“World leaders have promised everything to everyone. But they are failing….” says Bjørn Lomborg, “…The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are supposed to be delivered by 2030. The goals literally promise everything, like eradicating poverty, hunger and disease; stopping war and climate change, ending corruption, fixing education along with countless other promises. This year, the world is at halftime for its promises, but nowhere near halfway.”
Bjørn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His new book Best Things First brings together 12 new, peer-reviewed studies which highlight how to make the world a better place, in the best [and most cost-effective] way. These studies show that by spending $35 billion a year (the same as the increase in annual global cosmetics spend in the last 2 years), on 12 specific policies, we could save 4.2 million lives a year, and generate over $1.1 trillion in new wealth. For every dollar spent, these policies generate $52 in global benefits.
In this interview, I speak to Bjørn Lomborg, President of the Copenhagen Consensus. We discuss the 12 most impactful solutions to some of our world’s most pressing challenges – saving millions of lives, generating trillions in economic gains, and huge returns in the process.
Q: How do we cost the solutions to our greatest challenges?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: There are two main points to consider. Firstly, it’s essential to understand that discussing solutions without taking their costs into account isn’t beneficial. The issue you’re worried about, the one you’re likely spending most of your time discussing, isn’t the only problem in the world. We tend to lose sight of this because we often perceive our immediate tasks as the most crucial. I acknowledge that, but given the multitude of issues we need to address, the goal shouldn’t be to resolve a single problem in an exhaustive and expensive way. Instead, we should aim to find an effective, low-cost strategy that addresses most of the problem, ensuring we preserve resources for other tasks. This approach is what benefit/cost analysis facilitates.
The underlying principle is something we apply regularly in our private lives and businesses. There are many worthwhile things we can do, all of which require resources. Since we can’t do everything, we have to determine the best value for our extra buck – whether that’s monetary, time, or effort.
In applying this to social issues, it’s essential to remember we aren’t talking about maximising financial gain. That’s an interesting subject, but there’s already a market economy largely focused on that. Our goal is to pinpoint where we can create the most value for humanity per dollar, rupee, or shilling spent.
This isn’t usually something that makes you wealthy, but it does a significant amount of good in three ways: it helps people survive and stay healthy rather than falling ill or dying; it alleviates poverty; and it improves the environment. We try to combine all these factors into a single estimate, similar to how prices function.
Take the example of buying an orange. It has a price tag, but you’re not purchasing it merely because it costs one dollar instead of two. You’re buying it because it embodies various attributes you value: its juiciness, the fact you’re thirsty, and so on. These factors converge to create a perceived value that exceeds its monetary cost. Similarly, we’re striving to amalgamate various factors into a single denominator, money. However, this isn’t because we’re overly focused on money. Instead, it’s because money is a convenient way to represent value.
[Bjørn suggested I include the table of challenges, costs and benefits as outlined in the book with his permission, below]
|Challenge||Lives Saved Each Year |
|Economic Benefits||Total Cost |
|Whereof Financial Cost||BCR|
|Tuberculosis||0.6||$6.2||$1.0 billion enabler cost||46|
|Maternal & Newborn Health||1.4||$40 billion higher growth from demographic dividend||$4.9||$2.1 billion time cost||87|
|Malaria||0.2||$10 billion avoided productivity losses and health expenditure||$1.1||48|
|Nutrition||c. 18,000||$19 billion boost to lifetime income and saved expenditure||$1.4||$0.2billion time cost||18|
|Chronic Disease||1.5||$4.4||$0.2 billion consumer loss |
|Childhood Immunisation||0.5||$1.7||$0.2 billion time cost||101|
|Education||$604 billion annual boost to lifetime income||$9.8||65|
|Agricultural R&D||$184 billion consumer and producer surplus||$5.5||33|
|e-Procurement||$10 billion saved expenditure||$76 million||125|
|Land tenure security||$37 billion higher farm productivity and land value||$1.8||21|
|Trade||$166 billion income increase||$1.7||95|
|Skilled Migration||$49 billion higher productivity & $6 billion demographic gain||$2.8||$2.6billion demographic loss||20|
Q: How can we improve global education?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: Our proposition isn’t about reducing cost, but optimising the marginal extra cost. I should clarify that I am merely voicing the findings of numerous experts in various fields. While I have examined the literature, this analysis is grounded in the work of individuals far more knowledgeable than myself.
Education, as you mentioned, is incredibly crucial. According to one estimate, if an average developing nation had the UK’s primary and secondary education level, it would be approximately 40% wealthier. Imagine the transformational impact of such an instant leap. It’s indisputable that education makes individuals highly productive, making countries richer in the long run.
However, in lower and lower-middle-income countries, while most children are in school, they aren’t learning substantially. A revealing statistic is that 80% of ten-year-olds in these countries struggle with basic comprehension, even though they can technically read individual words. This lack of understanding severely hinders their future productivity. The question then arises – how can we address this?
A World Bank study that examined various strategies found that half of the methods assumed to work had no evidence of effectiveness. For instance, Indonesia doubled its education spending, primarily on reducing class sizes and increasing teacher salaries. Yet, a study dubbed “Double for Nothing” revealed that despite this investment, there was no improvement in educational outcomes.
In agreement with various education economists, we propose two strategies to genuinely enhance education: improving student learning and enhancing teacher effectiveness.
To address the first issue, consider that you have 50 children in a classroom, all at different knowledge levels. A teacher can only cater to the average, leaving some students unchallenged and others overwhelmed. A solution is educational software on tablets. These devices can quickly adapt to a child’s learning level, enhancing their education. If used one hour per day for a school year, a student can achieve three years’ worth of learning in one year. At approximately $22 per student per year, every dollar spent equates to $65 worth of good.
Secondly, structured teacher planning can significantly boost productivity. Many teachers in these countries are barely more knowledgeable than their students. Providing them with structured lesson plans and regular updates helps improve their teaching quality. At only about $8 per teacher per year, this method generates about two years of learning, giving more than a 100-fold return on investment.
Different countries will favour different approaches. The total cost of these strategies is approximately $10 billion – not a negligible sum, but one that would yield benefits exceeding $600 billion in long-term economic growth. Bear in mind, the actual benefits, though far in the future, would likely be even more significant. However, when we discount them back to today’s value, they amount to around $600 billion.
Q: How can we empower trade & migration as tools for growth?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: Trade and migration are separate issues. Let’s start with trade. Classical economics teaches us that if you excel at producing pork and I excel at producing wool, it’s best that we each focus on what we’re best at and then trade. This principle holds true on a global scale: countries generally fare better when they concentrate on what they’re best at and then trade with others. This is not a new concept, but what we often overlook is that this paradigm has a downside.
When global markets open up, if you’re selling t-shirts in the US or Denmark, you’re disadvantaged because countries like Bangladesh produce them more efficiently and cheaply. This has happened with numerous industries, such as ship building. The impact of this reality is seen in areas like the rustbelt in the US. When trade opens up, particularly with countries like China, it’s advantageous for most people in the US, but some individuals lose their jobs or face wage cuts.
This has fuelled arguments advocating caution when it comes to free trade. We’ve conducted what is, to my knowledge, the first study attempting to quantify both the benefits and costs of trade, rather than focusing solely on the benefits, as is the norm in economics. We found that in the wealthy world, while there are significant benefits to increased trade, there are also substantial costs.
To elaborate, we found that a 5% increase in global trade—achievable by various means such as reducing trade barriers or lowering transportation costs—would generate about $8 trillion in benefits for the rich world over the next 15 years. However, the costs would be over $1 trillion. So, for every dollar spent, you get $7 in benefit. But remember, we must address the problems faced by regions like the rustbelt. The resources are there, but awareness is crucial.
For most of the world’s poorer countries, they receive almost all the benefits and incur virtually none of the costs, as they’re not competing with cheaper goods. If anything, they’re more likely to attract businesses, as Bangladesh has done. Running the model, we found a 95 to 1 return on investment from free trade, making it a great investment for both rich countries (with a 7 to 1 return) and, notably, for the poorer half of the world.
Turning to migration, economists often argue that labor is misallocated. We’re generally more productive in wealthy countries, so if workers from poorer countries could move to richer ones, we would boost global productivity. For example, a McDonald’s employee in Somalia earns far less than their counterpart in the US, even when performing the same tasks.
However, the suggestion that we could relocate 2.4 billion people to the West is both politically and economically implausible. Economists can get carried away with their theories, but there are many negative factors, both political and economic. The wage decline for lower-skilled workers in the destination countries, for instance, would likely cause a pushback against mass migration.
We propose that focusing on skilled migration—such as engineers and doctors—might be more viable. People are generally more accepting of highly-skilled immigrants. We recommend increasing skilled migration by just 10% of the existing level. Canada, for example, could take more, while countries skeptical about immigration might take fewer. Given the significant wage differential between a doctor in Somalia and a doctor in the US, the benefits of such a policy could be substantial. We believe that this approach could bring significant benefits and be acceptable to most wealthy countries.
Q: How can we apply this approach to decarbonisation?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: It’s important to note that large-scale climate policy wasn’t part of our study. We aimed to identify where the world could yield a return of $15 or more for each dollar invested. We were seeking the most effective strategies, and there’s consensus that large-scale climate policy doesn’t deliver a $15 return on each dollar. That’s not to say it’s a bad idea, but it doesn’t rank among the top global resource utilisations. Keep in mind, this is a high benchmark. Most companies would be thrilled with a $1.50 return on each dollar, a 50% profit.
However, we did conduct another project, the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate, where we scrutinised the cost-effectiveness of different climate strategies. We sought to determine where each dollar spent on climate change could deliver the most benefits. Our findings revealed that the most productive long-term investment in climate policy is innovation.
The argument is straightforward: immediate decarbonisation is relatively expensive. It often involves measures such as a carbon tax, which has both advantages and considerable disadvantages. Despite the downsides, the benefits outweigh the costs, providing an estimated $2 return on each dollar. It’s a worthwhile strategy that affluent countries should consider. Although it doesn’t compete with the $50 or more return associated with education and similar sectors, it’s a decent policy that merits implementation.
The crux of the issue is the current high cost of decarbonisation. How can we reduce it? The answer lies in innovation. Innovation in green energy—making future decarbonisation more affordable and, ideally, cheaper than fossil fuels—would cause a shift towards these new solutions. It’s significantly cheaper than enforcing immediate decarbonisation. Our research found that innovation yields a $11 return on each dollar, compared to a $2 return from current strategies.
We speculate that innovation will likely expedite the transition to cost-effective green energy technologies, allowing a larger portion of the world to switch at a lower cost. Thus, we should prioritise investment in research and development. Although a $11 return doesn’t reach our $15 benchmark, it’s an effective policy that deserves implementation. It also informs policy discussions, illuminating where resources can be most impactful depending on the focus.
Q: Are our current funding mechanisms we have globally, appropriate for innovative solutions to global challenges?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: Undoubtedly, funding often goes towards issues that have the most emotional appeal, such as causes that involve crying babies, cute animals, or those with the best PR. This isn’t the most efficient way to allocate resources, but it’s what grabs the public’s attention and therefore influences the media headlines. Large and immediate problems like terrorism often overshadow less obvious issues that cause significantly more deaths. We need to urge our politicians to prioritize issues based on their impact, not their emotive appeal. Politicians aim to get re-elected, and emotive issues are more likely to resonate with the public.
However, conducting a cost-benefit analysis can alter this conversation and encourage smarter decisions. Take food production, for instance. One way to feed more people in impoverished areas is to give away food. This approach, used by countries like India, is riddled with inefficiency and corruption, and usually results in the distribution of low-quality food that’s just about palatable.
A more efficient approach would be to improve agricultural yields. This is what the first green revolution in the 1960s, led by Norman Borlaug and others, achieved by creating seeds that doubled the yield of wheat, corn, and rice per acre or hectare. Such innovations have a clear benefit: farmers are incentivised to adopt these new seeds because they can produce more food.
However, this approach has been overlooked for crops like sorghum and cassava, which are prevalent in poorer regions. We need to initiate a second green revolution for these crops, double their productivity, and show farmers that they can achieve higher yields over time.
With an investment of approximately $5.5 billion a year, farmers could significantly increase their production. This increase in supply would lower prices, benefiting both farmers, who produce more, and consumers, who pay less, and could potentially alleviate hunger for 100 million people. This is an affordable and efficient solution for systemic change.
Of course, when faced with an immediate crisis like child hunger, long-term solutions might not seem satisfactory. I understand that, but it’s crucial that we also consider and implement these more sustainable solutions.
Q: How do we bring together civil, commercial and political will to create innovative solutions?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: You’ve pointed out the inherent issue we face globally: we live in a suboptimal world where we often focus on problems that present well visually, often through media. As a result, we are both misinformed and misguided. Despite these shortcomings, we have made significant progress over the past centuries. This system is largely successful, and my goal is to tweak it slightly to enable us to make better decisions, or as I sometimes say, to make fewer wrong ones.
There’s no definitive solution to this problem, apart from ongoing discussions like the one we’re having and continued dissemination of valuable information. To this end, we’ve published op-eds on these solutions in various outlets across 35 countries, including China Daily. The objective is to reach as many people as possible.
Nevertheless, politicians often revert to emotive, immediate issues when they feel compelled to act. What we can do is encourage a slight shift in focus towards smarter, high-impact solutions. For instance, we propose an annual investment of $35 billion. While it’s a large sum for individuals, in a global context, it’s relatively modest. This investment could save 4.2 million lives every year and enrich the world’s poorest half by $1.1 trillion annually. This equates to almost an extra dollar per day for the poorest 4 billion people.
The reason these are not our first actions ties back to your point: they’re not the most glamorous or media-friendly solutions. In essence, we’re advocating for the ‘boring’ problems that often lack immediate media appeal. If they were more captivating, they might have already been addressed.
[Vikas: And is there a moral component to how solutions are structured?]
[Bjørn Lomborg]: We take your point seriously, and we certainly make an effort not to overlook the quality of life. Medical professionals typically use a measurement called Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) to consider this. Let’s take the example of a measles vaccination. Around 80-85% of children already have it, but we aim to increase this to 90-95%. This final push, often referred to as the ‘last mile’, tends to be more costly. However, it will also undoubtedly save a significant number of lives.
You’re asking whether the lives saved will be better off. Fundamentally, we believe they will. Yes, the children who survive will still face a host of challenges; they may receive subpar education, lack access to clean water and sanitation, or even contract diseases such as Malaria or Tuberculosis. We aren’t assuming these saved lives will be suddenly transformed into an idyllic existence. We expect them to live lives parallel to their peers, facing the same struggles.
Despite these hardships, their lives have inherent value. Consider this: if their future is so bleak, would they choose to end their lives when they come of age and gain autonomy? The vast majority would not. Despite the hardships they face, many would do everything possible to preserve their lives. We take all these considerations into account, and conclude that the lives saved are indeed valuable and worth living.
Q: What are some of the most profound opportunities around health?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: …I’d like to bring our attention to health issues, specifically those that often don’t receive as much attention, like tuberculosis and malaria. These are significant problems that we need to address, and fortunately, there are incredibly cost-effective ways to do so.
Interestingly, when we look beyond infectious diseases, it’s surprising to find that a large number of people, especially in the poorer half of the world, are succumbing to chronic illnesses like cancer and heart disease. Yet, when it comes to philanthropy, donations often align with personal experiences, such as a loved one’s cause of death. So you might see a large amount donated to a cancer hospital.
But let’s consider the fact that while cancer and heart disease have similar death rates, cancer is significantly more difficult and expensive to tackle. Therefore, our argument is that initial funding should prioritise easily treatable heart diseases, with a particular focus on managing hypertension. We’ve discovered cost-effective ways to ensure people receive treatment and regular check-ups. This is one of the most efficient methods to reduce mortality rates. With a minimal investment, we can save about 1.5 million lives. Granted, we’re generally extending lives by 6 to 7 years, as we’re often dealing with older individuals, but it’s a substantial return on investment nonetheless.
In conclusion, there are numerous important and interesting areas to explore, and I hope our conversation has piqued your interest in this multi-faceted table of issues.
Q: What is the one solution you would like to most deploy?
[Bjørn Lomborg]: Sure, I’d like to clarify that it feels a bit unfair for me to choose from these twelve key issues. It’s akin to a parent picking a favourite child. Nonetheless, I will address your question shortly. One of our aims is not to rank these twelve issues, because we understand that different people and different societies have their unique preferences and priorities. Certain issues might be more pertinent in one country than another, and certain policymakers might be driven by personal experiences. We respect these nuances.
Consider our approach like dining at a restaurant. Often, you’re handed a menu filled with numerous dishes, but without prices or portion sizes, making it hard to make an informed decision. What we aim to do is provide the ‘prices and sizes’ for the societal ‘menu’. We don’t intend to insist everyone order the spinach because it’s cheap and nutritious. We believe in personal choice, and that’s why we present these twelve options, allowing for selection based on individual preferences.
Now, to answer your original question, if I were forced to select just one, I would likely choose education. Not for clichéd reasons, but because, under your conditions, education presents the highest return on investment. It’s one of the costliest policies but also one that has a very high benefit-to-cost ratio. Therefore, if we’re looking at the net biggest benefit for the world, education would likely top the list.
However, the ideal approach would be to present these twelve options to the policymakers who hold the financial resources. It should be their decision. After all, they’re the ones with the money, not me.