless the pandemic and the economic crisis it triggered end for everyone, neither will reliably end for anyone.
That’s why, in Foreign Affairs this fall, I proposed the world adopt a Covid Charter and commit resources to change the arc of the recovery at scale. By increasing domestic spending in developing economies, boosting development assistance from wealthier nations, recapitalizing and reenergizing multilateral development institutions, and establishing partnerships to deploy vaccines and other scientific and technological breakthroughs, everyone can have a chance to finally move beyond Covid-19 and compete in the 21st Century.
The Opportunity for Transformative Change
Throughout history, the greatest crises have also offered the biggest opportunities for progress. There are real advantages today: a global order with multilateral institutions and systems that can leverage extraordinary amounts of capital and scale impact; technological and scientific breakthroughs that offer humanity its best hope for surviving the crises of this era; and a shared feeling that everyone is connected to today’s global events, for good and for ill.
As a result, humanity has a chance — a moment — to not just end this divergence, but also to start an era of transformative progress. Philanthropies, including The Rockefeller Foundation, can play an outsized role. We can help the world see the opportunities for progress over the horizon, connect the dots, and bring everyone together to scale solutions to today’s challenges.
For example, almost daily, the world finds new ways to use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and other innovations to make startling advances in how people live, work, and communicate. These advances have produced revolutions in power, health care, agriculture, education, and more. Unfortunately, markets often put new advances out of reach from those who need them most. But with innovative investments and novel partnerships, philanthropies can build new platforms to promote these advances at the scale necessary to transform the world, making it far safer, and humanity more resilient.
Nowhere is this opportunity clearer, or the task more necessary, than in helping communities in developing nations transition — and, in some cases, connect for the first time — to quality, renewable energy.
For years, humanity could reduce carbon emissions, create jobs, and improve access to electricity — but could not accomplish all three at the same time. Now, the technology makes it such that reducing carbon can actually serve as the vehicle for expanding access to electricity and creating jobs. Moreover, clean energy is the bedrock of an inclusive, sustainable economic future — to make an economic transition, a country must first make an energy transition.
In other words, green energy transitions can become an on-ramp to opportunity for billions of people who are constrained by their lack of access to reliable electricity. With the right investments, regulatory decisions, and partnerships, the world could empower billions of people, decarbonize entire economies, and avert billions of tons of carbon emissions.
During COP26 and beyond, humanity can take the steps to make these transitions a reality — with philanthropies leading the way. If we do so, billions of people will be able to connect to the renewable electricity required to compete and care for their loved ones. Hundreds of millions more will gain access to good jobs that improve not only their own lives but also their communities, countries, and the world. And humanity will have a chance to alleviate the climate crisis before it is too late.
These new initiatives will do more than help bolster the response to and recovery from the pandemic. They will end divergence and begin the transformations humanity needs to meet the challenges and opportunities of this era. No one entity — industry, government, or philanthropy — can do so alone. But together, humanity can not only survive this era, but also find new ways to thrive.
With new capabilities and connections, The Rockefeller Foundation is doing our part, seeking to catalyze revolutionary changes. Throughout our history, at moments when the stakes were incredibly high and inertia was too risky, we have done the same — launching revolutions in public health, which helped save lives in the United States and around the world, and in agriculture, helping lift billions of people out of poverty. Last year, we made the largest commitment in our history — $1 billion — to stoke the transformations in power, health, food, and opportunity that the world needs today.
As the world comes together at COP26, The Rockefeller Foundation will be there — eager to work with everyone to ensure humanity meets this moment. Together, we can end divergence and ignite a new era of progress.
The Road to Glasgow & the Imperative for a Green Energy Transition
As the world moves toward containing Covid-19, we face a tangle of problems. How do we together recover from the pandemic-triggered financial crisis while tackling the menace of climate change and simultaneously putting equity first to close the growing and dangerous gap between wealthy and poor nations and peoples? In this quarter’s Matter of Impact, […]More