Dixon: War boosts need for “green Marshall Plan”
Ukrainian service members ride atop tanks during tactical drills at a training ground in an unknown location in Ukraine, in this handout picture released February 22, 2022. Press service of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff/Handout via REUTERS
LONDON, March 11 (Reuters Breakingviews) – The tragedy in Ukraine should not just spur Europe to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. It should also supercharge international efforts to help emerging economies come off hydrocarbons.
The West needs more allies to turn Vladimir Putin into a global pariah, and to show China what will happen if it too throws its weight around. One of the best ways to do this is to drive forward its embryonic plan to help developing countries grow in a green way. This is a massive programme that will ultimately cost trillions of dollars.
The West has already done a fairly good job isolating Russia: 141 countries voted against the invasion at last week’s emergency United Nations General Assembly. Putin was backed by a rogue’s gallery: North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Eritrea.
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But 48 countries either abstained or didn’t vote. These included not just China, but virtually all the Indian subcontinent and half of Africa. Putin is a pariah in the West, but not yet in the rest of the world. In terms of population, about half the world was on the West’s side and half was on the sidelines.
This matters in the Ukraine crisis. The more neutral countries there are, the harder it will be for the West to turn the screws on Putin both diplomatically and economically. It also matters because of the potential read-across from Russia to China.
To be clear, Beijing isn’t in the same category as Moscow. Hopefully it never will be. Xi Jinping and Putin have cuddled up to each other, saying just before the war that friendship between their countries had “no limits”. But China hasn’t publicly backed the invasion. And though Beijing is detaining Uyghurs in camps, imprisoning pro-democracy protesters and opposition politicians in Hong Kong and sabre-rattling over Taiwan, it hasn’t invaded a foreign country in more than 40 years.
The West shouldn’t want a Cold War with China. Ideally, it will cooperate with Beijing on areas of common interest, especially climate change. Also, if it does fall out with China, the consequences could be even worse than a new Cold War with Russia. Its economy is 10 times Russia’s size and growing.
But the West does need to prepare for the possibility that relations with Beijing enter the deep freeze – and insofar as it prepares well, such a scenario will be less likely. As the Romans said: “Si vis pacem, para bellum.” (If you want peace, prepare for war.) Central to the West’s strategy should be stopping China building a gang of allies, just as further isolating Putin has to be part of the plan to make him pay for Ukraine.
The embryonic “green Marshall Plan”, based loosely on the U.S. support packages to rebuild post-war Europe in the 1940s, should be a key plank of this strategy. The Group of Seven (G7) large industrial nations signed up to this idea at last year’s summit, at UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s urging. It was seen as a green alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has been building infrastructure across Asia, Africa and Latin America for the best part of the decade.
The G7’s idea is to help developing and emerging economies make fast and fair transitions to net zero. South Africa has already signed such a deal, and several more countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam are interested in following suit.
Carbon-intensive industries need to be run down and clean ones created. The lion’s share of the huge investment must come from the private sector and go to private-sector projects. But some public money will be needed to get private capital flowing.
All this is promising. But the G7 hasn’t made a song and dance about its new plan – and it has only taken the first steps to mobilise the trillions. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t even have a single name. Johnson calls it the Clean Green Initiative, while Joe Biden prefers Build Back Better for the World. It would be good if they could agree on a single brand, as it would then be easier to motivate key stakeholders.
Now is the time to get on the front foot. After all, this initiative speaks to the pressing needs of developing countries. Namely, to drag themselves out of poverty, and to avoid climate change, their real existential threat.
By contrast, the Ukraine crisis leaves many developing countries cold. At the United Nations, some accused the West of double standards – for example, for not caring much about wars in non-European countries such as Yemen and Libya.
It will take years to roll out a clean and green plan across developing and emerging countries. But the Ukraine crisis could also drag on for a long time. So if the West pushes its clean and green plan hard, it will win more friends vis-à-vis Russia – and the more Putin is isolated, the more Beijing will take note.
Mind you, while the West should be trying to turn more countries against Putin, it shouldn’t force countries to break links with China. It will be enough to stop them falling into Beijing’s orbit. After all, China is a threat but not an enemy.
The clean and green plan could also prod China to embrace low-carbon technology more vigorously. If it wants to keep supplying infrastructure to developing countries, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative will have to embrace clean technology. Meanwhile, if lots of emerging countries go green, the West will be able to wean itself off carbon-intensive goods made in China. Beijing will then need to clean up its act at home if it wishes to stay competitive.
So a really ambitious clean and green plan hits multiple strategic objectives simultaneously: it further isolates Putin, it prevents Xi Jinping assembling a large gang of supportive countries, it prods China to go green and it helps developing countries grow in a green way. It makes the world safer – from both bullies and climate change.
It’s understandable that the West’s leaders are now focused on the immediate tragedy in Ukraine. But it would be a terrible mistake to lose sight of the vital need to save the planet. As António Guterres, the U.N. secretary-general, said last week: “delay means death”.
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(Hugo Dixon is a campaigner and journalist. He was Breakingviews’ founding chair and editor-in-chief. In the past year, he has been promoting the Clean Green Initiative.)
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Editing by George Hay and Karen Kwok