Jodie Keane (ODI)| Enhancing resilience within global value chains: the implications of COVID-19 for climate change adaptation and mitigation policies

Jodie Keane (Senior Research Fellow, ODI)

20 May 2020

The increase in global trade in recent decades, through the expansion of production networks and the integration of newly industrialised economies within global value chains (GVCs), has contributed to unprecedented reductions in poverty and historically unparalleled socioeconomic progress. However, severe environmental costs, and other losers within specific industries, have accompanied these socioeconomic gains. Even without consideration of climate change, the coronavirus crisis has laid bare the fragility of global supply chains and of the nature of relationships with suppliers in poorer countries. With a few lead firms (buyers and traders) typically controlling access to end markets, suppliers have reduced market power, which limits their capacity to adapt to demand shocks. Reduced inventory management as a result of just-in-time delivery has presented visceral limitations during the coronavirus pandemic.

In view of the vulnerabilities exposed – such as shortages, the inability to source relevant equipment, imposed export restrictions and so on – many policy-makers are adapting trade policy to emphasise ‘resilience’. Within this debate, although diversification is a recognised means to reduce risks, it comes at a cost. Hence, inducing domestic production in selected sectors is now being advocated as a form of ‘strategic autonomy’; calls to regain industrial sovereignty are getting louder. The shortening of GVCs, either reducing the contribution of foreign value added or decreasing the number of stages of production, could accelerate if policy matches the rhetoric of policy-makers (e.g. subsidies to bring production back home).

As policy-makers seek to enhance resilience by reducing dependence on external suppliers, there are risks that poor countries will lose access to markets that provide vital footholds out of poverty. Coupled with the effects of climate change, the post-COVID-19 trade landscape could become even more challenging for poor countries to navigate. This blog discusses the implications of the COVID-19 crisis in relation to trade within GVCs given the looming climate change crisis, focusing on the following questions: How can resilience within GVCs be enhanced? What can we learn from the current disruption, to enhance the climate resilience of GVCs? What are the implications of the shortening of GVCs for climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts?  

Building resilience within GVCs: where do you start?

Diversification of supply sources requires deeper and wider production networks, including at the regional and domestic levels. Lead firms typically make decisions in this regard based on the nature of the technology involved, the ability to codify information and producer capabilities, as well as on issues such as contract enforcement capacity, comparative costs of production and so on. While some developed countries are seeking to reduce their dependence on a single source country, in view of the implications of COVID-19, developing country suppliers typically struggle with the power dynamics inherent within those GVCs driven by one or a few buyers. What has been alarmingly exposed during this global pandemic is just how fragile these relationships are: some of the poorest countries in the world have been battling with multinational firms to ensure contracts are fulfilled and payment is made for goods produced and already in transit.

Developed countries taking back control of stages of GVCs in order to enhance resilience may further accentuate these power asymmetries, which could increase the risks for developing country suppliers in view of future shocks, including climatic shocks. For many developing countries, enhancing resilience means not only confronting the severe economic vulnerabilities that arise as a result of a lack of export diversification and dependence on a few firms to access end markets, but also adapting now to an increasing susceptibility to environmental shocks.

Globally, it is now recognised that these shocks are increasing as temperatures rise. Overnight, productive structures can be, and have been, wiped out. Given weak infrastructure, the costs of trade are rising, which is negatively compounding efforts to diversify economically. These aspects of persistent economic vulnerability for least developed countries and small vulnerable economies will worsen unless efforts to ramp up Nationally Determined Contributions to emissions reductions are secured at the forthcoming COP26 – postponed to early 2021.

While diversifying and solidifying GVCs in some sectors, including strategic stockpiling where necessary, forms part of the move towards building resilience in the developed world, many developing country producers lack the economic clout to achieve similar objectives. Despite the stalemate at the WTO (as well as challenges in view of the recent resignation of the WTO DG), it is imperative that members charged with the obligation to secure open and resilient value chains consider how best to achieve this in an inclusive and sustainable way. Just as firms have disclosed their COVID-19 risks, now is the time to get real about climate risks.  

What are the implications of the shortening of GVCs for climate change policy?

Notwithstanding the economics of the debate, re-shoring of specific GVC activities by countries that are committed to the Paris Agreement must now be undertaken within a carbon budget. Emissions trading schemes were designed because undertaking emissions reductions and associated costs are cheaper in developing than in developed countries; it is also typically cheaper for production to take place in developing countries, and the recycling of comparative advantages provides a vital foothold out of poverty, if successfully managed.

The reasons for supply chains becoming more domestic rather than more regional – with an estimated ‘erosion’ in globalisation (i.e. a reduction in the average length of supply chains since 2012) of 52 km per year – may be either structural, related to the digital transformation or a result of production becoming closer to consumers. These trends can contribute to emissions reductions, for example through reduced transportation (using subsidised fuel). COVID-19 is surely accelerating trends towards the increased use of digital technology, which can assist in the reduction of carbon emissions. But until our sources of energy change dramatically towards more renewable forms, these trends could be a lose–lose for development and trade and carbon emissions reductions; more evidence is needed to assess the overall implications of movement towards shorter GVCs.

Concluding remarks

This year was meant to see achievement of a multilateral trade deal and enhanced commitments to limit anthropogenic climate change. Instead, we have experienced the steepest decline in both global trade and emissions of modern times. Decisions on trade and climate have been delayed while more immediate action has been sought on securing the finance to react to the global pandemic; major accomplishments have been achieved regarding international collaboration to develop a vaccine; some of the poorest in the world have secured debt forgiveness. Some WTO members have announced important increases in Aid for Trade resources to help poor countries adapt to the trade shocks unleashed.

But the provision of support to firms adapting to COVID-19 in the developed and developing world must heed the warnings regarding the next environmental crises. Firms will be forced by their shareholders and rating agencies to think about the resilience of their GVCs, as well as by governments and consumers to reduce associated carbon emissions. Support to firms should now entail provisions to enhance their environmental resilience. The current crisis has provided the global economy community with more opportunity to get the right frameworks in place ahead of COP26 and as we enter this last decade of action for the advancement of the 2030 Agenda.

Photo: Carbon emissions from factories. John Hogg/World Bank. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0