Rich countries are failing to put the money behind their promises.
For decades, rich and poor countries were trapped in a stalemate over how to deal with the carbon-dioxide coated, rapidly overheating planet. The United States and other developed countries — responsible for more than half of the world’s CO2 emissions to date — refused to cut emissions unless poorer countries chipped in. For their part, developing countries, led by China and India, argued that it was unfair to be asked to cut back on the fossil fuels that had already brought rich countries electricity, washing machines, and relative economic prosperity.
The solution proposed at a United Nations meeting in Copenhagen over a decade ago and reaffirmed in the 2016 Paris Agreement was called a “grand bargain”: All countries — from the largest economic giant to the smallest island state — would strive to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. But rich countries would also direct hundreds of billions of dollars a year in grants, loans and other forms of climate finance to poorer countries to help them switch to clean energy and adapt to the worst monsoons, heat waves, and droughts ushered in by climate change.
“It’s the glue that holds the Paris Agreement together,” said David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, or WRI.
Now, however, that glue might be coming apart. Back in 2009, negotiators at that UN meeting in Copenhagen promised to raise $100 billion a year for developing countries by the end of 2020 — later, they agreed to raise $100 billion every year thereafter. But, after major countries and economies were thrown into turmoil by COVID-19, even the first, most basic climate finance goal, looks to be out of reach.
According to an official report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for example, countries and private companies only mobilized around $80 billion in 2018— still far from the 2020 target. And although it takes several years to tally the numbers, early estimates indicate that 2020 was, unsurprisingly, not a banner year.
“It is unlikely that the $100 billion commitment was achieved by the end of 2020,” said Alina Averchenkova, a distinguished fellow at the London School of Economics and the co-author on a report on the goal. “Once the data comes in, there’s likely to be a gap.”
And that amount is only a fraction of what’s needed. In Bangladesh alone, which has been battered by sea-level rise and cyclones, the government spends $1 billion a year — or 6 percent of its budget — on coping with climate change. According to a U.N. report released earlier in January, adapting to climate change is currently setting developing countries back by approximately $70 billion a year; by 2030, that figure could reach $300 billion.
In the wake of the G7 meeting in Cornwall, England, last month, the countries most vulnerable to climate change were already protesting the failure to provide the promised funds. Negotiators from India, Pakistan, and small-island states told the media that the lack of funding represented a breach of trust. One Bangladeshi scientist and adaptation expert tweeted that if the money wasn’t available by the U.N. climate conference in Glasgow later this year, the meeting should be canceled. “There’s a lot of frustration and distrust around,” said Joe Thwaites, an associate at WRI and an expert on climate finance.
Part of the problem is that, similar to the overall structure of the Paris Agreement itself, all developed countries are responsible for delivering the cash. There is no requirement that a given country contribute a set amount of funding, creating a classic collective action problem where each country is incentivized to free-ride on the efforts of others. “The finance is very much wrapped up in a broader debate about who moves first,” Thwaites said.