Unbelievable! A summit that actually matters

By Rosemary Righter (THE TIMES, 07/07/08):

The past decade has been little short of amazing. Storms that might once have driven the world on to the rocks of recession – the Asian and Russian financial meltdowns, 9/11 and the grim and costly business of confronting Islamist terrorism, not to mention a slew of exceptionally destructive natural disasters – have been weathered with surprising ease.

The grim predictions as the last century ended were that an open, increasingly globalised and technology-driven world economy would condemn Western workers to “a race to the bottom”, in a fruitless struggle to compete with China and other low-cost producers. Instead, the rising Asian tide lifted all boats, even some rickety African ones, boosting job prospects and average incomes in almost every corner of the globe.

In Europe and the United States, cheap Chinese goods not only tamped down inflation and kept the lid on interest rates, but turned things like mobile phones, laptops and microwaves from luxuries into widely affordable purchases. Mass anti-globalisation rallies dwindled into fringe protests, as people got used to the idea that, for most families, life in the global economy was actually pretty comfortable. Political leaders naturally took the credit, ascribing this benign state of affairs to their prudent economic stewardship. Until last year: abruptly, and to most people inexplicably, the boom they had begun to take for granted gave way to something that feels horribly and expensively like bust – and, equally abruptly, these same leaders rushed to blame “factors beyond our control”.

It’s hardly surprising that their credit ratings have plunged as fast as the value of sub-prime mortgages. If they were right then, how did they not spot that nutters were taking over the boardrooms until the credit crunch materialised right under their vigilant noses? And if they are right now – and it is fairly obvious that there is little in the short term that Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy or even George Bush can do about sky-rocketing oil and food prices – then why did they not give voters earlier warning about the strains that soaring Chinese demand for oil and other commodities would impose?

Voters are angry as well as confused; because no one shouted “Brace! Brace!”, they thought they were cruising safely on autopilot. Little more than a year ago, Hampstead’s well-heeled middle classes were genteelly fretting about whether they ought to do their bit for the planet by giving up the odd flight to the sun. Now they are swapping horror stories about petrol, the price of skinless chicken fillets and the latest wave of redundancies. The not-so-well-heeled are buying less, and beginning to demand the “inflation-beating” pay rises that have stoked inflation in the past.

It is frightening how quickly support for open economies can evaporate in tough times, even in the comparatively cushioned West – and even when, it should be noted, very few industrialised countries, and not one emerging economy, are actually in or close to recession.

A confused and anxious sense that nothing holds together, as only a short time ago it seemed to do, has a lot to do with the buzz created on both sides of the Atlantic by Barack Obama’s vacuous “yes we can” mantra – and also, ominously, with the appeal of his irresponsible and wholly inaccurate tirades against free trade and heartless corporations who put their balance sheets before the protection of “American jobs”.

The enemies of globalisation are regrouping, and no one expects the G8 summit opening today in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido to mount a convincing counter-attack. Too many of the assembled politicians look past their sell-by date, for a start. Of the G8’s three most stalwart champions of free trade, George Bush and Gordon Brown have the support of no more than a quarter of their fellow countrymen, while Angela Merkel’s governing coalition is ripping itself to shreds. Nicolas Sarkozy owes most of what is left of his vanishing popularity to his protectionist defence of France’s “national champion” industries and its pampered farmers. Silvio Berlusconi carries little weight and Dmitri Medvedev is, at best, an unknown quantity.

The club itself is a bit musty, too. The decision to invite China, India, Brazil, Mexico and (out of political correctness) South Africa to a special session of the “major economies” tacitly acknowledges that the G8, whose members account for well under half of global growth these days, can no longer claim to be the undisputed lynchpin of the world economy.

Thus runs the conventional wisdom. But there are things that the G8 – with the newcomers – could do. Think back for a moment to those Hampstead kitchens. For the past several years, G8 summits have become political showcases for polite but circular debates on global warming, and for worthy unfulfilled pledges of massive additional aid to Africa in return for worthy unfulfilled African pledges of commitment to democracy and decent government. Fine and dandy when the going was easy, but not good enough now. Even in Hampstead, soaring oil prices are concentrating minds on the connections between climate change policies, energy security and the health of the global economy. Isolating climate change in its own neat little renewable green box makes about as much sense as tilting at windmills.

This G8, like others before it, will brood over targets for cutting carbon emissions. But cutting emissions is scientifically pointless without the participation of China, India and Brazil, and, even with them on board, will exert a considerable drag on growth on the basis of existing technologies. Cutting a single ton of CO2 costs about ten times the estimated damage of its release into the atmosphere. Unless the gap between those two figures is dramatically reduced, a low-carbon world will be achieved only slowly, and only at considerable cost to voters already exercised by falling standards of living and increased economic uncertainty.

The answer is massive concerted investment in revolutionary low-carbon technologies. When President Bush committed $2 billion to a new international clean energy fund last January, Europeans sniffed that this was just a diversionary tactic. With oil prices 50 per cent up since January and still climbing, the idea looks anything but irrelevant. The sober political truth is that many more people will buy into energy security as a goal than will put saving the planet ahead of their personal wellbeing – and that emphatically goes for energy-short China as much as for the rest of us. Information technology and free trade drove the first phase of globalisation. Energy technology, already a growth industry, could be the engine of the second phase – and puff the sails of free trade into the bargain. If the G8 plays the energy card right, the next decade could be as amazing as the last.