Ian Johnson, the World Bank's top environment official, said global divisions over climate change offer an opportunity for the bank to take a more prominent role on international policies.
Long a behind-the-scenes operator on such politically sensitive issues, the World Bank can assume a leading role on climate change because of how global warming will affect its biggest clients in the developing world, Johnson, vice president for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
"It's a huge opportunity to try and be more comprehensive, more strategic and longer term in our own relationship with the issues of climate change," Johnson said. "In a way, it has the potential to transform us to much more of a global issues manager."
Less than two months since Paul Wolfowitz left the US Defense Department to head the World Bank, the institution has found itself at the center of rich nations' proposals to cancel the debts of 18 mainly African nations, oversee increased African aid and create a new framework for tackling climate change.
A Group of Eight meeting in Scotland this month pledged to "act with resolve and urgency" to reach common goals that include reducing greenhouse gases. But the major industrial nations did not set any measurable target or timeframe.
Johnson said the bank will serve as a global mediator on climate change, bridging the huge differences in approach between the developed and emerging countries, including India and China.
Under the Kyoto climate change treaty, which came into force in February, developed nations agreed to limit their greenhouse emissions by 5.2 percent of 1990 levels by 2012.
However, many have argued that the targets are ill-suited because the level of emissions for the most important greenhouse gases is unpredictable.
The United States, the world's largest consumer of energy and emitter of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, rejected Kyoto. It argues that there is no point in an accord that does not include major emerging economies such as China and India.
Washington has urged the world to focus instead on developing new clean technologies.
Johnson acknowledged that the task of getting world leaders focused on the same issues will be difficult.
"You have to navigate your way through a lot of complex minefields," he said. "To make any sort of framework like this work, you have to consider it as a big tent where you'd like everyone to feel that (they're) pulling in the same direction."
Over the next few months the World Bank will start consultations with governments, the private sector and other global institutions to prepare for a meeting on climate change in November headed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Before then, Wolfowitz and British Finance Minister Gordon Brown will likely chair a meeting on climate change at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings in September.
"We have got to try to understand the motivations of key stakeholders who are absolutely pivotal to making a difference," Johnson said. "We also have to start the dialogue with China and India and other developing countries to better understand their own perspectives."
Johnson said the new plan will give experts an opportunity to better understand the costs associated with climate change and governments time to plan and implement cost-effective investment.
"The longer time you have, the more prudent you can be in sequencing those costs and, I would presume, the lower they would be. You don't wait until judgment day," he said.
"Climate change is a big issue and it's a long-term issue and we have to put building blocks in place," Johnson added. "People are talking too short-term in my view."
(Writing by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Dan Grebler)