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No nation alone can solve a global problem by itself

Op-ed by Bill Gates and Jonas Gahr Støre, Le Monde (English).

The world is facing multiple crises around energy, food, and health. These threats are interconnected and require a joined-up response, prioritizing global cooperation and innovation.

If you live in Europe, you have probably felt the energy crisis acutely this winter. Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has left nearly 10 million people without heating during the winter months, and for millions more an increase in their electricity bills has left them struggling to afford the basic cost of living.

Wherever you live in the world, you will likely be feeling some of the effects of the war. Energy supply is under pressure, food prices have increased dramatically, and inflation is soaring, all of which threaten people’s health and livelihoods, especially for more vulnerable communities.

Due to the war in Ukraine, global grain shortages have also created acute food insecurity. In Africa alone, the number of people experiencing food insecurity is expected to grow by 32 million before the end of the decade. The pandemic has also set back years of health progress in the poorest countries, interrupting everything from routine childhood immunization campaigns to the delivery of bed nets that prevent malaria. 

While a lot of attention recently has been focused on addressing the energy crisis, tackling any of these challenges independently ignores the fact that they are inter-related. For example, the energy crisis has raised the cost of producing fertilizer using current methods, limiting its supply and in turn lowering food production. With less food availability, people’s health is put at risk.

We need leaders to work on these challenges together. No nation alone can solve a global problem by itself. As COVID-19 reminded us, no single country can push back an infectious disease.

When countries and their partners work together, we have seen what cooperation and innovation can do to problems that seemed too expensive or too complex to solve. Take the creation of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. In 2000, the Gates Foundation and Norway joined forces with multilateral organizations and private industry to create Gavi. By pooling funding and expertise, Gavi built the supply chains and financing mechanisms to deliver vaccines to people around the world. Vast improvements in global health have followed, including halving the number of kids who die every year from preventable diseases.

Despite this progress, of course, there will always be new threats. Droughts happen. Novel diseases are going to emerge. New conflicts arise. But every regional conflict doesn’t have to cause a global energy crisis, just like every drought doesn’t have to cause a famine—or every new virus a full-blown pandemic. The key is to collaborate across countries and sectors to build warning systems and the capacity to respond, so that small flashpoints don’t expand into global catastrophes.

When it comes to pandemic prevention, leaders need to improve the world’s capacity to detect and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. This requires strengthening health systems, training a global workforce with the necessary expertise, and providing funding through WHO and other mechanisms that can be mobilized in emergencies. The World Bank’s recently established Pandemic Fund, for example, will especially help low- and middle-income countries prevent and respond to health threats. Establishing a Global Health Emergency Corps at the WHO would strengthen its capacity for surge deployment in a crisis and improve global coordination among national health emergency leaders. Such investments have an immense return, in both money and lives saved.

We must look at every challenge as a potential innovation challenge.

Food systems, too, need to be shored up before they are drastically impaired. One way is by addressing the impact of extreme weather on agriculture. Through the Gates Foundation and Norway’s development funding, we are intensifying our efforts to improve soil health, ensure access to the right fertilizers, and develop and distribute climate-resilient seeds.

With energy, the challenge is mainly with supply. Norway has been working to maximize natural gas output, reducing reliance on Russia. The longer-term solution for EU is to turbocharge the production of green energy, like ocean wind. The opportunities are vast. By 2050, nine countries in the region, including Norway, plan to install enough North Sea wind power to power Europe’s 200 million homes.

In Norway and through Breakthrough Energy, we invest in improving the technologies needed for the green energy transformation, including clean hydrogen, long duration energy storage, green manufacturing, transmission solutions, and much more. This transformation will require financing from governments, but that isn’t enough. Here too there is an urgent need to mobilize the private sector and make the most of catalytic public-private partnerships. Organizations like the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet can support the roll-out of new energy solutions in countries including India, Nigeria, South Africa, and Indonesia. 

Climate technology is on the brink of making a huge difference. We are also seeing breakthrough moments for artificial intelligence and the life sciences. In some cases, these fields are overlapping to produce extremely promising technologies, like handheld ultrasound systems that can automatically check the health of any fetus anywhere, or AI programs that can speed up the breeding of new climate-tolerant seeds.

With well-targeted investments to drive and scale innovation, we could see a dramatic improvement in energy, food, and health security. We need stronger and more effective partnerships; we need to work at far greater scale; and we need to move much, much faster.

Bill Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the founder of Breakthrough Energy. Jonas Gahr Støre is the prime minister of Norway.