Alexander Griffiths is a researcher at the liberal conservative think tank Bright Blue.
UK Export Finance (UKEF), the Government’s export credit agency, has historically been one of the less visible parts of government.
But recent missteps, including offering a $1 billion in support for a new $16 billion LNG facility in Mozambique, have highlighted how UKEF decisions are undermining UK efforts to tackle – and leadership on – climate change. This cannot be allowed to continue, and UKEF should be reformed to better align with climate change and other interconnected government priorities, such as levelling-up.
UKEF’s record has been getting more scrutiny, and rightly so. Its focus on fossil fuel companies not only risks increasing carbon emissions but also creating stranded assets, whereby assets suffer premature and unanticipated write-downs or devaluations due to environmental and climate-related factors.
Earlier this year the campaign organisation, Global Witness, found that, between 2001 and 2019, 96 per cent of hospitality and gifts from the energy sector to UKEF came from fossil fuel companies – an embarrassing revelation for the organisation which has been keen to emphasise its green credentials.
Returning to the Mozambique project, beyond the issue of it contradicting Britain’s moves towards greater clean energy the prudency of the project is also questionable. It was announced at a time during which there has been turbulence in fossil fuel prices, as well as in a country, Mozambique, which has been and still is battling repeated attacks by Islamist terrorists. Even considering these practical issues there is also the ethics of the investment for the effects the facility could have on the local biodiversity and on jobs such as those in fishing.
Well before the present debacle, the Environmental Audit Committee found last year that between 2013 and 2018, 96 per cent of UKEF energy financing was for fossil fuel companies, with the remaining four per cent going to the renewable energy sector.
Worse, between 2017 and 2018, 99.4 per cent of UKEF energy funding for low-and medium-income countries went to fossil fuel countries. Parliamentarians therefore suggested severing support for fossil fuel organisations; however, this course was rejected by the Government last year.
The UK is hosting the next major international climate change conference, which will be held in Glasgow in November next year. COP26 as it is known, will also coincide with the UK chair of the G7 in 2021, where climate change and a green and resilient economic recovery post-Covid will be centre stage.
So how should UKEF be reformed to align with and actively support the policies and priorities of the government? We have a window of opportunity before COP26 to get this right, and an urgent need to help exporters as we emerge from one of the deepest recessions in our history.
First, the Government needs to ensure UKEF aligns with our climate objectives. One early step the Government can take is immediately announcing that the UK will become the first country to end their export credit agency’s support for fossil fuel projects, a decision which the Prime Minister seems to be seriously considering. This, however, is only a first move.
UKEF needs to be an integral part of the UK’s green recovery and levelling-up agenda, assisting with sustainable re-shoring and re-skilling for exporters. After Covid-19, exporters will also have to adjust to new realities and different ways of operating. Supply chains have been shaken, businesses have seen reductions in their profits, and many have had to reduce their workforces. There is clearly a role for UKEF to be much more proactive in supporting businesses in the changing market environment.
At Bright Blue, we have started a project to systematically examine the reforms that UKEF should make to fully align with the UK’s climate commitments and assist with a sustainable recovery post Covid-19.
We want to embed the concerns of exporters into our proposals. By doing this, we can ensure that even where we may be radical, our recommendations will reflect their priorities, whether that be how UKEF can help clients back on their feet post-COVID, or the best ways to reform decision making processes at UKEF so that controversial projects can never slip through again and only environmentally sustainable projects are supported.
In advance of COP26, we will also look at and showcase how our recommendations for UKEF could be adapted for other export credit agencies across the world. Committing to net zero means nothing if the UK acts alone. Getting other nations to reform their export credit agencies is an opportunity to deliver wider systemic change.
UKEF needs to clean up its act and be re-designed to make a much more effective contribution to policy goals, particularly climate change and a green and resilient recovery. Recent controversies have led, as one damning story recently highlighted, to questions as to whether this low visibility has led it to “operating outside proper ministerial oversight”. It must now get ministerial attention so that it can make the contribution we need it to.