Weeks before world leaders gather for COP26, Canada is at the centre of attempts to restore broken trust among poorer countries that could derail the landmark United Nations conference, where participants will attempt to set a course for collective action to combat climate change.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson has been tasked alongside a German counterpart, Jochen Flasbarth, with helping ensure developed economies finally make good on a commitment to provide $100-billion in annual climate financing to developing countries. The funding is supposed to both help those poorer countries reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and assist them in preparing for already inescapable climate-change impacts.
The co-leadership reflects relatively well on Canada and Germany. They were asked to take it on by the British government, which will host COP in Glasgow in November, because they were among the first countries to announce this year that they would boost their contributions to the climate-finance fund, in order to get it closer to its promised total. In Canada’s case, that means doubling its commitment to an average of a little over $1-billion per year.
But the last-minute scramble that Mr. Wilkinson is involved in – upon which he elaborated in an interview this week, before departing for pre-COP meetings in Italy – reflects how badly richer countries (including Canada) have dropped the ball since since the funding commitment was first made more than a decade ago.
The annual $100-billion was never going to be enough to meet the needs of recipients, even taking into account that it’s meant to leverage additional private investment. Reaffirmed in the Paris Agreement in 2015, the funding was supposed to be a starting point for the developed world. And it was supposed to act as a signal from rich countries that they recognize their obligations to nations that historically have done less to create the climate crisis through emissions, but that now disproportionately face its consequences.
If that responsibility had been taken seriously enough, people like Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Flasbarth would now be leading discussions about what comes next. If the $100-billion target had already been met or exceeded, they would be working toward a higher annual total. If the developed world had cared enough to put in place strong systems to track contributions and allocations, they would be learning from what worked and what didn’t, and setting future policies accordingly.
Instead, Canada and Germany are still trying to persuade some countries just to increase their contributions enough to get to $100-billion annually in the next few years, let alone by 2020 as originally promised.
There has been some recent progress, including from the United States, although it remains to be seen if President Joe Biden’s promised doubling of U.S. funds to $11.4-billion annually by 2024 gets through Congress. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also emerged as a surprisingly forceful advocate. He used a UN speech last week to chastise developed countries that haven’t yet stepped up.
But Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Flasbarth are still running into governments that insist they’ve already done their fair share, don’t have fiscal capacity after all their COVID-19 spending or aren’t at the points in their budgetary cycles where they can allocate new funds.
What makes matters even worse, though, is that much of the work for Mr. Wilkinson and Mr. Flasbarth seems to involve trying to make sense of what has actually been committed to date, which Mr. Wilkinson laughingly called “not simple.”
That means aiming for something more up-to-date than the “backward-looking” numbers compiled by the OECD, which are the best currently available, but which only go through 2019 (when the organization reported approximately $80-billion total). And it means figuring out if pledges made by donor countries have actually gone out the door, as well as looking out for double-counting, in which both the funds flowing from donor countries to development banks and the funds flowing from the development banks toward recipient countries are counted toward the total.
Transparency around the numbers, Mr. Wilkinson said, “is critical for the credibility of this exercise.” So the plan is to release a report, before COP begins, on where exactly things stand, and next steps.
But the failure to take stock before now threatens to thwart the evolution of climate finance policies at the coming conference.
By this point, we should be well into a discussion of how much money should be allocated specifically for climate adaptation in poorer countries. This requires particular focus, both because infrastructure in developing countries isn’t near ready for increasingly frequent extreme weather and natural disasters, and because it’s harder to raise private capital for that sort of investment than for mitigating emissions.
There are all kinds of other conversations that should ideally be culminating in Glasgow, too. How efficiently have funds been spent by recipient countries so far, and are mechanisms needed to better track that spending? Is it a problem that the bulk of financing has been in the form of loans, and does a specific portion need to be grants? Are adjustments needed to which countries count as developing, and which should be expected to donate?
On some of these fronts, Mr. Wilkinson anticipated “active discussion” to begin shortly, perhaps even in Italy this week. But it seems improbable there has been enough advance work for detailed plans to be formed yet.
At this point, the best hope is probably that there are enough firm new commitments toward the $100-billion goal to at least allow initial talks about next steps to begin in earnest – and, crucially, to allow the funding pledge to regain some credibility.
It doesn’t help matters that, with low COVID-19 vaccination rates, poorer countries currently face extra challenges even sending delegates to COP26.
The bigger problem, still, could be skepticism about how seriously they should take anything pledged by richer countries in Glasgow, and in how much good faith they should participate themselves.
Mr. Wilkinson said that an element of his current effort, in addition to bringing more transparency to funding to date and pressuring allies to up their share, is “engaging with the developing world, to make sure it understands that the developed world is taking very seriously the commitment made in Paris.”
However hard he’s working on that, actions will speak louder than words. There is little more than a month to make up for many years of lost time.
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