WTO director-general says trade critical in solving pandemic and climate change

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World Trade Organisation (WTO) Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala arrives for a WTO ministerial meeting to discuss a draft agreement on curbing subisidies for the fisheries industry at the WTO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, July 15, 2021. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala: 'The future of trade is three things; it's services, it's digital and it's green. And it also should be inclusive.' Photo: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the director-general of the World trade Organisation (WTO) has said that trade plays a key role in resolving the global issues caused by the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.

Speaking at the first live interview of the Big Picture series at Chatham House, she said that the role of the WTO, and its rules, are crucial on a global scale, and that things like supply chains are important for manufacturing products like vaccines.

“Indeed the world is facing some really serious problems… some collective action problems, from the pandemic to climate change. In this, trade is required to play, maybe, a more creative and different role,” she said. “Trade is critical to resolving some of these issues.”

She highlighted that while the value of trade last year decreased by around 8%, the value of trade in medical products rose 16%, and 50% for personal protection equipment (PPE). The value of trade of agricultural goods was also stable, she added.

These figures have been enhanced by trade-restricted measures decreasing from 116, at the height of the pandemic to around 50, as of the time of writing.

Read more: WTO's Ngozi: trade resilient, can help power coronavirus recovery

Okonjo-Iweala said the organisation was also working with manufacturers to help them monitor the bottlenecks of their supply chains.

“We cannot have a situation in the world, as we have today, where 55% of people in developed countries have been vaccinated, and less than 1% in low-income countries, and less than 3% in Africa,” she said. “To improve on that we need to produce more.”

Speaking on climate change, and the targets to achieve a net zero carbon goal by 2050, she said: “One of the things I say about the future of trade is that it will be green.

“Climate change is with us, and it is obvious the world needs to find mechanisms to try to handle this. We need a cooperative approach… we still have fragmented systems but I think we ought to be looking in that direction.”

She added: “International institutions, the WTO, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the World Bank, should come together and try to see how we can put a methodology forward. We have many brilliant minds… we need to put all of this together."

Her comments come ahead of COP26, the UN climate conference, in Glasgow later this year.

The conference, which is being held between 1 and 12 November, will have dozens of world leaders in attendance and will bring together representatives from nearly 200 countries, including experts and campaigners.

Read more: CBI calls for more UK action on net zero ahead of COP26

It was originally scheduled for November 2020 but was delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It will be the largest summit that the UK has ever chaired and has been described as the most significant climate event since the global Paris Agreement was secured in 2015.

"I firmly believe the future of trade is three things; it's services, it's digital and it's green. And it also should be inclusive," Okonjo-Iweala told Chatham House on Wednesday.

Okonjo-Iweala became the first woman and the first African director-general of the WTO in February. Her term in the role, renewable, will expire on 31 August 2025.

The Nigerian-born economist’s career has included 25 years at the World Bank, as well as serving as Nigeria’s finance minister twice from 2003-2006 and 2011-2015.

She also sits on the boards of Standard Chartered (STAN.L) and Twitter (TWTR).

Watch: Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to make the WTO 'an organisation that achieves results'

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