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Multilaterals must lend more to fight climate change
Different climate financing challenges call for different financing methods, and when it comes to building resilience in the developing world, multilateral development banks must take the lead. But to be effective, they and their shareholders must remove the shackles that have been holding them back
Avinash D. Persaud and Chris Humphrey 10 Oct 2023

The world is confronting its biggest threat with one arm tied behind its back. Although the increasingly devastating effects of the climate crisis are becoming more apparent with each passing year, multilateral development banks (MDBs) are still playing only a marginal role in the global response. The annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on October 9-15 are a crucial opportunity to change course.

Recent events in Libya, Pakistan and the Horn of Africa confirm a hard, tragic truth: climate disasters are now firmly intertwined with development. The global system of AAA-rated MDBs – with the World Bank at its centre – should be at the heart of financing climate-change mitigation and adaptation efforts in the developing world. Yet they are not stepping up.

Total MDB lending hovers around US$100 billion per year, and, as the recent report of the G20 Independent Expert Group on MDBs points out, net transfer from MDBs to developing countries is currently close to zero, or even turning negative, once debt repayments are factored in. Compare that to the estimate by the Independent High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance that we need an additional US$2.4 trillion per year for climate and development finance.

More initiatives are needed to unblock the flow of private capital to green projects in developing countries. To that end, the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris this summer introduced a proposal for a partial foreign-exchange guarantee to protect investors more cheaply from losses associated with volatile exchange rate fluctuations in developing countries. That is a critical step forward. But many categories of climate investment – including resilient infrastructure (such as stronger sea-level and flood defences) and climate-resilient health and education systems – do not generate enough revenue to attract private-sector players.

Different climate-financing needs call for different financing methods, which is why Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s Bridgetown Initiative advocates addressing climate finance as a holistic global system. When it comes to building resilience in developing countries, MDBs must take the lead.

We already know the scale of the adaptation finance gap. In its widely discussed November 2022 report, the Independent High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance – led by Vera Songwe, Nicholas Stern and Amar Bhattacharya – estimated that an extra US$200 billion of annual MDB spending is needed to protect lives and livelihoods from climate change across the developing world.

We also know how to fill this gap with minimal additional capital from governments. First, extrapolating from a recent analysis published by the Rockefeller Foundation, MDBs could be lending US$75 billion more per year with their existing capital and credit rating if they apply the recent recommendations of the G20’s Independent Review of MDB Capital Adequacy Frameworks. Key measures include increasing the amount MDBs can lend with existing capital while maintaining credit quality; extracting more value from callable capital (an under-used shareholder guarantee that is already on the books at all MDBs); and standardizing how the credit-rating agencies and MDBs treat capital.

Second, MDBs could boost annual lending by another US$25 billion if shareholders extended guarantees to de-risk a portfolio of climate-related MDB loans. In practice, such guarantees require few dollars, because the likelihood of an AAA-rated lender’s entire portfolio going underwater is low. And MDBs already rank higher than anyone else when it comes to recovering troubled loans. The budgetary impact for shareholders is nominal.

There is no better way to leverage a dollar. The Education Commission, chaired by former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, an early proponent of guarantees, argues that it takes only US$1 of backing to cover a loan portfolio of US$27. And last month, at the New Delhi G20 Summit, US secretary of the treasury Janet Yellen proposed a similar (albeit more modest) approach.

Finally, an additional US$100 billion of annual lending could be mobilized if MDB shareholders put up just US$10 billion more per year for the next ten years, as recently proposed by the G20 Independent Expert Group on MDBs, chaired by N.K. Singh and Lawrence H. Summers. Assuming shareholding roughly similar to the World Bank, annual contributions across the entire MDB system would amount to approximately US$400 million each from Britain and France, US$450 million from Germany, US$600 million from China, and US$1.6 billion from the United States.

To put these numbers in perspective, consider that the US spent US$113 billion (with ample justification) supporting Ukraine in 2022. That is almost 100 times more than what it would need to contribute to help transform development and climate finance. Likewise, Britain and Canada have also spent a high multiple of their potential MDB contributions on military aid.

With delegations heading to the World Bank gathering in Marrakesh, we already know what needs to be done. It should not take another summer of record-breaking heat, floods, droughts, and climate-related deaths to shake us from our complacency and inaction. But only the MDBs’ main shareholders can help developing countries realize their ambitions, by lifting annual lending by the US$200 billion that is needed.

Archimedes famously said, “Give me a lever long enough, and I can move the world.” The system of AAA-rated MDBs with preferred-creditor status is that lever. It makes no sense not to use it.

Avinash D. Persaud is a special climate envoy to Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley and a member of the Independent High-Level Expert Group on Climate Finance; and Chris Humphrey is a senior researcher at ODI and a former member of the G20 Independent Panel on MDB Capital Adequacy Frameworks.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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