In recent weeks, several members of the Glasgow Financial Alliance on Net Zero — a group of 450 financial institutions — have quit over concerns about the cost of delivering on their climate commitments. In dropping out, they have given the lie to the notion that private financial institutions can lead the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. What the transition really needs is more ambitious states that will go beyond market-fixing to become market shapers.
The market-led approach is rooted in the belief that private financial institutions allocate capital more effectively than anyone else. The implication is that states should refrain from “picking winners” or “distorting” market competition and confine themselves to “de-risking” green opportunities to make them more appealing to mainstream investors.
But modern economic history tells a different story. In many places and on many occasions, it is public actors that have taken the lead in shaping and creating markets that then deliver benefits for both the private sector and society more broadly. Many major technological breakthroughs that we now take for granted happened only because public entities made investments that the private sector found too risky.
The real story is thus quite different from the prevailing myth. We owe many economic successes not to public actors that got out of the way, but to an “entrepreneurial state” that took the lead. Moreover, the market-led approach is at odds to deliver a just global green transition in which the costs and risks are shared fairly within and between countries. “De-risking” assumes a strategy that socialises costs and privatises profits.
Private finance still has a crucial role to play, of course. But only the public sector can mobilise and coordinate investment on the scale required to decarbonise the global economy. The question, then, is what this approach should include.
First, states should embrace their roles as “investors of first resort”, rather than waiting to step in only as “lenders of last resort”. Around the world, public financial institutions deploy many billions of dollars each year and, owing to their distinct design and governance structures, they can supply the kind of long-term, patient and mission-oriented finance that the private sector is often unwilling to provide.
Second, we must rethink the relationship between the public and private sector, especially when it comes to sharing risks and rewards. When public entities take risks to achieve societal goals, the private sector should not appropriate the financial rewards.
For example, if a government is funding major renewable-energy projects and other green investments, it could take an equity stake in them. Returns can also be socialised by assigning a proportion of intellectual property rights to the state, allowing profits to be re-invested in new green projects. Importantly, firms benefiting from public finance should be subject to conditions that align their business activities with green industrial-policy objectives, fair labour practices and other priorities.
Third, to direct private investment to green activities, and to curtail investment in harmful ones, states must strengthen the rules governing financial markets. Such a regime could include central banks introducing allocative green credit policies, and regulators strengthening rules and standards to prevent greenwashing and regulatory arbitrage.
Fourth, policymakers should recognise that debt finance is not necessarily a substitute for direct fiscal spending. Investments in climate justice and reforestation will yield far-reaching returns, but not necessarily of the kind that can be used to repay a loan.
Finally, more must be done to provide sufficient fiscal space for countries in the Global South to pursue their own domestic decarbonisation and adaptation agendas. Many countries are facing significant debt overhangs. It is now imperative that debtor countries help to reduce these burdens through debt write-offs, debt restructuring, loss-and-damage compensation or by replacing climate loans with climate grants.
To limit catastrophic global warming, the funding for climate mitigation and adaptation must be scaled up dramatically. But the quality of the financing also matters. Rather than holding out hope that private financial institutions will translate their highly publicised trillion-dollar net-zero pledges into credible, accountable action, we should demand that states assume their proper role. That means mobilising and directing finance toward clear and ambitious climate goals and shaping financial markets to align with those goals. Closing the financing gap requires a radical redesign of the financial architecture and a substantive shift in financial flows. Neither will happen without policy interventions. ©2022 Project Syndicate
Mariana Mazzucato, Founding Director of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, is Chair of the World Health Organization’s Council on the Economics of Health for All.