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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.