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Global cooperation has mended a divided world before — it can do the same for a fragmenting one

Global cooperation has proved possible and effective even in the toughest of global political climates — it can do so again.

Global cooperation has proved possible and effective even in the toughest of global political climates — it can do so again. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Christian Mumenthaler
Group Chief Executive Officer, Swiss Re Group, Switzerland
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Even during the Cold War, with the world at its most divided, the US and USSR collaborated to tackle diseases like polio and smallpox.
  • Now, as the world is getting more fragmented, that same spirit of cooperation for global challenges can and must be preserved.
  • Initiatives like the COP meetings and the Forum’s Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders must be built upon.

In an increasingly fragmented world, with leaders more focused on national or regional interests, working together remains critical if we are to solve truly global challenges like climate change.

Amid the shift towards a multipolar world order —accelerated by the COVID-19 crisis and Russia's invasion of Ukraine — global cooperation has never been more important.

Society's biggest challenges, like climate change, preparing for the next pandemic and feeding the planet's 8 billion people, are fundamentally global in nature. Accordingly, they must be tackled with a global collaboration.

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COP27, which ended in November, showed just how challenging this can be.

We saw progress on initiatives to scale up climate finance and an agreement for wealthier nations to help developing countries hit by climate catastrophes. Still, by the time the 45,000 attendees left Egypt, negotiators representing different nations and diverging interests fell short of aligning behind more ambitious emission cuts needed to limit global temperature increases at around 1.5°C. As a society, we're still not on track.

Against this sobering backdrop, government and business leaders are asking themselves fundamental questions, inspired by the theme of this year's World Economic Forum Annual Meeting: how can we strengthen global cooperation to tackle society's biggest challenges in a world that's growing more fragmented?

Divided times, common ground

There are no easy fixes, but the last century offers us some instructive examples of how even nations deeply at odds with one another have found common ground on issues too immense to tackle alone. Take global disease control: in the midst of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union recognised they needed each other in the global fight against polio and smallpox.

Following development of a polio vaccine in the US in the 1950s, scientists from both countries collaborated to produce vaccine in quantities sufficient to be given to millions of Russians. A decade later, even with the Cuban missile crisis fresh in their memories, they joined forces to help the World Health Organization (WHO) eradicate smallpox, a scourge of the developing world.

These triumphs, built on global cooperation to address issues far bigger than any one country or ideology, are not merely inspiring anecdotes frozen in history. For leaders today, they offer powerful lessons on how partnerships, even unlikely ones, remain essential for progress on our most vexing problems. We need to renew this spirit.

A momentum shift toward global cooperation

The ongoing catastrophe of Russia's war on Ukraine has made this harder. The disjointed global response to the COVID-19 pandemic showed cooperation cannot be taken for granted, even when our interests are shared. Despite such challenges, some recent efforts to restore ties between nations that have been at loggerheads provides hope.

In November, the G20 conference in Indonesia was preceded by a long-awaited meeting between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. While differences obviously remain, these face-to-face talks are an important steppingstone to future dialogue. This is very encouraging, not just for China and the US but for the world.

Biden and Xi's agreement to resume global cooperation on climate change, which came in the midst of COP27, also signals a momentum shift. Without the US and China working together on shared commitments to cutting emissions, reaching the Paris agreement's targets will be almost impossible.

Side-by-side for the biggest challenges

Revitalised cooperation between the world's two largest economies on reining in global greenhouse gas emissions comes as welcome news for the Forum’s Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders and its 125 members.

Alliance members have pledged to work side-by-side with governments to help deliver the science-based climate action that's necessary to halve global emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero by 2050. In a recent open letter, the Alliance also outlined its commitment to reducing 1 gigatons of emissions annually by 2030 and how its members have, on average, reduced scope 1 and 2 emissions by 22% from 2019-2020 levels, outpacing major nations.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Overall, the private sector plays an important role for the decarbonisation of the economy, including via efforts like the First Movers Coalition.

The more than 50 companies, including Swiss Re, that are part of this effort are seeking to harness more of companies' purchasing power to help decarbonise industrial sectors with difficult-to-cut emissions. Success on this front will require massive investment in technology to create green aluminium, steel and concrete, but also a strong base of customers willing to step up and support these technologies even when they're initially more expensive, so that they can be scaled up.

Though the COP27 negotiations left plenty of unfinished business, the talks also offered some positive takeaways that will hopefully propel us toward more progress at COP28 in Dubai next year.

Optimism fuelled by history

Leaders preserved the 1.5°C temperature increase limit, despite pressure to retreat. The "loss and damage" agreement that emerged — which provides funding for vulnerable nations to recover from climate-related disasters — is strongly linked to essential climate adaptation. This demonstrates that global cooperation is alive, even if many of the details still must be worked out.

Moreover, the COP27 push for reforms to the global financial system to scale up climate finance is welcome. Refreshing the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's mandates to address climate challenges will enable multilateral institutions that since World War II have helped preserve stability and prosperity to stay relevant in a multipolar world.

Efforts like these, even in their infancy, make me optimistic that the international community is willing to set aside differences to achieve goals that transcend narrower interests.

Optimism might seem daring these days, but it is fueled by history — a history that shows that cooperation remains the answer for a fragmented world seeking to solve its most difficult problems.

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Forum InstitutionalGlobal CooperationClimate Action
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