The World Bank's gross hypocrisy on climate change

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The World Bank, which says emissions must be cut quickly to prevent catastrophic global warming, is a major investor in fossil fuel projects that are turning the heat up.

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The World Bank, which says emissions must be cut quickly to prevent catastrophic global warming, is a major investor in fossil fuel projects that are turning the heat up.

by Simon Butler
Green Left Weekly 

The World Bank delivered a brutal warning about the dangers of runaway climate change and called for rapid action to cut greenhouse gas emissions in a recent report. But don’t expect the bank to take its own advice.

The bank released its Turn Down the Heat (pdf) report on climate change on November 18. Subtitled “Why a 4 degree warmer world must be avoided,” the report said the world is headed for a 4°C average temperature rise by the end of the century, and possibly as soon as 2060.

On today’s trends, a 4°C world is almost certain — even if all nations were to meet their current targets to cut emissions. That is, the existing pledges to cut emissions made at recent international climate talks are not enough to make a difference.

The report makes clear that a 4°C world would be a global calamity. The World Bank said a 4°C temperature rise would lead to average summer temperatures about 6°C higher in North Africa, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and North America.

The higher temperatures will also mean “a dramatic increase in the intensity and frequency of high temperature extremes.” These extremes, such the unprecedented Russian heatwave of 2010, would become “the new normal summer.” The Russian heatwave caused more than 10,000 deaths and wiped close to $15 billion off the country’s GDP.

The big rise in CO2 levels would also cause a 150% rise in ocean acidification by 2100, something probably “unparalleled in Earth’s history.” This would spell the end for the world’s coral reefs but also wipe out global fish stocks, which the WWF says are due to collapse anyway by mid-century from overfishing. Today, about 1 billion people worldwide rely on fish as their main protein source.

Sea level rise will be an enduring crisis in a 4 degree world. The World Bank estimates sea levels would rise by up to a metre by 2100. But even a 2°C temperature rise could cause a 4 metre sea level rise by 2300. In 2010, the World Ocean Review estimated that “more than 200 million people live on coastlines less than 5 metres above sea level.” It said that figure will rise to at least 400 million by 2100.

A 4°C temperature rise would also signify a species extinction crisis, “surpassing habitat destruction as the greatest threat to biodiversity.”

The report noted new research rules out hopes that a warmer world could lead to greater food production. Instead, the “results suggest instead a rapidly rising risk of crop yield reductions as the world warms.”

The World Bank report also warned that these predictions very likely understate the dangers. Climate change does not affect the planet in a linear, straightforward way. Its impacts are nonlinear — the gradual build up of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can cause abrupt changes to the Earth’s ecosystems.

This year’s summer Arctic ice melt, in which more than 2 million square kilometres of sea ice vanished, is an example of nonlinear climate change in action. In turn, the melting of the Arctic ice opens the door to the passing of other climate tipping points, such as the melting of the Greenland ice sheet or the release of huge reserves of methane frozen on the Arctic seabed.

The World Bank said as global warming approaches and passes 2°C of warming, “the risk of crossing thresholds of nonlinear tipping elements in the Earth system, with abrupt climate change impacts and unprecedented high-temperature climate regimes, increases.”

It said one of these critical tipping points was “the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet,” which would lead to “more rapid sea-level rise than projected in this analysis.”

Another tipping point would be a “large-scale Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy production, and livelihoods in an almost continental scale,” which would add “substantially to 21st-century global warming.”

The Turn Down the Heat report concluded: “The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur — the heat must be turned down.” Yet strangely, it offered no suggestions or proposals for how this could be done, other than a call for “early, cooperative, international actions.”

In practice, World Bank investments in fossil fuels around the world are turning the heat up.

For example, the bank is funding a new brown coal-fired plant in Kosovo. Brown coal is the most polluting fossil fuel.

In 2010, the World Bank loaned $3.75 billion to build a giant 4.8 gigawatt coal-fired power plant — one of world’s biggest — in South Africa. That year, the Bank Information Centre said the World Bank’s funding of coal hit “a record high of $4.4 billion.”

NGO Christian Aid said the bank’s funding of coal had increased 40-fold over the previous 5 years.

A July report by the NGO coalition Jubilee South Asia Pacific Movement on Debt and Development said the World Bank was “tainted by a history of financing projects that produce or heavily use fossil fuels.” The bank has financed 745 such projects over 61 years in the Asia Pacific region, at a cost of $70 billion. About $20 billion of this was invested in the past 10 years.

Last month, the World Bank announced it would provide insurance for a new project in North Africa: a huge expansion of Egypt’s oil and gas sector.

The bank is also spending billions helping agribusinesses buy up farmland across the global South. Because this replaces climate-friendly small scale farming with fossil fuel-reliant industrial agriculture, the bank is helping create new sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Given its continued financing of polluting industries, there is no reason to think “the World Bank has found common cause with Greenpeace,” as The Guardian reporter John Vidal said on November 25.

Rather than an indication it will change its ways, the bank’s Turn Down the Heat report has more to do with a public relations drive in the context of the new round of United Nations climate talks, which began in Doha, Qatar, on November 26.

Two years ago, the Cancun UN climate conference appointed the World Bank as “interim trustee” of the multi-billion dollar Green Climate Fund, meant to help fund sustainable, low emissions development — especially in the global South. The details of the fund will come under higher-than-usual scrutiny during the conference.

A permanent trustee for the fund won’t be appointed until 2015, but there is little doubt that the World Bank will put its hand out for the prize. To do this smoothly, it needs to bolster its green credentials to counter the opposition of climate action groups worldwide.

In 2010, more than 90 NGOs and activist groups sent an open letter to UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, protesting the World Bank’s role in the Green Climate Fund. The groups said:

“In spite of the climate and economic crises, the World Bank continues to finance fossil fuel projects at an alarming rate, promote false solutions to the climate crisis, and use funding instruments that increase the indebtedness of developing countries.

“Thus, the World Bank is not suited to advise in the design of a fund that must ensure fair and effective long-term financing based on the principles of environmental integrity, equity, sustainable development, and democracy.”


  • Simon Butler criticizes the World Bank for offering no suggestions or proposals for how the heat could be turned down, “other than a call for early, cooperative, international actions.”

    I’m no fan of the World Bank, and Simon has done a credible job of showing where the Bank has failed to walk the talk. But climate change is a “wicked problem” defying easy solutions, especially from just one organization. In this context, I found the Bank’s call for “early, cooperative, international actions” perfectly reasonable.

    One thing I learned as a federal government bureaucrat was not to criticize a proposal unless you had some ideas of your own that addressed the shortcomings of the plan on the table. So, in a follow-up piece, perhaps Simon could outline his suggestions or proposals to address this wicked climate crisis problem. Or maybe he has already done that and somebody could send me the link.

    Speaking of wicked problems, check out this post: “Welcome to the age of ‘wicked’ problems. Or, why fighting climate change is so difficult”