Funding the fight against climate change 

Long after studying and teaching at Birkbeck, Peter Carter (MSc Economics, 1971) reflects on his rewarding career as an economist and environmentalist in the UK Government Economic Service, the European Investment Bank and the United Nations, offering some thoughts for today’s students in tackling the world’s big issues.  

Studying at Birkbeck was the culmination of “a strange sequence of events”, according to Peter. After finishing his first degree at Bristol, Peter did voluntary service at the University of Liberia. Deciding he wanted to become an academic, Peter then began postgraduate study at LSE, which “wasn’t at all to my liking”. After giving that up, Peter worked full-time as a porter at Harrods. During this time, he said, “I forgot I had applied to the Government Economic Service.” To his surprise, a bit rusty after porter work, he passed the tests. There was, however, a condition to this offer: that Peter must resume study for a master’s degree.  

Keen not to return to LSE, Peter saw that Birkbeck had recently set up an Economics postgraduate course. He felt it was “a bit more tailored towards mature students” such as himself, many of whom were “sandwiching it between work”. Amongst a cohort of only ten full-time students, along with several hundred part-timers, Peter found himself “in a comfortable environment, within a young, motivated department”. He recalls: “The course was interesting because the staff tried to come at it from a different way; it wasn’t a crammer on neoclassical economics.” Graduating with a distinction, Peter was then asked to be a part-time tutor at Birkbeck, which he considered “a real privilege”.  

After leaving the College, Peter feels lucky to have had a series of wonderful jobs. He was given the chance to switch to the Overseas Development Ministry: this took him to Malawi, where he worked as an economic adviser for five years. Afterwards, Peter tells us, “the next big step for me was a job with the European Investment Bank. This gave me everything I wanted in terms of a long-term career path. I retrained halfway through my 30 years with the Bank to become more of an environmentalist. Eventually I was appointed as their first Chief Environmentalist.” ‘Retiring’ at 65, Peter was “chuffed” to get a part-time position with the United Nations and has spent the past several years working for its Green Climate Fund, headquartered in South Korea.  

Naturally, Peter has his finger on the pulse of today’s environmental issues. Formerly a Visiting Fellow at St Anthony’s College, he long maintained ties with the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University. Reflecting on the role of green finance in tackling the climate crisis, Peter comments: “The problem is instilling a sufficient degree of urgency. We get distracted by events such as the pandemic. Most decisions are still driven by price considerations so if price signals aren’t right, we won’t carry out the transformation to a low carbon, resilient development path as quickly as we must.” He adds: “Governments can help by pointing us in the right direction and regulating, but there are multiple actors each with a major part to play.”  

Asked for advice for current Birkbeck students, particularly those worried by what they read in the news, and the troubled times we live in, Peter suggests: Keep an open mind, don’t overly specialise and drill down before taking a position. Reflect on how you need to adjust the way you work, given the knowledge you have acquired during your course. Flexibility is a must in such a rapidly changing environment.”