As leaders gather for G-7, a key question: Will rich countries help poor ones grapple with climate change?

Source: By Brady Dennis, Washington Post • Posted: Tuesday, June 8, 2021

“This is a matter of urgency and trust,” says the U.N. secretary general, calling the meeting a “pivotal” moment

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From his home in Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu, high in the Himalayas, Sonam P. Wangdi has witnessed climate change speed the retreat of glaciers and fuel flash floods in his country. He has watched other developing nations confront rising seas encroaching on Pacific islands and drought plaguing farms in Africa.

“We are bearing the brunt of the impacts,” said Wangdi, the chair of a group of 47 of the world’s poorest nations that negotiate as a bloc at international climate talks. “It’s the poorest who have contributed the least [to the problem], but who suffer the most. The richer countries have the most capacity to adapt to climate change, and they are the most insulated.”

Wangdi and representatives from the small, poor and often cash-strapped countries facing the immediate consequences of climate change won’t be at the table this week when President Biden and other leaders meet for the Group of Seven summit 5,000 miles away in England.

Even so, G-7 leaders are facing mounting pressure to make good on a promise that the United States and others have not kept: that rich nations would mobilize at least $100 billion annually to help developing countries build greener economies and deal with the intensifying catastrophes caused by climate change.

The largest and wealthiest countries have promised ambitious new plans to cut their greenhouse gas emissions and slow Earth’s warming. But although much of the public spotlight has centered on those national pledges, the issue of whether they also will help more vulnerable countries has emerged as a test of the Paris climate accord’s central tenet — that the world will succeed or fail together in fighting climate change.

“This is a matter of urgency and trust,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told a recent international gathering, calling the G-7 a “pivotal moment” in which rich countries must follow through on helping fund climate adaptation and mitigation projects in struggling nations. For some countries, he said, “this means at least doubling their latest climate commitments.”

At their meeting in Cornwall, Biden and his counterparts from Canada, Europe and Japan must grapple with profound crises — the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the lack of universal access to vaccines and economies battered by the fallout. But they acknowledge that adequate climate financing for the most at-risk nations must also be a central priority.

Developed countries, whose greenhouse gas emissions have fueled climate change, pledged more than a decade ago to begin marshaling $100 billion annually by 2020 to help the most defenseless nations deal with the worsening consequences of sea-level rise, heat waves and other effects of warming — and to transition away from fossil fuels as their own economies grow.

Contributions have increased over time, although deciphering an accurate number of where they stand has long been difficult and contentious. It depends in part on how different countries define and account for climate finance, and the effort involves tallying up various funding mechanisms used to deliver money around the world.

According to one analysis from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, climate finance for developing countries rose to $78.9 billion in 2018. But the developed world has yet to fully back up its promises, and only a small percentage of public funding has gone to the most urgent form of need: financing for countries coping with the catastrophes that are already happening.

On Thursday, the humanitarian aid group CARE International released a separate analysis of climate finance plans by developed countries, calling them largely “hollow commitments.” The report found that “developed countries are not on track” to deliver the promised $100 billion annually, and many wealthy nations have yet to detail how they will ramp up such support.

“The U.N. process, and any reasonable negotiation, only works if one side can trust the other to do what is agreed and what is promised,” Mohamed Adow, director of the African climate and energy think tank Power Shift Africa, said in an email. “Finance and emissions cuts are two sides of the same coin. The finance is essential in order to fund the technological transition from fossil fuels to renewables around the world. We can’t do this on the cheap.”

Vulnerable nations have flexed their collective muscle before, notably banding together in 2015 to force more ambitious targets under the Paris agreement. They successfully fought for a more challenging global goal of limiting Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels — rather than merely 2 degrees Celsius.

Their message in Paris was epitomized by a poster created by Caribbean nations that showed a young girl up to her neck in the rising ocean, with the message, “1.5 to stay alive.” An accompanying song carried the lyrics, “Your half measures are killing the poor; it’s climate justice we are fighting for.”

Already, the world has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) since the late 19th century, and some hotspots around the globe have eclipsed 2 degrees Celsius of localized warming. On Monday, scientists reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached the highest levels since accurate measurements began 63 years ago, despite the economic slowdown imposed by the pandemic.

Last month, environmental ministers from G-7 nations previewed the climate actions leaders are likely to tackle when they meet in England. In a communique issued at the end of a two-day meeting, they agreed that their countries would work to stop international financing for coal projects. They promised to safeguard 30 percent of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. And they set more aggressive climate targets aimed at limiting Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The group also reaffirmed a commitment to financial aid for poorer nations, although the details on how precisely that will happen remain unsettled.

“We will promote enabling environments to mobilize private finance towards these efforts while also enhancing action from the international community to support the poorest and those most vulnerable to climate change, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation,” the group wrote.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has made climate change a priority after four years in which President Donald Trump dismissed the science on it, withdrew from the Paris accord and called international finance efforts “yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States.”

President Biden recently asked Congress to once again increase funding for international climate assistance. His proposed budget contains hundreds of millions of dollars for various multilateral initiatives, including a request for $1.2 billion for the Green Climate Fund, the main U.N.-backed conduit to climate projects throughout the developing world. Barack Obama pledged $3 billion to the fund toward the end of his presidency, but the United States has remained $2 billion short after Trump walked away from the Paris accord and stopped payments to the fund.

The White House has promised to double U.S. public climate financing for developing countries by 2024, compared with the average level during Obama’s second term, and to triple the amount of financing designated to helping poorer countries adapt to impacts that are causing destruction.

One State Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the U.S. plans, acknowledged that the country has “a lot of catching up to do in meeting our commitments.” But, the official said, Biden’s initial proposals are meant as a “down payment” on doing that, assuming Congress will pay for it.

“This is about rebuilding trust in our position,” the official said.

For many advocates in the developing world, the issue goes beyond money. After all, annual climate adaptation costs alone in developing countries already amount to $70 billion and could reach $300 billion by the end of this decade, according to a detailed U.N. report published in January. Any full-scale attempt to help poorer nations deal with droughts, floods and other effects, while also making the transition toward more clean energy infrastructure, would require a wave of private capital beyond what governments provide.

But whether rich nations live up to their long-standing promise serves as a test of good faith and unity as the world tries to alter its current trajectory.

“The G-7 meeting will be a test for international solidarity. This implies solidarity on both ensuring equitable and rapid access to vaccines globally, as well as on finance and support for the climate crisis,” Harjeet Singh, a New Delhi-based senior adviser for Climate Action Network International, said in an email.

He added that the $100 billion commitment from developed countries is “only the floor, not the ceiling on what is needed to address the climate crisis.”

Diann Black-Layne, a diplomat from Antigua and Barbuda, and the lead international negotiator for a group that represents dozens of small island nations and low-lying coastal states, said the calculus amounts to the world’s largest historical emitters paying their fair share for their role in fueling climate change.

“Let’s be clear. Climate finance pays for the impact of pollution of others,” she told attendees at a recent U.N. climate meeting to lay the groundwork for November’s global gathering in Scotland.

At home in Bhutan, Wangdi said poor nations also face mounting debt and economies wrecked by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are facing dual calamities,” he said. “It is pretty grim.”

Still, Wangdi said he is optimistic that at the G-7 summit and in the months that follow, leaders of the richest nations — including some of the biggest historical emitters — will summon the political will that has been lacking.

Not only is it the moral decision, he said, but the whole world stands to benefit.

“This is a global problem, and it needs a global solution,” he said. “We are fighting a common enemy.”