US can lead on climate action by supporting developing countries

Next week President Biden will join leaders in Glasgow, Scotland, for the crucial COP26 global climate discussions. Billed by the president’s climate envoy John Kerry as the world’s “last best chance” to halt catastrophic climate change, eyes at the summit will be on the U.S. following years of inaction under the previous administration.

Biden, for his part, will certainly highlight his administration’s agenda to slash domestic greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and transition to a net-zero emissions economy by 2050 — an agenda he undoubtedly hopes will cement his legacy as the U.S. leader with the most ambitious plans to tackle the climate crisis.

However, the U.S. is far from being a climate champion for the world. Where this is most obvious is on climate finance for developing countries: Every single year since 2010, the U.S. has failed to contribute enough to the developed countries’ target of $100 billion a year to support developing countries’ response to climate change.

Ten years of missed commitments is a difficult legacy to overturn in the climate diplomacy space. True, the U.S. provides the largest sum out of all other countries. But relative to the country’s economic weight, population and past cumulative emissions, the U.S. actually provides the least climate finance. Contrary to its might and historic responsibility for our changed climate, the U.S. contributes less than smaller economies, less populated states and most of all, lesser historic emitters.

For example, the U.S. contributed less than Norway, Greece or Portugal, whose economies are 58, 110 and 90 times smaller than the U.S., and which emitted 130, 60 and 99 times less than the U.S. since 1990. More recently, in 2018, other G7 countries with historic emissions “only” six, 10 and 14 times less than the U.S. — Germany, UK, and France — gave far more, relative to their economic sizes, despite the U.S. economy being five, six and eight times larger, respectively. 

Even if Congress approves the doubling of climate funding to $11.4 billion a year, as Biden has proposed, the U.S. would still contribute well under what it should to show ownership and leadership. The American economy is the largest in the world, but at $11.4 billion a year, the U.S. would contribute less than Italy or Ireland, but more than Spain or Canada when accounting for historic emissions and economy size. The U.S. is not showing the leadership expected on such a defining issue for the next five years and beyond. And it certainly does not show that “America is back,” as Biden touted in the early days of his presidency. The end of the “forever wars” should enable the U.S. to reprioritize its foreign aid budget and shift funds to climate and development.

Of course, the failure to reach the $100 billion is a collective failure on the part of all developed countries. We remain about $10 billion to $15billion short in 2021, even though this promise itself dates back to 2009. Developed countries, recognizing that climate change is unfair, agreed to deliver finance to developing countries that are most impacted by climate change, have the least capacity to withstand it and are the least responsible for producing the emissions that changed our climate. The logic behind this financial support was one of trust and responsibility to own up to the injustice of climate change. These are the values that should underpin the climate negotiations.

So, why are we collectively falling short? It is hardly a question of resources. In fact, $100 billion represents less than 0.01 percent of the almost $20 trillion that G20 countries have spent stimulating their economies over the past 18 months. It also remains a lot less than the more than $700 billion the U.S. is set to spend annually on its defense budget, despite climate change risks ranking as one of the greatest national security threats.

Rather, the key issue has been the absence of a rule assigning shares of the target to each developed country. With no set formula defining each country’s contribution, the target has been missed every single year. No accountability has so far meant no ownership. We are now past 2020 when this goal should have been achieved. The plan was to craft a new, more ambitious goal that would have been announced in 2020, but as of late 2021, we have failed to reach the original goal.

As a result, the climate negotiations to be held in Glasgow in the coming week are starting under this inauspicious framing: Developed countries have not delivered on their promise, and the U.S., the largest historic emitter, has delivered the least of all relative to its economy. Given that climate negotiations rely on trust and the belief that climate action should not be understood as a zero-sum game, this failure is a severe drawback for our common future.

But here is an opportunity for the U.S. to take on the mantle of global climate leader through marshaling the resources to bridge $10 billion to $15 billion still needed. The U.S. should offer the sum as grants — not loans — it is not reasonable to ask Bolivia, Benin or Bhutan to take on new debt to cope with the climate crisis that they did not cause. From this standing, the U.S. would be able to seek greater contributions from other developed countries that have not met their fair share.

Given the $100 billion per year goal has been prolonged to 2025, the U.S. ultimately has four years to continue to build its credibility and restore faith that a climate commitment from the U.S. — and developed countries more broadly — is a promise that will be kept. To demonstrate this, the U.S. can pledge to deliver its fair share at $40 billion per year up to 2025.

Such a decision would greatly restore faith in the climate negotiation process and bolster other developed countries’ ambitions so that the next goal starting in 2025 can consider, in earnest, the $100 billion to be a floor, not a ceiling. 

Plus, to avoid repeating the situation we are now in, the U.S. can support the idea of apportioning shares of climate finance to individual countries based on their historic cumulative emissions and socio-economic capital. A more nuanced conversation could be fostered, moving away from the developed versus developing countries divide to meaningfully engage with fast-growing economies such as Brazil and China and reflect shifting realities in terms of economic development and associated emissions.

This is also about the legacy of a president who keeps a large portrait of FDR, arguably one of the most transformational presidents in U.S. history — and one who was no stranger to global crisis — hanging in the Oval Office. At a time when climate “code red” has been formally declared by the UN, how does the U.S. president want to be remembered? Biden can make the choice to unlock the climate finance negotiations. In doing so, he would not just be a transformational president at home on climate change, but an inspiration to the world.

Michael Sheldrick is co-founder and chief policy and government affairs officer for Global Citizen, working to rally support from governments, businesses and foundations to get the world on track to end extreme poverty.

Laetitia Pettinotti, Ph.D., is senior research officer for the International Economic Development Group at the Overseas Development Institute.

This piece has been updated.

Tags carbon emissions Climate change climate financing COP26 Global warming IPCC Joe Biden John Kerry Laetitia Pettinotti Michael Sheldrick Paris agreement

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