World Bank moves to limit funding for coal generation

The Bank has shifted away from coal power, and is trying to encourage developing nations to do the same.

The World Bank has announced a major repositioning of how it funds energy projects in developing nations, promising to massively scale back its support for coal-powered generation. In a paper out this week, the group confirms that it will provide financial support for greenfield coal power "only in rare circumstances." It continues:

Considerations such as meeting basic energy needs in countries with no feasible alternatives to coal and a lack of financing for coal power would define such rare cases.

At the same time, the bank will support interventions aimed at reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with coal plants, saying that:

Efficiency improvements at existing plants are among the most cost-effective means of reducing local and global environmental impacts of coal.

The topic of emissions in developing nations is a tricky one. On the one hand, many such countries see clean power as an unaffordable luxury, and resent the fact that the global north was able to develop using polluting industry and only then develop an environmental conscience. On the other, even though developed nations contribute a disproportionate chunk of global emissions, their per capita contributions are declining (or rather, increasing at a slower rate) and developing nations' just keep on climbing.

Against that background, an obvious first step is for international development programmes to stop actively helping developing nations develop polluting technologies instead of renewable ones. And when the World Bank makes a decision to change its focus, there's some heft to it: the group financed over $50bn worth of infrastructure projects last year.

That said, in practice, the change might not mean much. The Washington Post's Brad Plumer points out that it's already three years since the Bank's last big funding of a coal project, when it loaned $3bn to South Africa to build a plant near Johannesburg.

But the new president of the Bank, Jim Yong Kim, warns that there'll be at least one difficult choice quite soon. Plumer writes:

The one major test of the new policy will come in Kosovo,which wants to build a new 600-megawatt plant fired by lignite coal, a particularly carbon-intensive fuel. The bank needs to decide whether to offer loan guarantees, and Kim has signaled before that Kosovo may be an exception to the coal ban. “Climate change and the coal issue is one thing,” hesaid in April, “but the humanitarian issue is another, and we cannot turn our backs on the people of Kosovo who face freezing to death if we don’t move in.”

The move follows the Obama administration's plan to do the same thing. In June, the president said that he was "calling for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity", which mainly affected the US Export-Import Bank, an institution which loans money to foreign nations looking to buy infrastructure from American companies.

All said and done, though, the fact that the biggest recent shifts against fossil-fuel generation are limits on foreign contribution is telling. When countries start changing their own behaviour – rather than just attempting to change other's – is when we'll know they are really serious about cutting emissions. And they need to be really serious really soon, because time is running out.

The World Bank. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation