- Dec 28 2016
The Paris Agreement on climate action has an Achilles heel: the lack of a buy-in from the financial community. This absent and crucial signatory will need to play a significant role if any ambitious response to climate change has to be achieved.
This is easier said than done. “Sustainability” in financial market jargon has a very different meaning to when it is used in development-speak. In the market, this term largely disregards issues pertaining to employment generation, poverty eradication, inclusive growth and environmental considerations. Instead, it is monomaniacal in enhancing the “basis points” of the returns it generates for the community it serves—with only perfunctory interest in the “ppm (parts per million)” of carbon (mitigated or released) associated with the deployment of finance, or the human development index (HDI) effects of investments.
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The regulatory responsibilities and the fiduciary duties that drive the functioning of this community are focused mostly on protecting the interests of investors and consumers (of financial instruments and banking services) by de-risking the financial ecosystem. Together, these present two specific hurdles, both of which make it difficult for the world of money to serve the ambitions of the Paris Agreement. The first hurdle pertains to geography, more specifically political geography. And the second pertains to democracy, more specifically the politics of decision making within institutions that shape and drive global financial flows.
Together, they have deleterious consequences. For instance, the major chunk of climate finance labelled as such finds it tedious to flow across borders. Thus, it is mostly deployed in the locality of its origin. This tendency is even starker for financial flows from the developed world to the developing and emerging world. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—Climate Policy Initiative (OECD—CPI) study found that “public and private climate finance mobilized by developed countries for developing countries reached $62 billion in 2014”. A separate study by CPI estimated that global flow of climate finance crossed $391 billion in the same year—implying that only about 16% of all flows moved from developed to developing countries.
This represents the most significant “collective action problem” that confronts the global community on the issue of climate change. While there is a near universal recognition that a) climate change is a global commons problem, b) the least developed countries are likely to be most affected, and c) significant infrastructure will need to be developed in emerging and developing countries to improve their low standard of living, the flow of money is (not surprisingly) blind to each of these. It recognizes political boundaries, responds to ascribed (and frequently arbitrary) ecosystem risks within these boundaries and flows to destinations and projects that enhance returns—as it was meant to.
The travails of this constrained flow of capital do not end here. In a discussion paper published by the climate change finance unit within the department of economic affairs at the Union ministry of finance, it has been highlighted that even this modest cross-border flow, which also accounts for pledges and promises made, does not adhere to the “new and additional” criteria. Flows of conventional development finance and infrastructure finance are on occasion reclassified as climate finance. And on other occasions these conventional flows are cannibalized to generate climate finance. The size of the pie remains the same.
Unless we are able to increase the total amount of resources available to cater to both the development priorities and climate-friendly growth needs of emerging and developing economies, we may only be able to build a future that is both green and grim. Everywhere, low-income populations will underwrite a green future for a privileged few.
Additional finance for meaningful climate action may be generated by simultaneously working on three fronts as we move to 2020. Successful climate action will first and foremost be predicated on the domestic regulatory framework within each country. Currently, a slew of regulations, from the flow of international finance into the domestic economy to those related to debt and equity markets, disincentivize capital from investing in climate action. It is imperative for policymakers to get their own house in order and create financial market depth and instruments that allow savings to become investible capital even as they continue to demand a more climate-friendly international financial regime.
Second, there currently exists a vast pool of long-term savings—which can be labelled “lazy money”. According to a recent International Monetary Fund report, much of this lies with pension, insurance and other funds, which have accumulated savings of approximately $100 trillion. Due to lack of political will and appropriate mechanisms, this money is neither invested in the climate agreement objectives nor in the sustainable development goals agreed to at the UN last year. This helps nobody. As a result of its inability to flow across borders, developed-world savers earn sub-par returns. And due to this source of finance remaining outside the climate purview, the investment gap in infrastructure, particularly in developing countries, has continued to increase. It now stands between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion each year. Making this “lazy money” count will be extremely important.
And finally, it is time to bring the big boys controlling banking standards into the tent. The Basel III Accords, designed to create a more resilient international banking system through a suite of capital adequacy, leverage, and liquidity requirements, contribute little to global climate resilience. Given the dependency of emerging economies like India on commercial finance for capital-intensive projects, the Basel Accords need urgent review.
The infrastructure gap, global financial sustainability, and a green future are recognized to be common global problems. But the world cannot continue to solve them on three different tracks. If so, each of them will fail. Only once they are seen as inter-connected can they be addressed effectively.
This commentary originally appeared in Live Mint.