COP17 - Show me the money

Rich countries: pay your climate debt
Policy Analyst

I am a Policy Officer working with ActionAid USA for policies to help poor countries and communities address the impacts of climate change.

Every year, countries that have signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) gather to discuss next steps on fighting the climate crisis.  This year, 194 countries will gather in Durban, South Africa.  This conference has particular significance, as it is taking place on the continent of Africa—one of the continents most deeply impacted by climate change. 

It is projected that in some countries in Africa yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to half by 2020—less than ten years from today—as a result of climate change.  And by 2050, the World Food Program estimates that the number of people at risk of hunger as a result of climate change is expected to increase by 10 to 20%.  Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be the worst affected region.

But will the real-life realities of poor people—those who have contributed least to the climate crisis yet are suffering most from its impacts—matter to policy makers?  Or will Durban be another business-as-usual summit in which the interests of polluting industries and the finance sector trump the interests of the poor? 

Two years ago, at the climate summit in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed to a goal of mobilizing $100 billion every year by 2020 to help developing countries confront the climate crisis.  New resources, for example, could help support poor farmers to learn about new sustainable agricultural techniques to help them grow food in times of floods and droughts, or could help make schools and hospitals better able to withstand flash floods.

Over the past two years, however, developed countries have made almost no progress in agreeing how to generate the promised climate cash.  And while $100 billion may sound like a lot, there are actually numerous innovative approaches, such as a tiny tax on financial transactions or the fuel used by ships and airplanes that could generate at least $100 billion each year.

All in an effort to evade their responsibility to act, however, developed countries have spent significant time debating how to leverage and mobilize private sector funding, with almost no attention paid to generating public funds.  No matter that a poor community may not have roads or electricity—there is some pervading myth that—with the right incentives and the right conditions for investment—the private sector will step in.

The United States, the single largest polluter (when looking at emissions over the past century), is possibly the biggest obstacle to progress on agreement on new sources of funding.  And it’s not just that the US does not support a single approach to generate public funding.  It’s that the US is trying to block a conversation – a conversation - inside the UNFCCC on ways to generate public finance.  It’s not up to the United Nations to tell the rest of us how to come up with our share of the $100 billion, says the United States.  Maybe the US has forgotten it’s in a global negotiation…

Progress in Durban will depend in large part on the willingness of developed countries to at least start the conversation on how to generate a significant portion of the $100 billion with public funding.

Ideally, developed countries would agree to more than just a conversation (this is, after a global crisis).

One approach that has some momentum within the UNFCCC is taxing the polluting shipping and aviation industries.  Emissions from these two global transport industries account for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and their emissions are rising fast. A modest tax on the fuel of these sectors could generate just under $40 billion per year.  Certainly makes logical sense that industries should help pay for the damages their pollution has caused. 

Another approach is levying a tiny tax on all financial market transactions, including stocks, bonds, foreign exchange, and derivatives.  Some refer to it as the ‘Robin Hood Tax,’ as it essentially takes from the rich and could then be redistributed to the poor.  According to the Austrian Institute for Economic Research, a global financial transaction tax of 0.1% could generate between US$410 billion and US$1.06 trillion per year, a portion of which could go to help developing countries confront climate change.  

There are no shortages of options. Only a shortage of political will. 

Durban represents another opportunity to get it right.  When policy makers meet on African soil, they must stand with communities in Africa and elsewhere disproportionately impacted by climate change. The world cannot afford to wait any longer.

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