Carlos Joly, a finance-and-climate consultant, has a piece today on the upcoming election in Norway, one of the world’s major exporters of oil and gas. To its credit, Norway puts its earnings in a fund to support future generations after its deposits are exhausted, known to economists as the Hartwick Rule. That’s great for economic sustainability in Norway, but what about the threat its fossil fuel industry poses to the entire world?
Joly notes that the mainstream parties consider only domestic fossil fuel consumption, with the Labor Party proposing to go “carbon neutral” on that front by 2050. (The neutral qualifier is highly problematic, as I show in my forthcoming book, Alligators in the Arctic and How to Avoid Them: Science, Economics and the Challenge of Catastrophic Climate Change.) The Greens want to shut down Norway’s North Sea oil and gas operation over the coming 25 years. Joly wants to go further and have the government instruct its oil revenue fund to divest from fossil fuels globally.
I have a different idea. First, while the unilateral dismantling of its fossil fuel industry would be a well-intentioned step, I doubt it would have much impact on overall decarbonization. 25 years is too slow, and more importantly, the consumption of oil and gas is demand-driven, not supply constrained. If Norway takes its fuels off the market, there will be other producers eager to take its place. Second, simply abstaining from investing in other countries’ fossil fuel industries is unlikely to make a significant difference, largely for the same reason. If producing oil and gas remains profitable, a shortfall in investment from some quarters will induce more from others.
What I propose instead is that Norway regard its sovereign wealth fund (officially designated as a pension fund) as an endowment whose main purpose is to finance initiatives to forestall a climate disaster. This means devoting a fixed share to funding activist groups in key countries organizing for emergency laws to quickly reduce carbon consumption, and the rest to R&D in decarbonized energy sources.* Meanwhile, keep the oil and gas flowing so that as large a share as possible of global fossil fuel supply is generating carbon mitigation finance. If and when a host of national measures impose decarbonization and fossil fuel demand finally plummets, then it will be time to turn off the North Sea tap for good.
*And no, Norway’s predominate financing of REDD+, the international program for promoting forestation offsets, does neither of these and is little more than a charade—for details, again see Alligators.
What I propose instead is that Norway regard its sovereign wealth fund (officially designated as a pension fund) as an endowment whose main purpose is to finance initiatives to forestall a climate disaster. This means devoting a fixed share to funding activist groups in key countries organizing for emergency laws to quickly reduce carbon consumption, and the rest to R&D in decarbonized energy sources....
[ Precisely what a sovereign wealth fund should not be used for. ]
Does your [brief] comment reflect the assumption that markets will predictably put money to better use than governments? If so, why do think this is true for *this* government and these markets?
Or does it derive from an understanding of fiduciary responsibilities? But what does "fiduciary" mean in the context of impending climate disaster?
This means devoting a fixed share to funding activist groups in key countries...
[ Sorry, I was hurried.
I should have made clear that your essay was appreciated and I am sympathetic to the basic argument, however a sovereign wealth fund is to be an investment in a people's material well-being. A country's sovereign wealth fund is not be used to fund "activists" in another country or "activists" even in a home country. The fund is "my" legacy as a citizen, no matter my social-political leaning. ]
The need in ecological development is to compensate those who directly sacrifice.
The problem with the Hartwick rule in this case (which is what underlies your position, yes?) is that it doesn't take account of externalities. (a) Fossil fuel rents are earned at the expense of global third parties. (b) Living standards of future generations in Norway will be profoundly affected by how much climate change occurs. Thus I think the fiduciary responsibility of the fund ("an investment in a people's well-being") needs to incorporate the climate externality, and the conception of ownership (the claim on oil and gas rents) has to be qualified.
To clarify a bit, I cut some corners by my passing reference to an endowment. I imagine some portion of the fund dedicated to overcoming the political roadblock to decarbonization -- the main binding constraint on mitigating climate change -- and the rest being used for income-generating activities, although with a lower risk-adjusted return than would otherwise be called for (investment in technologies to replace fossil fuels). A typical endowment in the US is required to spend 4% on its mission. That might be a reasonable political component for a fossil-fuel-rent-generated SWF like Norway's, although I would peg it rather higher, considering the compressed time frame for action to mitigate climate change.
Ah, I understand the argument fully now and can agree with the position. This is important and excellent and will be helpful to me in teaching. I will refer to and suggest reading the essay.
September 13, 2021
China issues guideline on deepening reform of eco-compensation mechanism
BEIJING -- China has released a guideline on deepening the reform of the country's ecological compensation mechanism to speed up the building of ecological civilization.
The guideline, jointly released by the general offices of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the State Council, details measures for the country to realize long-term ecological compensation goals set for 2025 and 2035.
By 2025, an ecological compensation mechanism that is aligned with economic and social development should be basically built up. The classified compensation system targeting ecological elements such as rivers, natural forests and wetlands, and the comprehensive compensation system that features fiscal support will be improved.
In the meantime, a market-oriented and diversified compensation pattern will be formed with the whole society more actively participating in ecological protection....
Having continued to think through this fine essay, I remain convinced that spending on ecological projects needs to be compensated as James Hansen often wrote and argued with Paulk Krugman about. Using a sovereign wealth fund to support activists in other countries will just not be acceptable to a country's citizens.
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