Mia Mottley: the ‘fearless’ leader pushing a global settlement for the climate frontlines

The first female prime minister of Barbados is elevating wonky discussions on the future of global finance to the highest political level

Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley addresses world leaders at the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow (Photo: UN Climate Change/ Kiara Worth/ Flickr )


The prime minister of one of the smallest and most climate vulnerable countries on Earth is on a mission to make the international financial system deliver for those on the frontline of the climate crisis.  

Barbados’ prime minister Mia Amor Mottley made her mark on the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow with a rip-roaring speech telling the leaders of the world’s largest economies to “try harder” to avert catastrophic climate change. A 2C overheated world “is a death sentence,” she said.

The first female leader of her country, Mottley is cementing Barbados’ 1966 independence from Britain with a constitutional change to drop Queen Elizabeth as head of state and become a republic.

“Our world stands at a fork in the road; one no less significant than when the United Nations was formed in 1945. But then the majority of countries here did not exist, we exist now. The difference is we want to exist a 100 years from now,” she said.

The survival of small island states like Barbados hinges on unlocking the finance needed to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C – the Paris Agreement’s most ambitious goal. Failure to do so “is measured in lives and livelihoods in our community,” she said in Glasgow.

But her impact on the climate conference went beyond the usual pleas for ambition and support. Armed with concrete proposals, Mottley elevated wonky discussions about the global finance system to the highest political level.

Mottley’s popularity started at home. Elected prime minister of Barbados in 2018, she won over 70% of the popular vote and her Labour Party took all 30 seats in parliament.

Her advocacy soon went beyond the island’s shores, speaking up for the Caribbean and small island developing states around the world.

“Anyone who has followed her or who knows her will understand that if she picks up an issue, such as the finance question, she will follow it to its conclusion fearlessly,” Bill Hare, CEO of Climate Analytics and longtime climate advisor to Caribbean states, told Climate Home News.

“She is the real deal,” said Rachel Kyte, who spent years at the World Bank and the UN before becoming dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Kyte described Mottley as one of the most “creative” and “charismatic” leaders on the issue of climate finance.

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Mottley has been on a mission to seek a new financial settlement for addressing climate change: that those most responsible should pay for those on the frontline.

During the coronavirus pandemic, she championed a call for green debt relief to support debt-laden small island states such as Barbados ineligible for the cheap borrowing enjoyed by rich nations and the concessional financing reserved to low-income countries.

This, she told the UK Cop26 host, requires “new flexible development finance instruments which will support responsible, resilient and inclusive growth.”

In Glasgow, she set out what those new financial instruments could look like.

One of them should address the loss and damages already caused by extreme weather events, droughts, floods and cyclones, an issue fiercely debated at Cop26.

Developing countries that had pushed for the the creation of a loss and damage facility left Glasgow with only “a dialogue” to talk about future funding arrangements.

A loss and damage fund is “imperative”, Mottley told the conference, saying that insurance won’t cut it against escalating impacts.

In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Dominica inflicting a staggering 226% GDP loss to the island. “What premium would they have to pay to protect them from that?” she asked. 

Instead, she proposed that 1% of revenues from the sale of fossil fuels in countries that contributed most to climate change go into a loss and damage fund. This, she said, would generate over $70bn per year.

Access to the fund would be limited to countries that had suffered a climate-related disaster and incurred losses of more than 5% of their economy.

But the proposal that got her the most attention in Glasgow was for scaling up finance to carbon-cutting projects in the developing world.

The International Monetary Fund has greenlighted the injection of a record $650 billion of reserve assets, known as special drawing rights (SDRs), into the global economy to help countries respond to the Covid-19 crisis.

By default, SDRs are allocated to countries proportionally to the size of their economy, which means richer nations receive most of the support. But wealthy nations in the G20 have agreed to re-allocate some of the money to poorer nations.

One of the vehicles being used to do so is a $50bn facility, known as the Resilience and Sustainability Trust, created by the IMF to boost vulnerable nations’ climate resilience. The IMF said it would reveal details of the facility by its spring meeting in April.

But to be transformational this decade, the world’s needs the financial injection to respond to the pandemic every year, she explained. That, she said, “is the real gap that we need to close,” she said.

On the podium of Cop26, she called for an additional $500bn worth of SDRs to be issued every year for 20 years to unlock the carbon-cutting investments needed to limit heating to 1.5C.

The brains behind the proposal is Avinash Persaud, a fellow Barbadian who met Mottley when she was studying law at the London School of Economics.

Persaud, now an emeritus professor at Gresham College, London, serves as her special envoy for investment and financial services.

“The whole framework of [the] Paris [Agreement]… is potentially fundamentally flawed in being based around national pledges. Because these are pledges without any financing plan,” he told Climate Home. “We have a $50 trillion scale of a problem and we’re using a village hall budget to try and address it. That’s not going to work.”

The annual issuance of $500bn SDRs could provide the basis for financing these plans at scale by lowering the cost of borrowing to rates enjoyed by richer nations and therefore incentivising carbon-cutting investments in developing countries and emerging economies, Persaud said.

The money would be redistributed from rich nations to a trust that would allow the private sector to bid for it. Projects with the highest rates of emissions reductions per $1 invested would be rewarded.

Kevin Gallagher, professor of Global Development Policy at Boston University and a champion for green debt relief, told Climate Home Cop26 “was abuzz with the proposal”.

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The issuance of SDRs requires approval from the US, the IMF’s largest shareholder but unlike other sources of finance, how the money is then used doesn’t require approval at the domestic level.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel – we’ve just done it and can do it again and every year,” said Gallagher.

While rich nations have failed to mobilise a long-overdue $100bn in climate finance for developing countries in 2020, that is the symbolic heart of a much bigger issue – the need to shift trillions into cleaning up the global economy.

SDRs “could mobilise orders of magnitude more finance than the climate regime has been able to,” Gallagher added. “It’s analogous to what we do in advanced economies: central banks inject money into the economy to get it going. The IMF is effectively a big central bank for the world.”

But not everyone is thrilled to bolster the role of the IMF, which has a record of imposing steep austerity measures as a condition for accessing its support.

Daniela Gabor, an associate professor in economics at the University of the West of England, told Climate Home that by allowing private capital to bid for the money the proposal “leaves the design of the transition and decarbonisation strategies completely in the hands of private finance”.

This she said risks undermining governments’ role in setting out priorities, coordinating investments and building institutional capacity to manage the transition. “Where are the governments and states from countries in the global south in this decision-making process?” she asked.

Laggards reject Glasgow pact’s 2022 call for new climate plans

Despite some scepticism, Mottley’s proposal found a home in the Glasgow pact. The final outcome of the Cop26 talks specifically refers to the use of SDRs to scale up climate finance for the first time in a decision from the UN Climate Change.

Days after making the speech, she discussed the proposal with EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans during a visit to Brussels, who supported the idea.

“If we are really to be on track for the 1.5C we will need a lot more financial firepower, and I salute the creativity of people like prime minister Mia Mottley,” he told Cop26 diplomats.

Whether there is broader political appetite from countries to take the idea further is the key question, said Kyte.

The UK, which remains in the Cop presidency seat until the next talks, could this move agenda on, she said. In Europe, Italy is presiding over the G20 group of major economies and could work to ensure the issue remains on the agenda for next year.

For Gabor, there is “no chance in hell” the proposal will fly among wealthy nations, as it took difficult and lengthy negotiations for the IMF to issue a one-off liquidity injection in response to the pandemic

But Mottley’s team is optimistic. “This is a good industrial strategy” for wealthy countries, Persaud said, explaining that rich countries’ companies and investors are likely to stand as the biggest beneficiaries of being able to cheaply develop carbon-cutting projects in developing countries.

“Effectively, we’re saying to their companies, their investors, and their fund managers, here’s a big slug of demand for you to save the world at the least cost for the rich countries. I think this is actually a compelling economic case, investment case, political case,” he said.

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