Shoot for the moon

2nd February 2023

Mariana Mazzucato tells Chris Seekings why governments must take inspiration and courage from ‘moonshot’ projects when tackling the world’s greatest challenges

Award-winning economist Mariana Mazzucato is not one to shy away from controversy, with her numerous books and essays frequently challenging the global economic system on which powerful corporations depend. Her latest book, Mission Economy: A moonshot guide to changing capitalism, is also the source of much debate, arguing that we must rethink the role of governments within the economy and society if we are to tackle the greatest challenges of our time.

Taking inspiration from Apollo 11 and other ‘moonshot’ programmes, the book calls for the same level of boldness and experimentation to be applied to issues such as climate change, coordinating public and private sectors on a massive scale. Mazzucato’s proposals require a fundamentally different approach to the way governments operate and could be completely transformative, with even Pope Francis conceding that they “provoked a lot of reflection” within him.

In a nutshell, what is your moonshot guide to changing capitalism?

Moonshots are about transforming governments from within – strengthening existing systems while giving the economy a new direction. In other words, moonshot thinking means reviving ambition and vision in everyday policymaking. While the moon landing was technological in nature, today’s wicked problems are of course more complex and far-reaching. They require not just technological but social, organisational and political innovations. To fight climate change, for example, we need more collaboration and citizen engagement than we did with the Apollo programme.

Capable governments should work outside the usual silos, promoting purposeful collaborations across ministries, departments and local government bodies. The common belief that the smaller the government the better, has been a great barrier to governments adopting bold moonshots and further expanding the capabilities to do so successfully. The market-led approach is rooted in the belief that private institutions are more effective at allocating capital. However, the recent history of capitalism actually tells us a different story. Public institutions have often actively shaped markets and promoted innovation. In fact, the private sector often only comes in after governments have led with high-risk and capital-intensive investments. As a result, the public sector is the only actor capable of directing an inclusive and green transition. Markets will not find an ecological and socially equitable direction on their own.

At COP26, the dominant narrative that emerged was that private financial institutions can lead in funding the transition to net zero. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) – a group of then 450 financial institutions – claimed to have $130trn in funding ready to promote a green transition. This year, it became clear that the required investments do not yet satisfy the risk-return preferences of profit-maximising commercial investors. Numerous GFANZ members have now left the alliance over cost concerns. The message is clear – financially speaking, it still makes sense to invest in fossil fuels. To decarbonise the economy, we need a symbiotic partnership between the private and public sector. Too often, the benefits of successful projects have not been fairly distributed to the population.

Your latest book talks about recovering a sense of ‘public purpose’. How can we do that?

We need to adopt missions that matter to people. This means placing public purpose at the core of our relationships with the private and the public sector and taking the needs of all stakeholders – including the planet – into consideration. We are not at a point where this can be said about our current governance structures and institutions. Even though many businesses claim to be purpose-oriented, the private sector has largely focused on profit-maximising activities. In the US, oil companies have increased their share buybacks by 1,043% over the past four quarters (compared with a 64% increase for S&P 500 members).

Moreover, the financial sector continues to invest largely in finance, insurance and real estate, rather than in workforce training, infrastructure and innovation. A lot of the time, the rewards of investments are privatised, while the risks are socialised.

“A lot of the time, the rewards of investments are privatised, while the risks are socialised”

Some of the technology companies that have benefited most from public support, such as Apple and Google, have also been among those accused of using their international operations to avoid paying tax. In that sense, recovering a sense of public purpose means to create structures that share the rewards of collective value creation more equitably. Governments need to systematically direct finance towards purposeful outcomes, such as a green and just transition.

Is it realistic to expect a country like the US to embrace a restructured, equitable form of capitalism?

To embrace a more equitable form of US capitalism, radical change is needed. The systemic dysfunction is visible in many sectors. The US pharmaceutical industry is a good example. While the investments in drug innovation come from publicly funded research labs, philanthropies and, of course, businesses, the largest pharmaceutical companies are the ones that benefit the most financially. Ingenious financial structures benefit owners and shareholders more than the wider communities in which businesses operate.

To change, we need inclusive governance structures that promote mission-driven investments that are centred not around shareholder value but around a true common good. One way of doing so is through designing industrial strategies to promote a more just and green form of economic growth. Attaching conditions to loans and grants is an essential policy tool to direct finance towards equitable outcomes. The Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science Act of 2022 (CHIPS Act), for example, could make public funds conditional on climate-friendly investments and facilities, affordable access to goods and services, and worker training. Governments need to rethink their market fundamentalist approaches and adopt sustainable, welfare-oriented and innovation-led policies.

How much responsibility should the West take when reforming the global economic system, while also supporting developing nations in dealing with climate change impacts?

It is incredibly important that debtor countries in the Global North, which are responsible for the majority of historic carbon emissions, free up fiscal space for creditor countries in the Global South. The public’s support to push for further action is essential. I believe that there is an increasing understanding that countries that have not caused the crisis – largely in the Global South – are bearing the brunt of most climate disasters. You see it on the news constantly– the floods in Pakistan being one of the latest signs of climate injustice. Many countries, including those that are most exposed to accelerating climate breakdown, face significant debt overhangs – which has been exacerbated by an international trade and monetary system that is rigged against them. Freeing up fiscal space for countries in the Global South could include historic debt write-offs, debt restructuring, replacing climate loans with non-repayable grants, and paying compensation for loss and damages.

Together with the Scottish government, the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose hosted an all-female panel at COP27. The panellists reflected on a radical redesign of the global financial architecture. In the discussion – which I was honoured to moderate – Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, called for investments in green industrial strategies to build resilience against climate change in the Global South. The support for a loss and damage fund is a good and very important step in the right direction. However, it’s devastating that the final deal does not include commitments to phase out fuels more radically.

As previously mentioned, markets won’t find a sustainable direction on their own. A report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development published in October 2022 shows that redirecting the $570bn of annual planned new oil and gas investments could fully finance wind and solar expansion in line with the 1.50C target. COP27 presented a clear opportunity to establish a more suitable framework to achieve this goal, but it was missed. We need bold states to act as investors of first resort, directing finance towards critical climate commitments. The challenges are urgent.

Mariana Mazzucato is professor in the economics of innovation and public value at University College London and author of the highly-acclaimed Mission Economy: A moonshot guide to changing capitalism


Subscribe to IEMA's newsletters to receive timely articles, expert opinions, event announcements, and much more, directly in your inbox.

Transform articles

Majority of environmental professionals fear green skills gap

Almost three-fifths of UK environmental professionals feel there is a green skills gap across the country’s workforce, or that there will be, a new survey has uncovered.

4th July 2024

Read more

Climate hazards such as flooding, droughts and extreme heat are threatening eight in 10 of the world’s cities, new research from CDP has uncovered.

3rd July 2024

Read more

Three in five British adults want more public involvement in the planning system, which could be at odds with Labour’s plans to boost economic growth, IEMA research has found.

3rd July 2024

Read more

Ahead of the UK general election next month, IEMA has analysed the Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, and Green Party manifestos in relation to the sustainability agenda.

19th June 2024

Read more

Nine in 10 UK adults do not fully trust brands to accurately portray their climate commitments or follow the science all the time, a new survey has uncovered.

19th June 2024

Read more

Just one in 20 workers aged 27 and under have the skills needed to help drive the net-zero transition, compared with one in eight of the workforce as a whole, new LinkedIn data suggests.

18th June 2024

Read more

Consumers are flexing their purchasing power in support of more sustainable products and services. Dr Andrew Coburn, CEO of sustainability intelligence and analytics firm, Risilience, considers the risk of greenwashing and sets out three key steps businesses can take to avoid the pitfalls and meet the opportunities of changing consumer demand.

18th June 2024

Read more

With a Taskforce on Inequality and Social-related Financial Disclosures in the pipeline, Beth Knight talks to Chris Seekings about increased recognition of social sustainability

6th June 2024

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert

IEMA Cookie Notice

Clicking the ‘Accept all’ button means you are accepting analytics and third-party cookies. Our website uses necessary cookies which are required in order to make our website work. In addition to these, we use analytics and third-party cookies to optimise site functionality and give you the best possible experience. To control which cookies are set, click ‘Settings’. To learn more about cookies, how we use them on our website and how to change your cookie settings please view our cookie policy.

Manage cookie settings

Our use of cookies

You can learn more detailed information in our cookie policy.

Some cookies are essential, but non-essential cookies help us to improve the experience on our site by providing insights into how the site is being used. To maintain privacy management, this relies on cookie identifiers. Resetting or deleting your browser cookies will reset these preferences.

Essential cookies

These are cookies that are required for the operation of our website. They include, for example, cookies that enable you to log into secure areas of our website.

Analytics cookies

These cookies allow us to recognise and count the number of visitors to our website and to see how visitors move around our website when they are using it. This helps us to improve the way our website works.

Advertising cookies

These cookies allow us to tailor advertising to you based on your interests. If you do not accept these cookies, you will still see adverts, but these will be more generic.

Save and close