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IPCC report author urges governments to relax spending discipline amid climate backlash

Workers installing solar panels
François Gemenne has dismissed the UK opposition Labour party’s pledge to spend £28bn annually on green investment if it wins the next general election as too low (Photo: Scalatore1959/Envato)

Countries should spend as much as 10% of their GDP on climate action, the equivalent in the UK in 2021 of £312bn, argues Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lead author François Gemenne

Governments should relax their focus on public spending control in favour of ramping up green investment, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report published in 2023 has said. François Gemenne suggested countries should look to spend as much as 10 per cent of their gross domestic product on climate action and change the way they communicate around the need to reduce emissions urgently.

Speaking at a media briefing in London, Gemenne said he viewed the recent COP28 conference positively, pointing to the ability to secure an agreement between 197 countries, including warring nations like Israel and the Palestinian Authority. 

However, “the major shortcoming of this COP to me was the fact we haven’t been able to really mobilise significant levels of funding and of investment”, he lamented. “If we don’t mobilise climate finance as well we’re never going to be able to achieve the promises of COP28.”

Gemenne called for governments to abandon their fiscal discipline when it comes to investing in the climate transition. He dismissed the UK opposition Labour party’s pledge to spend £28bn annually on green investment as too low, calling for countries to spend 5-10 per cent of their GDP on climate using public and private finance. In 2021, the UK’s GDP sat at £3.12tn, meaning that at the top end of Gemenne’s spending commitment, it would have recorded an outlay of £312bn on green investment.

“We need to fight against the idea we need to have public spending under control,” he said. “If we don’t make these investments right now, things will get completely out of control. If you want to keep things under control in the future, you need to accept a high level of public investment now, and you need to accept, potentially, that this will increase the public debt a little.”

“I think we need to adopt exactly the same approach as we did during the Covid-19 crisis, when developed economies spent vast sums at short notice on vaccines and economic support for businesses and citizens,” Gemenne continued. “This is not the moment to be stingy about costs.”

Backlash against climate action

Gemenne, who is also a professor of finance at the HEC Paris business school, told journalists that leaders have failed to explain the opportunities of climate policies including the European Green Deal, a package of policy incentives designed to drive the EU’s climate transition. 

“I’m quite worried at the moment to see the backlash all across Europe against green policies — against the European Green Deal, but also against other climate policies including climate policies taken at the local level,” he said. 

The backlash against climate policy is typically associated with the US, where some rightwing politicians have campaigned and legislated against investors’ abilities to consider environmental, social and governance issues as part of their investment strategies. But there is also an increasing pushback against environmental legislation from far-right and many centre-right politicians. 

“What we’ve not managed to do politically is to present the Green Deal or these kinds of policies as a project,” Gemenne said. “People see climate action as a constraint that is falling upon their shoulders, and they see what needs to be done to fight climate change as a long list of extra costs, efforts to make, sacrifices to accept.

“We have a clear idea of the world where we don’t want to live,” he continued. “But we don’t have a clear social consensus on the world where we would like to live — what would a decarbonised world look like? And as long as we don’t have that, I’m afraid we will not be able to see climate action as a project. If we fail to do that, we will always face some kind of backlash from the people.”

A service from the Financial Times