Fundamental reform of the World Bank could be completed within a year, to refocus its spending on the climate crisis and end its contribution to “fossil fuel colonialism”, according to the former US vice-president Al Gore.
“I don’t know why it need take longer than a year,” said Gore, a longtime campaigner on the climate crisis since leaving politics, in an interview with the Guardian at the Cop27 UN climate summit. “We have an emergency on our hands.”
He said the bank was guilty of assisting “fossil fuel colonialism” through Africa’s dash for gas, and called for urgent fundamental reform that would provide trillions of dollars to tackle the climate crisis. “[The World Bank] needs to be replenished with a large increase and special drawing rights [a means of creating new money],” he said. “They need trillions not billions. They need to refocus their mission on renewable energy.”
Gore, who has previously called for the World Bank’s president, David Malpass, to be removed from his post, has made overhaul of the bank a leading priority for his climate campaigning.
His calls for change join those of many developed and developing countries at Cop27, including principal figures such as Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, who made it the centrepiece of her keynote address to Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
The issue has become one of the hottest topics at Cop27, even though it is not – and cannot be – on the formal agenda for the talks. The UN is a separate institution from the World Bank and its subsidiaries, which were set up under the Bretton Woods framework developed by the allies of the second world war in 1944.
Mottley said: “Institutions crafted in the mid-20th century cannot be effective in the third decade of the 21st century. They do not describe 21st-century issues. Climate justice was not an issue then [when the bank was set up].”
In Gore’s view, Malpass “has been a climate denier for quite a long time. He ran for Congress as a climate denier. He’s made multiple statements over the years making it clear that he just has serious doubts that the climate crisis is real.”
Gore added: “There has been no vision in the World Bank system. And when you have a climate denier in charge of it, what they see is not the energy transition, they see their friends in the fossil fuel companies and the banks, that are also connected with the fossil fuel companies.”
Malpass, who says he is not a climate denier, has sought to clarify his views and sent a memo to World Bank employees insisting the bank was focused on the climate crisis. Speaking at Stanford University on 28 September, he said: “Manmade greenhouse gas emissions are causing climate change, which in turn is having tragic impacts on development in multiple ways.”
When questioned on his climate views by a Guardian reporter at Cop27, Malpass said: “You know that I’m not [a climate denier] so don’t misreport it.” A spokesperson said the bank had provided $32bn (£27.2bn) of climate finance in 2022.
Nevertheless, Gore sees the issue as going far beyond the president. “It’s about much more than him as an individual. It’s about the World Bank as an institution and the World Bank system as a policy tool,” he said.
The bank has continued to invest in fossil fuel projects after the Paris agreement, and its financing of projects to tackle the climate crisis has been criticised as too little and poorly targeted.
One of the main issues for developing countries wishing to push ahead with renewable energy is that they face a high cost of capital, because private sector financiers perceive them as carrying a higher risk.
Gore gave an example: “If you want to build a big new solar farm in Nigeria, it can be extremely profitable,” he said. “But if you try to finance it with private equity, you will pay interest rates that are seven times higher than for OECD countries. And so they don’t do it.”
By contrast, fossil fuel financing is cheap and readily available. Gore sees it as the role of a reformed World Bank to take on some of the risk of projects from the private sector, making it cheaper and easier for companies to invest in renewable energy and other emissions-cutting projects, and in ways to help countries adapt to the effects of climate breakdown.
Africa, where Cop27 is taking place, is one of the casualties of this high cost of capital, Gore said. “There are more fossil fuel pipelines under construction in Africa now than in North America – this is a dash for gas. It’s fossil fuel colonialism,” he said.
He accused the World Bank of contributing to the problem. “The World Bank has tacitly supported this fossil fuel colonialism, and has utterly failed to take those top layers of risk off the stack to enable developing countries to finance the energy transition,” he said. “And if the World Bank, and the other multilateral development banks, won’t do it, it won’t be done.”
He said Africa’s plight was a problem for the world. “If the world as a whole continues to wall them [African countries] off from any meaningful access to private capital, for these profitable projects – they would certainly be profitable in a country where they could be financed – then we are hurting ourselves and not just the developing countries.”
He added: “They are pushed instead to go with this dash for gas, and they’re going to get stuck with stranded assets and climate chaos. And I’m kind of upset about it.”