The World Bank takes on climate change

Gearing up for Copenhagen, the international financial institution works to integrate climate change into its poverty reduction strategies.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

Katherine Sierra
Katherine Sierra The World Bank

SAN FRANCISCO--How will a shift in carbon reduction play out with the world's poor? This is an issue The World Bank is grappling with as it prepares for the international climate change summit in Copenhagen this December.

Katherine Sierra, the vice president for sustainable development at The World Bank, and Awais Khan, the director of KPMG's Clean Tech Venture Capital Practice, spoke on this topic Tuesday here at the Commonwealth Club.

Along with higher temperatures, climate change is causing rising sea levels, shifts in rain/snow patterns, and an increase in weather-related natural disasters. Although the impact is worldwide, people in developing countries get the brunt of it with severe risk to their agriculture, food, and water, Sierra said.

"We took a major step a couple years ago because we felt we weren't doing as good a job as we should have in integrating environment into our programs," said Sierra. "We actually merged our infrastructure practice with the environmental and social practices."

On top of being more vulnerable to climate change, countries in the developing world have a shortage of infrastructure. According to The World Bank, 1.6 billion people in the developing world still do not have access to electricity, and those who do may have only intermittent service.

"There are areas in Pakistan that have 12 to 14 hours of blackouts per day," said Khan. If the shortest way to fix that problem is through burning coal, he explains, that's what governments will do.

However, being the ninth-largest coal deposit in the world--with 186 billion tons of coal, Pakistan's "government is very favorable to using cleaner coal technologies," Khan said. "Sometimes we don't give enough credit to governments of developing countries."

The event fell on the heels of an article Sierra wrote for The San Francisco Examiner last week, where she explained what The World Bank, an international financial institution that loans money to developing countries, intends to do regarding climate change and the world's poor. Last year, The World Bank gave almost $7.6 billion for energy financing, a third of which went to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Projects included putting in rapid bus transport in five major cities in Mexico and working on smart grids in Turkey.

But another third of the $7.6 billion put forth was given to fund traditional fossil fuels. This is what skeptics generally point to when criticizing The World Bank's initiatives and intentions. The nonprofit Bank Information Center, for example, released a study in February on how The World Bank's energy financing is being felt by developing countries

The organization found that although The World Bank increased funding for renewable energy (by 11 percent), it dramatically increased funding for fossil fuels (by 102 percent) last year. "The bank's continued lending focus on fossil fuels commits many developing countries to fossil-fuel based energy for the next 20 to 40 years," said Heike Mainhardt-Gibbs, a consultant with the Bank Information Center.

The Bank Information Center points out that when developing countries begin to work on greenhouse gas emission reductions, it will be more difficult and expensive because of their extended use of fossil fuels.

The World Bank says the fossil fuels they are funding are increasingly clean coal technology and natural gas, which is the cleanest fossil fuel. "We want hospitals with refrigerators, schools with light bulbs," Sierra said during her talk, "if you look at any projections, they tell us under any circumstance we still need fossil fuels."

This will all be hashed out come December when representatives from over 180 countries meet in Copenhagen to work on a new treaty that addresses global warming. Within this international agreement, countries will look at what is doable and possible to lower greenhouse gas emissions while still trying to get energy to the world's poor.