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Reasons to be cheerful

After a bruising 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant lockdowns caused sickness, anxiety and economic uncertainty for many, we look ahead to 2021 and ask seven business, law and politics experts for a reason to be cheerful, something we might have overlooked that will help us to believe in better times ahead.

 

Alastair Campbell, John Amaechi, Vicky Pryce and others discuss the resilience of youth, changing attitudes to national debt, the humanisation of the workforce and progress on climate action.

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Transcript

Hello, happy new year and welcome to Brainfood For General Counsel from Pinsent Masons, where we hope to give you the tools to help your company meet the challenges ahead.

My name is Matthew Magee and I am a journalist here at Pinsent Masons.

Looking back on 2020, I'm sure many of us feel that it was a difficult, troubling and challenging year as individuals and organisations dealt with a global health crisis, the personal, business and economic effects of lockdowns, and political instability and upheaval from events such as Brexit and an unorthodox US presidential election.

2021, we hope, will be better. And that is what we're looking at today – reasons to be cheerful for the year ahead. This is not to be glib or smug: many difficult choices and paths lie ahead and none of 2020's problems have gone away overnight. But as we start a new year and before normal day to day business takes over our brains, it is important to lift our heads a little and appreciate that not everything has gone wrong, that there are some signs of light and hope.

So we got some help from some of the people you've heard from in the podcast during its first year. We asked Alastair Campbell, John Amaechi, Vicky Pryce and others what gives them cause for optimism, what aspects of economic, social or business life can give us an inkling that better times are ahead.

It can be easy to get bogged down in the negative, particularly when we feel personally at risk and, perhaps, professionally stretched. But the world is, largely, improving, and that is easy to forget.

The UN says that there has been a 36% reduction since the 1990s in the percentage of the world's population living in extreme poverty. Polio has been almost eliminated; malaria prevalence severely reduced. In 1950 fewer than half of primary aged children went to school, now it is nearly 90%. Life saving DPT vaccinations have gone from one fifth of the world's population to four fifths.

And though global income inequality is still rising, this is not always a good proxy for quality of life. As economist Charles Kenny notes in his book 'Getting Better', the spread of technology and ideas has lifted quality of life even where incomes have not risen. Health, education and civil rights improvements are not directly related to income and have greatly improved quality of life.

I talked to seven experts in economics, politics and business about their reasons to be cheerful and there was remarkable harmony in their answers, which mostly focused on two areas: the climate and youth.

The year ahead will hopefully contain the UN climate change conference COP26 which was postponed from 2020 in Glasgow, where real progress is expected on meeting the Paris Agreement goals and those set in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

There will be a significant difference this year, though, and that will be the enthusiastic participation of a post‑Trump US, as Pinsent Masons head of client strategy Alastair Morrison explains.

Alastair Morrison:

I have got a good few reasons to be cheerful. I think that Trump coming to the end of his office in the US is fantastic news because it will mean that the Biden administration will get on to the climate change agenda and sees that a co-part of the US coming back in both politically and economically. The US coming back in hard on the climate change agenda with COP26 will be really good to see and I think since climate change, if you look at it at a big level, the macro level, climate change is the one thing that I think if we tie Covid in to climate change I think we have some reasons to be cheerful.

First thing I think that causes us to cheerful when we link Covid and climate change, is that Covid has shown that we can innovate using science, technology, data quickly and some of those lessons might be applied in relation to climate change so that is great news and I think will help us find innovative ways looking to solve climate change issue from a technological and a scientific perspective, and I also think that the combination of European Union, the United States, potentially China, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom coming together at a political level and at an economical level will actually help the climate change agenda. At an economic level, the reserve banks are now kind of getting into climate change and thinking about climate change in a different way.

Christie Lagarde at the OECD is really making climate change a top priority and that is part of their core strategy so when you look at green bonds, the financial sector is starting to compete with each other on issuing climate change bonds. You look at both the EU and the US really tying green bonds into part of the Covid recovery plan. The work that Mark Carney is doing and in relation to the CCFD, the task for Climate Change Financial Disclosure, we should look at all of these kind of things, the pressure and the number of companies that will be adopting net zero climate change agendas, I think is really quite good news. So, when you look at the political, financial and the scientific agendas and what we have seen as a result of Covid and we have seen this stimulus in the packages that will need to be put in place, I think that we have got some really good reasons to be cheerful when it comes to tackling the biggest issues facing our planet, that of climate change.

Matthew:

Former UK minister and Harvard fellow Douglas Alexander agrees that progress on climate will be one of the year's positive developments, and says that developments in clean energy will be noticeable.

Douglas Alexander:

My reasons to be cheerful as 2020 comes to an end is that this spring, while naturally all of us were focused on the pandemic. The UK actually went more than two months, 67 days without using any coal fire power for the first time in 138 years. That is actually for the first time since the Industrial Revolution and why is this little known fact a reason to be cheerful for me? Because it's further proof that away from the terrible headlines of this year there are still some really positive trend lines.

Week by week, month by month, we are living through renewables revolution that is decarbonising how we regenerate power. The power sector is now leading the way, but then will come the electrification of transport and then still cement some chemicals, some really tough sectors all of them is moving in the same direction.

I think our response to Covid this year reminds us that as humanity, we can do hard things. Five years ago, the Paris summit came up with a mechanism a long term goal combined with short term targets with political challenges of office in mind and is actually working in creating a race to a net zero economy. That framework was agreed, five years ago when the US, China, the EU and Japan all aligned around those ambitious goals. Five years on, with Biden's victory, suddenly the stars have aligned again.

So COP26 in Glasgow this coming November, can mark the next step forward on the road to net zero. But there is one more personal reason that I am optimistic in these pessimistic times. Last January, in the pre‑times just before Covid, I taught a university class of 20 young leaders from right around the world. The course was about sustainability, but mostly those young people taught me something much more precious than the curriculum. Their interest, their idealism and their passion has reminded me and reassured me this year that we are not powerless even though the climate crisis is even greater than the Covid crisis. This is certainly a time of choosing for all of us to be part of the problem or to be part of the solution. What an exciting time to be alive and choose to bend the arc of history towards that sustainable future.

Matthew:

Former Alstom executive Philippe Joubert's Earth On Board helps companies align their actions with climate targets. He has spotted a trend amongst young professionals that he thinks is worth celebrating. They are beginning to organise to pressure their organisations to act more sustainably, a move he says is already having a major impact on organisations.

Philippe Joubert:

This will be seen as the year where young students and more importantly young professionals have organised a structured movement to start challenging the people in place. For example we have recently a movement from student and young professional coming out of HEC which is one of the biggest and most prestigious business school in France and they say "hey, we are going to change dean, we want a dean that understands sustainability and climate change, we think to be leading a business school now, you will need some capacity of understanding the challenge of tomorrow". You will have already some young professional organising inside the big companies, the multinational companies, in group of France and they go and see the chair or the CEO and say hey, you will need to be serious about the challenge of tomorrow and these groups communicate between them. All these movements are organising themselves, being structured and challenging the situation setting the people in place, saying that we are not satisfied any longer with the way you are managing all these problems.

It would be like if all the students graduated from Cambridge in Oxford, suddenly go to the street and challenge the big banks or the big finance: we do not work for you any longer unless you start to be serious about climate change. This is not what we have seen with Greta Thunberg, this is different, Greta has been also very efficient and certainly extremely important, these people they are in their work place or in their university or schools and they influence the way they are educated and the way they are considered or the influence the strategy and the priority of the companies in which they work, which is complicated. This is much more down to Earth.

Matthew:

Beyond immediate concerns about economic collapse that faded reasonably quickly, the economic impact of the pandemic has generally been assessed in terms of the cost to future generations of paying back the debts run up by countries in dealing with it.

But economist Vicky Pryce, former joint head of the UK Government Economic Service, says that it doesn't have to be this way. The pandemic has changed the way government debt is thought about – if we can keep up the tolerance of high public debt levels this could transform the relationship between public spending and society for the better, she says.

Vicky Pryce:

In the acceptance that you can actually have a bigger debt to GDP ratio without worrying too much about it and the fact that the monetory authorities are now much more interventionists in ensuring that the economy can recover. Which truly means that quite a lot of thoughts that we had about the level of austerity that was needed going out of the window really and not just here, but also in Europe and for me that is seriously important because we are moving towards a situation where there is acceptance that the level of sustainable debt could be considerably higher but that is considerably high because you get support from the central banks but also there is a lot more acceptance that the risks need to be shared between the richer countries and poorer countries in Europe, so the Euro zone needs re-shaping quite significantly.

I think that makes a big difference in terms of how you manage policies in the future and also the involvement of the state. So a lot more leeway and a lot more flexibility and a lot more acceptance that the state can intervene in various stages to get to sorting out problems a lot faster than would have indicated otherwise got stuck to the earlier perceptions of what is right and what is wrong in terms of support to the economy when we get into crisis.

What may come to upset all this is politicians' obsessions yet again with getting back to normality, I think we should just forget about normality and not try and get back to a situation that we saw with austerity on returning. So, I am reasonably hopeful that lessons can be learnt, but I cannot guarantee that this will be the case.

On the developing world side, the real concern is that when we get out of this there are going to be quite a lot of countries with pretty bad borrowing problems, but what has happened and where I am slightly more positive is that there is a lot willingness, again by the international organisations, to put extra money into those countries in terms and also offer debt repayment holidays and encouraging lots of other creditors to do similar things, there has been quite a lot of buy-in to this which is good news. Now the question for all these countries would be what happens at the end and in my view the only thing that can happen is debt forgiveness and I am suspecting looking at what has been going on worldwide that there would be a lot more chance of extra support, dealing with a debt situation including possible debt forgiveness. To support these countries to grow again would be pretty positive. The second thing about developing countries is of course that they are quite important in the fight on climate change which I am sure lots of people think it is a huge potential to pursue it faster as a result of Covid, but if they have no means to do anything and they are really worried about getting the economies started again in one of those developing countries, I am likely to think first about climate change and I am afraid that that requires a big transfer of funds from the richest countries to the poorer ones, both for mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Matthew:

Vicky touched on the impact post pandemic attitude changes might have in the developing world, and legal author and adviser Richard Susskind's thoughts have turned to that too. He hopes that the kind of digital processes forced on justice systems during Covid will leave a lasting and beneficial legacy for the billions of people living without access to courts.

Richard Susskind:

One cause for optimism in my world, which is largely about trying to use technology to improve access to justice, is that the Covid crisis, tragic though it has been, has opened people's eyes to new ways of delivering legal and court service. Minds have been opened and minds have changed and around the world we are seeing governments and court systems turning to technology as a way of increasing access to justice. Today only 46% of people in our world are under the protection of the law. My view is that the time is right, Covid provides a springboard for us to use technology to help people understand their entitlements and to help people enforced those entitlements. So, in 2021 I believe, we have arrived at a time for online courts. My minor ambition, well it is not minor at all, is that we can increase that 46% to 50% and if 4% more people have access to justice enabled by technology, that means fundamentally changing the lives of hundreds of millions of people. The reality is that if it is easier for people to understand and enforce entitlements and it is a global initiative then this will likely change the behaviours of those governments who rely on the law being inaccessible, rely on our courts being inaccessible to allow them to permit them to behave as they do.

In practice this means that people who otherwise cannot afford lawyers can determine their rights and entitlements and they will be offered access also to speedy low costs dispute resolution that has the backing of the state as an entirely new way of helping people enforce their entitlements. My own vision of this and it is one that I want to devote considerable time to is that we need to set up a global organisation to coordinate the delivery of a standard platform, a technology platform that is uniform across all jurisdictions that can be tailored to specific countries so that each individual country can very quickly introduce this enabling technology.

Matthew:

Organisational psychologist and leadership expert John Amaechi thinks the pandemic will leave another legacy – that workers will be valued, respected and trusted like never before, which will help productivity as well as the wellbeing of those workers.

John Amaechi:

I thought 2020 was the year we began to see the humanisation of the workforce. People who had never been recognised before had the country clapping for them on a Thursday and even, at least I hope, even some of the more old fashion workplaces, we started to recognise that human beings were human beings, not just units of productivity - that they had families at home, worries and concerns and I think that 2021 will be the year that that continues to burgeon and that we see the mental health of human beings as holistic beings in the workplace be taken seriously and indeed I think workers choose their workplace on the basis of being seen that way.

There is no new normal. Do not be cheerful about everything going back to normal. There is no new normal. The genie is out of the bottle. You cannot recognise people who did the lowliest jobs, the most vital and lowliest of jobs and then think that they will forget that they were seen. Workers in our organisations will not forget that it was perfectly possible to be productive and agile in their working practice. Nobody is going to forget. The companies that think they are going to go back to 9 to 5 or 8 to 6 in an office in some central part of some large city are the ones that will not exist in five years. The reason for workplaces to be optimistic, our productivity has risen, people have risen to the challenge given us a small modicum of flexibility and a little bit of concern about humanity. That is a reason that workplaces should be excited about this change.

Matthew:

Alastair Campbell, former advisor to ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair and now a campaigner, said that the way young people have dealt with the coronavirus crisis has changed his view of the younger generation and given him unexpected hope.

Alastair Campbell:

I think I have actually been quite impressed by how the younger generation has adapted pretty well in the main to horrific 2020, on so many levels. So I think there is a reason I am optimistic when there is so much to be pessimistic about and gloomy about, I sense that people of my children's generation and younger are going to make a better job of the future than we are making of the present.

I am seeing the way they have adapted to something that if you had said to me how this would have happened and how the teens and millennials and 20s and 30s reacted, I would have been very unconfident. I would have said maybe that they have not had really tough existential challenges to face in a way that most generations have are and then maybe I guess that would have bought into the middle aged so far sensed that they, you know, are a bit selfish and a bit superficial and wary enough and I think no my sense has been talking to people, see how people reacted and I do think that I got a sense of it, so I think the world is in a mess facing lots of inflection points in different places and because of that reaction from a lot of people I know, way younger than I am are more hopeful than I was. I think that reacting with the insight that they have got a lot longer to go than what we have. I am 63 now, so you know, I think of something like Brexit, will we get back into the European Union or a form of it before I pop my clogs? Doubtful. Will the generation I am talking about come to a better place in our relationship with Europe? I have got no doubt about that at all.

Matthew:

Some stirring thoughts there about how young people have handled the crisis, how they might be treated in future and what impact they will have on their employers and governments. And, earlier, a consensus that unprecedented movement on climate action might give us cause to be proud when 2021 draws to a close.

Hopefully this has put a bit of a spring in your step after a hard year. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back with more Brainfood later in the year.

Thanks for joining us for the latest Brain Food for General Counsel podcast. Remember you can keep up to date with hour by hour coverage of business law news by the Out-Law reporting team at Pinsentmasons.com. Do not forget to subscribe to us wherever you get your podcast until next time, goodbye.

Brain Food for General Counsel was produced and presented by Matthew Magee for Pinsent Masons, the purpose-led international profession services firm with law at its core.

 

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