The year 2022: was it historical?

Did the world finally see its leaders take some steps towards turning the global economy 'green'?

Shahid Javed Burki January 09, 2023
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

Now that the year 2022 has given way to 2023, is history, it is right to ask: how would it figure in history books? Columnist Thomas Friedman answered this question in his contribution to The New York Times two months before the year was over. Even then he thought that the year had seen a great deal for future historians to take a careful look at it. “Was it the meltdown of the world’s sixth largest economy, Britain, fueled in part by its reckless 2020 exit from the European Union?” asked Friedman. Called ‘Brexit’, the British departure had no effect on Europe, but it caused near-havoc in Britain. London saw three prime ministers take up residence in 10 Downing Street. The third occupant of the official residence of the British Prime Minister was Rishi Sunak, a man of Indian origin. His position at the top of the political pyramid meant complete turning of the table. Having ruled over the Indian sub-Continent for more than a century, Britain itself was now being governed by a man of Indian descent. Friedman continued with his list of events that would make the year 2022 memorable. “Was it the demented attempt by Vladimir Putin to wipe Ukraine off the map, which has decoupled Russia from the West and led to a havoc in worldwide energy and food markets?” wrote Friedman. But there were other questions. “Was it the near-total infection of the G.O.P. with Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen — which is eroding our democracy’s most cherished asset: our ability to peacefully and legitimately transfer power?” Although Friedman doesn’t include the return of Lula to the Brazilian presidency and the reluctance of Bolsonaro to accept defeat as a sign of how Trump’s behaviour had infected many parts of the world was one of the way the former US president influenced leadership behaviour across the globe.

History will recognise the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 2022 not only as the defining moment for the recently concluded year. It will have long-lasting consequences. Wars, when they start, promise great change, that has certainly been the case with Russia’s Ukraine adventure. The world at the end of 2022 was noticeably different from when the year dawned. The Russian president would not have imagined when he ordered his troops to move into Ukraine, Sweden’s and Finland’s swift decisions to join NATO thus extending the Western alliance’s border with Russia by many hundreds of miles. George F Will, a conservative columnist who contributes to The Washington Post, reminded his readers that three of the most spectacular geo-strategic blunders of the past 250 years have involved Russia: Napoleon’s invasion 210 years ago, Hitler’s invasion 129 years later and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine 81 years after that. Russia has been constant disrupter in human affairs.

The Friedman list of historic events in 2022 included the continuation of Xi Jinging as China’s supreme leader and its possible consequences for Beijing’s relations not only with Washington but also with the rest of the world. which was approaching an Or was it that China’s drive to end four decades of steady integration of its economy with the West was approaching an end, symbolised by the abbreviation popularised by The New York Times Keith Bradsher to “describe when Western multinationals begin to think about putting their next factory: A.B.C. — Anywhere But China.”

Did the world finally see its leaders take some steps towards turning the global economy “green”? In providing an answer to the question, Leah S Stokes, the Anton Vonk associate professor at the University of California, mentioned several developments in 2022 as indicating that without adopting appropriate policies for greening the world, humanity was heading towards a series of very disturbing events. She had a list of these in an article contributed to the Op Ed pages of The New York Times. “Extreme rainfall in Pakistan affected more than 33 million people this year, with some communities converted into lakes. In Florida, Hurricane Ian caused more than $50 billion in insured damage, making it the second most expensive hurricane in U.S. In western United States, draught left the nation’s two largest reservoirs nearly three quarters empty.” Had this article been written close to the end of 2022, the blizzard in Buffalo, a city in New York State that took more than 35 lives, would have made the list. Looking at the list suggests a pattern. In 1979 and 2022, crises drew the attention of policymakers. When energy supply grows scarce and fossil fuel prices shoot through the roof, governments act. One estimate has it that fossil fuel price increase drove 41 per cent of inflation in the US. This led the Federal Reserve Bank, the US central bank through a series of interest rate increases which prompted several central banks around the world, including the State Bank of Pakistan, to follow suit. Some of the legislation pushed through Congress by President Biden will change the structure of energy production and use in the country. This year will also prove to be a turning point for Europe where energy prices because of the war in Ukraine also went through the roof. In August 2022, gas in the European Union cost 12 times as much as at the start of 2021. In this effort to reduce its dependence on Russia for oil and gas, Europe is turning towards energy-rich countries in the Middle East. One inevitable result of this would be the movement more Arabs to Europe.

Private enterprises made large investments in producing energy-saving devices such as electric cars and roof panels. The innovations that are coming with these investments will change human behaviour. This has happened before and will happen again. At the turn of the last century, internal combustion engine brought all kinds of mechanisation to human activity. The arrival of tractors and harvesting machines displaced millions of agricultural workers who moved to the cities and took up jobs that had begun to be set up in new industrial factories in the urban areas. Think about how widely cellphones came to be used and replaced landlines after they became cheap and easy to transport.

Departures of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro — the latter from the presidency in Brazil — will have positive consequences for global warming. Luiz Inacio Luala da Silva, the new Brazilian president, addressed the UN climate conference and said that he would do what it takes to achieve zero deforestation and that “climate change will have the highest priority in his government”. Bolsonaro, his predecessor, had followed the policy to reduce the coverage provided by the Amazon Forest in order to provide the Indian tribes, who inhabited the area, more land on which they could grow crops for their livelihood.

The year 2022 saw several advances in the area of technology, especially the use of human behaviour that could be duplicated by robots. This became possible by using what came to be called “artificial intelligence” or IA. Exactly how robots will replace human activity is still not clear. One example is self-driving vehicles. Another is the ability of AI-equipped computers to produce simple compositions — a development that worries teachers since it would make it difficult to teach students to express their thoughts in their own writings.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2023.

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