Global climate change politics are at a critical juncture.
On the one hand, there is promising momentum around the climate change pact negotiated last December in Paris, which officially entered into force on Nov. 4. And representatives from countries around the world are meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, to discuss the next steps to implement the accord.
On the other hand, one of the key questions under discussion at the Marrakech meeting remains unanswered: Who will pay for the agreement? This critical question has threatened to scuttle negotiations altogether.
Wealthy countries last year pledged US$100 billion per year to help poorer ones reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and contend with the myriad effects of a warming planet.
But the pledge won little enthusiasm. Poor countries demanded firmer commitments with much greater specificity in where the money will come from and how it will be used. The Paris Conference in December 2015, while viewed as a success, did little to resolve such debates.
Now that President-elect Trump has proposed cutting off all U.S. funding for such aid, the situation is even more dire.
His administration’s plan to abandon aid to poor countries exposes a core problem in climate governance: The tensions over climate aid are deeply entwined in decades of North-South financing disputes. Any successful climate agreement must not only include greater aid from rich countries to assist poor ones cope with climate change, but also address longstanding political conflicts around aid for environmental protection.
Indira Gandhi’s speech
The roots of the climate finance debate go back as far as World War II. After the war, countries around the world pursued rapid economic growth, especially the so-called “developing countries” of the Global South. As many threw off the yoke of colonialism, they hoped to overcome widespread poverty.
At the same time, a few environmental activists began to worry over the ecological consequences of how the rich countries had pursued growth. Pollution, landscape despoliation and resource exhaustion all represented warnings of what unheeded development would do. They worried that developing countries would repeat the same mistakes their wealthier counterparts had made.
Environmentalists, however, struggled to persuade developing countries to protect the environment. Environmental protection, after all, challenged the most basic assumptions of development thought and practice.
Development at the time was understood as removing barriers to rapid industrialization. Environmental protection was about placing limits on what humans could and should do. Developing countries viewed environmental protection as imperialism in a new guise: a tool by wealthy countries to undercut their development and invade their sovereignty. They claimed protecting the environment was a rich man’s game, something to do only after their basic needs had been met.
In the 1972 Stockholm conference, the first major U.N. environmental meeting, this North-South conflict dominated proceedings. When the wealthy countries or environmental activists demanded global environmental protection agreements, the countries of the Global South demanded additional aid to pay for environmental protection and compensation for switching to environmentally friendly development.
“The rich countries may look upon development as the cause of environmental destruction,” Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi proclaimed, “but to us it is one of the primary means of improving the environment for living, or providing food, water, sanitation and shelter.”
The wealthy countries made tepid promises to increase aid and offer some compensation, but, in the ensuing years, the Global South rarely got either. Subsequent meetings over the 1970s and 1980s rehearsed the same script.
The conflicts surfaced again in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit as countries negotiated the original climate change convention. Negotiators did create new mechanisms to facilitate the flow of money from North to South, such as the World Bank’s Global Environmental Facility, and promised to increase their foreign aid, but their pledges were insufficient to meet the scale of the challenges, and few countries followed through in full.
A few years later, the United States rejected the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, in part because the Senate passed a resolution asserting that the U.S. would refuse to sign any agreement that required the poor countries to do less to cut emissions than their rich counterparts. Most recently, at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, wealthy countries promised a “green climate fund” of US$100 billion in annual public and private investments in poor countries by 2020. Those commitments, though, have been slow coming.
In other words, the pattern still holds. The rich countries have yet to meet poorer countries’ demands for climate aid, and a climate agreement has stayed out of reach.
More specifics at Marrakech
Fortunately, concerned observers are focusing on the nitty-gritty details of climate financing. Climate negotiators have made finance a “main priority” in discussions in Marrakesh. A recent report by the Australian and British governments suggested the wealthy countries could reach their $100 billion pledge by 2020 if they increase their leverage of private investments. And there is increasing evidence that climate change requires immediate action, as every month so far in 2016 has broken previous marks for being the hottest on record.
Still, persistent questions remain. Will the most vulnerable populations in the Global South be compensated for the damage caused by carbon emissions largely generated by the wealthy countries over previous decades? Which institutions will ensure that climate finance from North to South is both adequate and reliably delivered? To what extent will climate finance be “new and additional” – a demand of the Global South – instead of repurposed existing development aid? Most importantly, will Trump’s election promises to cut climate aid altogether undo the progress made in Paris?
These questions require specific answers. Two short-term courses of action could greatly help.
First, climate finance still lacks a clear accounting framework, since last December in Paris all negotiators could agree to do was formally punt these issues until 2018 at the earliest. A mutually agreed upon accounting framework is vital to help countries agree whether the $100 billion pledge is, in fact, being met.
Second, given the fact of President-elect Trump in the White House and the likely arrival of climate skeptics to position of power in the United States, meaningful climate finance requires that voters in other wealthy countries must accept this responsibility, even if that meant sacrificing a greater portion of national wealth.
More specifically, the countries of the EU and perhaps even countries such as Brazil and China will have to take the lead on financing in the next few years. Europe has already pledged to increase its climate aid in the last month, and China has in fact shown a willingness to take a leading role in climate talks.
Question of equity
Trump’s election will certainly curtail U.S. efforts to fight climate change, but it need not undermine other forms of international cooperation. After all, international cooperation has persisted amid past periods of U.S. withdrawal, such as when President George W. Bush left the Kyoto Protocol. And meaningful cooperation over climate financing always lagged, even when the United States actively supported climate protection initiatives.
With or without U.S. leadership, the wealthy countries should still accelerate and meet their official commitment of $100 billion in annual flows with greater specificity of where, when and how this aid will arrive. Such pledges would strengthen North-South relations and begin to strike an equitable balance between the quest for growth and the reality of environmental limits.