What’s at stake for climate at the World Bank’s spring meeting?

The World Bank controls tens of billions of dollars which can make a real difference in the fight against climate change. A coalition of nations is pushing for green reforms.

The World Bank's spring meeting in 2013 (Photo credit: Ryan Rayburn/World Bank)


Thanks to the efforts of Barbados’s prime minister Mia Mottley and her “Bridgetown Agenda”, the climate movement has shifted its focus toward the World Bank and the tens of billions of dollars it controls.

As the leader of an island nation, battered by hurricanes and facing rising sea levels, Mottley wants the bank to take the lead in mobilising the over $1 trillion a year developing countries will need by 2030 to meet their climate investment needs.

Her campaign has picked up some powerful allies. The US is the bank’s host, its biggest shareholder and effectively picked its next president Ajay Banga. They have offered support to at least the principles of Mottley’s agenda, calling alongside Germany for “fundamental reform”.

In response to this pressure, the World Bank’s management ordered its staff to draw up an “evolution roadmap”. The 20-page document says the bank will “broaden” beyond its current “twin goals” of ending extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity.

Its new mission “will emphasize the importance of sustainability and resilience to reflect more clearly that our mission includes global public goods (GPGs), such as climate change”.

This was followed last week by a 37-page report, which offered more detail and will be debated by governments and bank officials at the development committee of the bank’s spring meeting next Wednesday. The bank’s mission is likely to be officially updated.

Take more risks

But what does that mean in practice? The only real change the bank has proposed so far is to lower the equity-to-loan ratio of its biggest subsidiary bank (IBRD) from 20% to 19%.

This would allow the IBRD to lend $4 billion more a year, much of which would be spent on climate projects.

Reformers including the German government called it a “first step” but said the ratio should be lower, freeing up more money.

This will be debated by the bank’s executive directors, a group of 25 government appointees from around the world, at next week’s spring meeting.

The bank’s development committee, which is leading the reform, said the proposal balances the ambition to spend more with the need for the bank to retain its top-tier AAA credit rating.

The World Bank raises most of the funding its needs to operate by borrowing on international bond markets. Investors’ confidence is therefore paramount.

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Reformers like Barbados’s Avinash Persaud say the bank can go further while still retaining its credit rating, which allows it to borrow, and therefore lend, money cheaply.

Next week’s meeting is likely to approve the 19% change. Reformers are hoping it will agree to revisit that figure again at the World Bank’s annual gathering in October.

A related proposal is to scrap the IBRD’s statutory lending limit, a rule drawn up when the bank was set up in 1944 which limits the amount it can lend.

Get more backing

The World Bank’s credit rating is set by agencies like Moody’s, S&P and Fitch. Their analysts look at the bank’s finances and decide what rating to give it.

Lowering the equity-to-loan ratio means taking on more risk. Something that could worry the analysts.

So the bank is seeking to reassure them by drawing attention to governments’ pledge to back the bank if it ever gets into trouble. These promises are known as the bank’s “callable capital”.

The bank says it will work on options for making better use of its callable capital “in the coming months”, while speaking to governments and rating agencies.

Get more money

But these changes can only get the bank so far. To move the big bucks, the bank needs more money to begin with.

It can get this by charging developing countries more to borrow. But, with many of the world’s poorest countries already in a lot of debt, the bank’s development committee says “there is no appetite for this”.

So, the bank says it needs more money from the wealthy governments among its shareholders through a “capital increase”.

Without this, it says, the change to the lending ratio and other measures “will not be enough relative to the vast needs of client countries”.

But wealthy governments have recently been loath to up their contributions, even as Covid-19, the climate crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine push up the needs.

As a result, World Bank predicts its support will start to fall in the July 2023 to July 2024 fiscal year.

The bank “will need substantial additional financial capacity to respond to a more ambitious, updated mission”, its evolution roadmap says.

Reformers ideas

More radical ideas have not been put on next week’s agenda by the bank. Financing projects, like solar farms, in developing countries is often more expensive than doing so in a richer nation.

One reason among many is that lenders are worried that swings in currency exchange rates in many developing countries will threaten the bank’s ability to get paid back. To compensate for this perceived added risk, banks charge higher interest rates to borrowers.

Mottley’s adviser Avinash Persaud is pushing for a new fund to hedge against currency risk for green projects, providing protection for swings in the value of a local currency. He wants to call it a Just Green Transition, Financing Investment Trust (JGT-FIT).

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According to a briefing seen by Climate Home, the idea is for this to be a focused agency sitting in the middle of a network of multilateral development banks like the World Bank.

He estimates that $14 billion would be required to hedge for the returns of half the annual investment developing countries need. Before that, he says, a pilot using $5 billion could prove the idea works.

This would need more than just the World Bank’s backing – but an endorsement from the bank or any of its shareholders next week would propel it up the agenda.

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