Sunday, January 26, 2014

Is China making real progress in moving to a Green Economy?

A couple sharing a bicycle ride past ele
Cycling in Beijing. There are reasons and motivation to be hopeful about China's progress for a greener economy. Photograph: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Times are tough, but I predict 2014 is going to be a vintage year for sustainability-focused policymakers.

Global investment in clean energy was down last year at $254bn (£153bn) from a high of $317.9bn of 2011, with Europe leading the downward charge with a year-on-year decline of 41%.
These poor statistics may not reflect future trends. Japanese as well as emerging market investments in renewables have increased and remained stable respectively. However, they reinforce the view that financial markets are not doing their job, allocating capital in ways that will support a sustainable global economy over the long term.

Without reshaping the financial system, there is little prospect of private capital driving the transition to a sustainable economy. More likely is that it will reinforce the problem by continuing to flow to carbon and natural resource intense investments.

Against all the odds, and despite the recent evidence of how difficult it is to move forward any substantive financial regulatory agenda, I am optimistic that we can green the financial system, and that 2014 can be a year where significant progress is made.
My optimism is largely through the lens of two initiatives in which I am involved. The first concerns growing policy interest in China as to whether and how its game-changing financial market reform process can be made greener.

Last week in Beijing, the Financial Research Institute of the influential Development Research Center of the State Council, together with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, released the report of an initial exploration on Greening China's Financial System (PDF). The report, which I co-authored, makes the case for financial policy and regulatory action in ensuring that financial institutions correctly value climate and broader green risks, and that financial regulators recognise their role in ensuring that financial markets fulfil their underlying purpose of investing in the long-term health of the real economy.

China's interest in such an agenda, along with a growing number of other emerging nations, carries no mystery. The country's success depends on massive investment in developing a less toxic, more viable economy, covering carbon but more immediately addressing water scarcity and quality, air pollution and food safety.

China's financial regulators are very attuned to high-level policy signals, and so consider real economy issues more readily than most of their OECD counterparts. The relevant policy memo simply says the problem has to be fixed quickly and that China can derive major economic benefits along the way.
The country's financial system is very much still in development, and China does not wish to emulate the problems of Wall Street and the City. Actors in China's financial markets have neither the political muscle, nor necessarily the will, to overcome strong policy channelling by the Chinese government.
My second source of optimism derives from the launch on Wednesday in Geneva of an international inquiry into policy options for advancing a sustainable financial system. Alongside Nick Robins, currently head of the HSBC Climate Change Centre, I am to be part of the inquiry's leadership team. The inquiry, championed by UNEP as part of its green economy focus and leveraging the strengths of the UNEP Finance Initiative, aims to map existing experimentation in green financial regulation, catalyse and collaborate with policy research partners, and link a growing number of complementary initiatives in green and sustainable finance.

Optimism about advancing financial market reform may seem pollyannaish in the light of the complex political economy that has made progress so difficult. Yet each quantum change has its historical moment, that peculiar confluence of circumstances that makes change possible if not inevitable.

That moment may well have arrived for the financial system, made possible in particular by its recent track record, the leadership of emerging nations, the start of the world's first inquiry into how to make green the financial markets, and of course the increasingly obvious green imperative.