“Finance ministers have not always been green,” said Ángel Gurría, the outgoing secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, reflecting on his 15 years in charge of the club of wealthier nations. “But today, if you are not green, it probably means you died and no one told you.”
The OECD occupies a powerful position, advising countries on economic policy and judging them on their performance, judgments that can sway investors and affect a country’s economy. Gurría said when he took office in 2006 that environment ministers tended to be left out of important decision-making by their governments, while the finance ministers who ruled the roost spurned green concerns. “Fifteen years ago, any meeting of environment ministers was like group therapy. They used to feel so lonely, they would tell each other stories so they would not feel so much alone.”
Today, international institutions that have the power to influence finance ministers are increasingly talking about climate change and other environmental crises – hence the need for them to change tack. “Finance ministers are saying the right things now, and most are putting their money where their mouth is,” said Gurría. “[The climate] is no longer just a question for environment ministers – the leaders of the world have taken this up now.”
As Gurría prepares to depart, a new generation of green-tinged and environmentally committed leaders – many of them women – are taking the helm at key institutions and playing a central role in ensuring governments stick to their green promises in future. They will play an important role as the world prepares for crunch climate talks at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow this November, where governments will be expected to come forward with pledges to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and plans to curb their country’s greenhouse gas emissions substantially in the next 10 years.
Kristalina Georgieva took charge of the International Monetary Fund in October 2019 after a long career at the World Bank and then the European commission. She has made the climate a key priority for more than 20 years, saying last month that cutting emissions could be a source of growth for poor countries. “Building resilience can be good for nature and ecoystems; it can be good for economic growth; at a time when economies have lost low-skilled jobs, it boosts job creation; and it can bring health benefits [such as reduced air pollution],” Georgieva said.
Her immediate predecessor at the IMF, Christine Lagarde, is now president of the European Central Bank. Shortly before the UK’s first lockdown took effect last spring, Lagarde came to London to help launch the Cop26 finance initiative. “Central banks need to devote greater attention to understanding the impact of climate change, including its implications for inflation dynamics,” she said at the time.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian economy minister poised to become the next director general of the World Trade Organization, has co-chaired the Global Commission on Economy and Climate since 2014. In 2018, she said adopting low-carbon aims would put developing countries on course towards a brighter future. “Now is the time to do this, before we lock in high-carbon infrastructure. Now is the opportunity for real sustainable growth.” Okonjo-Iweala is likely to prioritise climate issues in her new post at the WTO.
Odile Renaud-Basso is the first woman to head a multilateral development bank, taking over last October as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a major investor in eastern Europe, the southern Mediterranean and central Asia. She has vowed to make climate issues and investments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions a priority.
Fatih Birol, th executive director of the International Energy Agency, has taken a key role in reshaping his institution to focus on the climate issue for more than two decades. He recently said countries must start to green their recovery from the Covid crisis as a matter of urgency: “Some countries did listen [to warnings]. They have done a good job and have followed a more sustainable path. But the majority of countries did not.”
Whoever succeeds Gurría will also play a vital role in Cop26. The top four to succeed him are Mathias Cormann, a former Australian finance minister; Philipp Hildebrand, the vice-chair of the investment firm BlackRock; Anna Diamantopoulou, a former EU commissioner for employment and social affairs; and Cecilia Malmström, a former EU trade commissioner.
Gurría’s advice to his successor is simple: “I am not pessimistic or optimistic – I am activistic. Pessimism leads to paralysis, optimism can lead to complacency. So just stay the course, stay with it. Let’s just heed the advice of science. Science will get us there.”