The FT’s Global Boardroom Conference is a gathering of policymakers, CEOs and global leaders to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. In its second edition, this year’s event took place virtually, in the backdrop of the U.S. electoral result, and the recent announcement of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
A strong focus of the three-day event was how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted areas such as climate change, cities, technology and the workplace, along with how it has impacted specific regions. The event opened with a keynote interview with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who spoke at length about Canada’s response to the pandemic. Trudeau said he was looking forward to closer multilateral cooperation with the incoming Biden administration on issues such as the pandemic, climate change, and racial justice.
An enlightening discussion took place on the first day, as public health officials from different countries discussed the pandemic, national lockdowns, and potential vaccines. The panellists warned that despite the immediate optimism accompanying the announcement of a new vaccine, it will not be available to the mass population quickly. Anders Tegnell, the Swedish chief epidemiologist predicted that it would take between six to eight months to fully roll out vaccinations programmes. The panellists also stressed that there is a high possibility of more pandemics in the future, as climate change will bring animals and humans closer together, risking the further spread of zoonotic diseases.
The panellists struck a more positive note later in the day whilst discussing the prospects for the climate change agenda in 2021. They were cautiously optimistic that COVID-19 and the U.S. election could trigger a stronger global commitment to climate action ahead of COP26 in Glasgow.
Todd Stern, a former Obama administration official, and the United States’ chief negotiator during the 2015 climate talks in Paris said that the incoming Biden administration will be preparing to rejoin the Paris Agreement in January, and will be already working on its nationally determined contributions (NDCs). Stern added that the next stage for climate diplomacy is to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, in line with the latest IPCC recommendations. Rachel Kyte, Dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University agreed, saying that Biden’s victory could create “the potential for a race to the top […] with the return of the US, it will be harder for climate deniers to operate.”
The second day’s event adopted a more regional focus. Panellists at the ‘Africa after Lockdown’ event expressed their hopes for a de-escalation between the Ethiopian federal government headed by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Furthermore, Samaila Zubairu of the Africa Finance Corporation (AFC) commented that Africa can be a “global engine of growth” during the post-pandemic economic recovery. He argued that to do so, governments need to work with the incoming US administration to set out a more comprehensive development plan and improved terms of trade. In order to fulfil its economic potential, the continent’s infrastructure needs amounts to $170 billion a year, across water, sanitation, energy, transport and ICT.
There was also an interesting debate on how to balance the expansion of local agricultural production to solve the issue of malnourishment in developing countries, and environmental protection. The panellists believed that farmers can learn sustainable practices such as reducing their carbon emissions and limiting deforestation, whilst maximising their production from their existing lands. Technological and entrepreneurial innovations can also be used to reduce emissions and connect to global supply chains, such as the use of plant-based coating for produce, an innovation which is being used increasingly in southern Africa .
The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen big changes in urban landscapes across the world. With millions of commuters now working from home, this has led to a fall in air pollution, whilst damaging night-time and city-centre economies. Claudia López, Mayor of Bogotá, and Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, found common ground when discussing the future of cities. Both mayors believe that COVID-19 will accelerate changes towards greener, more digital urban economies. However, the panellists stated their belief that the growing use of technology and the digitalization of work threatens to leave behind those without access to digital spaces, potentially deepening social inequalities.
Another theme addressed in several events was the acceleration of businesses embracing ESG targets. Consumers are expecting companies to be inclusive, sustainable, and socially responsible. In 2020, the ‘S’ in ESG has received particular attention, as the pandemic has deepened social inequalities, and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis led to global protests in support of racial justice. In a time in which communities in the U.S. could not look to their government for answers, the panellists argued that businesses were required to articulate their plans to improve diversity and inclusivity in the workplace.