The morning keynote address of the IPE Annual Conference 2022 in Rotterdam this week was delivered by Erik Solheim, former minister of international development and minister of the environment in the Norwegian Government and former under-secretary-general of the United Nations and executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

In his speech, Solheim shared with the audience a series of optimistic and contrarian views that challenge the common perception around global issues, including geopolitical conflict, the role of China in a multi-polar world, and the fight against climate change.

Solheim said: “Never in human history has there been a better situation in the world today”, referring to the substantial rise in life expectancy and the growth in GDP per capita over the past two centuries.

The level of conflict in the world is also lower than in the past, Solheim said. 

The former UN officer did not directly address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but said countries must work together to solve global challenges.

He identified a series of mega-trends, starting from the fourth industrial revolution, calling it a “major potential force for good”.

“As in previous industrial revolutions, the new job created should exceed those that are wiped out. Internet is an enormous blessing, although it needs to be regulated”, he said. He also identified artificial intelligence as a transformative technology that can bring huge benefits to society.

Erik Solheim

Erik Solheim

Solheim was optimistic about the “green revolution”, pointing out that the cost of energy production through solar and wind was already much cheaper than with coal. “In the past, there was no way to create economic development without destroying nature. Today, we can do that”, he said.

The rise of nationalism is another mega-trend that has significant implications, argued Solheim. The former government minister, who was a key figure for the peace negotiations to resolve the Sri Lankan civil war in the early 2000s, argued that the world has already entered what he called ‘Asian age’. He pointed out the results achieved by China in developing renewable energy production capacity and said that Western political leaders must maintain a dialogue with China.

“We will not be able to influence China unless we keep talking to its leaders”, said Solheim. He added that the US was to blame for geopolitical tensions today, rather than China. 

“The Chinese perspective is that the US has been involved in all of the conflicts in the recent past, while China has always been neutral. That may be debatable, but the two powers need to work together. The problem is that the US does not accept the emergence of an equal power”, said Solheim.

China, he said, has no intention to export its political model overseas. “The threat to democracy comes from within the West, not from outside”, said Solheim.

Regarding the ESG concerns of investors faced with the opportunity of investing in China, he said: “If you want to be in growth markets, that is where you need to be. If you don’t invest in Asian markets, you will confine yourself to being a much smaller player.”

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