George Soros is putting at least one of his billions where his mouth is in fighting climate change.
Soros' Cap and trade vision an illusion
A golden statue of Absalon, the battling bishop who rid the Baltic of pirates in the 12th century, stands above the entrance to Copenhagen's Town Hall. Behind Absalon's gaze, the buccaneer of modern finance, George Soros, announced in a speech last Saturday a plan to reinvest some of his gains in improving the planet.
Mr Soros, the currency speculator known as the man who broke the Bank of England in 1992 with his aggressive investments against the pound, said he would invest US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in renewable energy technologies. But if Mr Soros has his way, the endeavour he announced in Copenhagen will not be charitable. "I want to apply rather stringent criteria to the investments," he told reporters. "They should be profitable but should also actually make a contribution to solving the problem."
If Mr Soros finds out how to make a profit from this kind of investment, he will be among the first to do so. While his announcement was generous, it was short on ideas of how to make this possible. And until then, the $1bn investment will be just one more in a long line of his philanthropic efforts. More than half of his $11bn fortune has been given away, according to an estimate in Forbes magazine last year. He may be the consummate money man and yet money has never been his primary passion.
He entered banking with an ambition to make $500,000 - the sum he believed would allow him to spend the rest of his life in writing and thinking. Obviously he decided that he would have more influence the richer he got. Even so, Mr Soros remains as much a philosopher as a financier. Neither Mr Soros nor many of the experts who joined him in Copenhagen last weekend appeared to believe that the upcoming conference two months from now, charged with forging a new global regime to confront climate change, will accomplish much. Mr Soros's speech followed a sobering succession of scientists, economists and policy makers who threw cold water on the notion that any meaningful set of policies would be developed any time soon to combat global warming.
There was at least consensus, if only about the deep flaws inherent in any global system to cap global carbon emissions and trade permits to allow companies to emit greenhouse gases. And yet, it is the rules and framework of this mechanism that the Copenhagen conference in December is supposed to deliver. Mr Soros is one of carbon cap and trade's critics. He explained at the London School of Economics last summer that the system "can be gamed; that's why financial types like me like it - because there are financial opportunities".
For this reason, it is worth listening to him. If there is anything Mr Soros knows about it's how to outsmart a market. But who is to say that venture capitalists will not also game Mr Soros's eco start-up monies to make a buck? Mr Soros has never been a champion of unfettered markets and has made a fortune on his ability to exploit their inefficiencies. He shares with Professor Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate in economics who teaches at Columbia University in New York, many critiques of the "free-market environmentalism" that cap and trade is supposed to create.
They both say it would create another opaque market for derivatives, similar to those that helped bring the global economy to its knees last autumn. Prof Stiglitz has also explained the near impossibility of accurately measuring how much carbon is emitted and the certainty of widespread corruption as permits are allocated to carbon producers. But the most fundamental problem with a cap and trade market is that it fails to put a price on carbon emissions, making it impossible for businesses to budget and plan around a cost.
A tax on carbon would do this better, but has too big a political cost for many leaders to support it. Despite such criticisms, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general of the UN, maintains that an agreement on cap and trade has to be achieved this December in Copenhagen. He has repeated the mantra that "there is no plan B because there is no planet B". But Plan B appears to be exactly what Mr Soros is preparing for. Without private capital investing in a variety of new technologies and scaling up those that work, cap and trade will not provide the right incentives.
Besides, there is not the political will in many countries to limit their carbon output at the expense of economic growth. Mr Soros is trying to supply both capital and political will. In addition to the $1bn he is investing in technology, he is contributing $100 million over 10 years to establish the Climate Policy Initiative, which aims to raise awareness and serve as a watchdog for climate issues.
"How do we achieve the objectives we all know are necessary?" Mr Soros asked in Copenhagen. "That is a political problem." But as urgent as climate matters may be, the jury is still out on whether the public cares. When Mr Soros announced his $1bn commitment on Saturday he was not interrupted by applause. When he was finished, no one rose to their feet. The loudest cheers of the evening were not in response to anything Mr Soros had said, but from a series of Danes checking their BlackBerrys during his remarks.
The Danish football team had defeated Sweden to qualify for the World Cup Finals. National loyalties die hard, and football is clearly more exciting than the weather, however changeable. Even if Mr Soros's efforts are wildly successful - and the details are woefully lacking as to how it will work - national interests will remain a roadblock to any international agreement to combat climate change.