Biden commits to double U.S. climate change funding for developing nations

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President Biden announced Tuesday that the U.S. would double its financial contributions to help developing nations combat and adapt to climate change.

“In April, I announced the United States will double our public international financing to help developing nations tackle the climate crisis, and today, I’m proud to announce that we’ll work with the Congress to double that number again, including for adaptation efforts,” the president said in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

The announcement was part of Biden’s broader pitch to the global community ahead of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, planned for the first two weeks of November in Glasgow, Scotland. He made the case that the United States can be counted on to do its part in both reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions and helping poorer countries contend with the climate crisis.

After touting his Build Back Better agenda, which includes an array of domestic initiatives designed to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, Biden said, “We also have to support the countries and people that will be hit the hardest and that have the fewest resources to help them adapt.”

President Biden addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday in New York City.
President Biden addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday in New York City. (Eduardo Munoz-Pool/Getty Images)

The current shortfall in climate aid from developed countries is a major sticking point in global climate diplomacy. On Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres cited this as one of the major reasons that, “unless we collectively change course, there is a high risk of failure” of keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In 2009, at the 15th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. climate framework, the world’s richest countries promised to make $100 billion per year available to developing nations for climate action by 2020. In 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, only $79.6 billion had been provided, according to a report released Friday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The world’s largest economy, the U.S. also leads the world in total greenhouse gas emissions to date (China now emits more annually). The Overseas Development Institute, an independent London-based think tank, calculated that, based on “gross national income, cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and population,” the United States’ “fair share” of financing for the developing world would be $43.4 billion annually, but that it is coming up with just under $2 billion per year on average.

“The greatest shortfall in absolute terms is the U.S., which provides less funding than France, Germany, Japan or the United Kingdom — though its economy is larger than all of them combined,” the report noted.

Biden had already committed to increasing U.S. climate finance to $5.7 billion per year by 2024, and his latest proposal raises that to $11.4 billion. (Exact estimates of current U.S. funding vary, depending on what is counted as climate finance, but the U.S. is a laggard by every measure.)

While $100 billion might sound like a lot, national governments don’t have to come up with all the money on their own, and a lot of it will be paid back. For example, it could be considered to include a loan to build a solar panel factory in Bangladesh from the World Bank, the U.S. Import-Export Bank or even U.S.-based corporations.

“With our added support, together with increased private capital, from other donors, we’ll be able to meet the goal of mobilizing $100 billion to support climate action in developing nations,” Biden said Tuesday.

In an aerial view, a worker with Fowler Brothers Farming uses a wheel loader to move a pile of almond trees during an orchard removal project on May in Snelling, Calif.
A worker in Snelling, Calif., uses a wheel loader to move a pile of almond trees during an orchard removal project in May. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Environmental and humanitarian activists praised Biden’s announcement, although some noted that the U.S. would still be contributing well below what is needed from the country and what it spends on other foreign policy priorities. “Any increase is good, and the administration deserves credit for listening to its critics. But for context, Biden's FY22 defense spending request was roughly $750bn,” tweeted Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns at ActionAid USA, which promotes global social justice.

Another key area of concern for developing nations is that rich countries tend to prefer lending money for projects that reduce emissions — which also helps the rich countries themselves, by limiting future climate change — rather than adapting to an already changing climate in poor, often hot places that are suffering record heat waves, floods, droughts and resulting crises, such as famines. On Monday, Guterres also mentioned as a condition necessary for success in Glasgow the need for rich countries to meet the developing world’s demand that half of all climate finance be for adaptation.

“We are seeing indeed that all countries are increasingly vulnerable to climate disruption,” Guterres said. “But the developing world is the least able to adapt and build resilience. As I mentioned, it is very important to reach 50 percent of climate finance in adaptation. And I have been asking all donors and financers to commit to that allocation.”

In his U.N. address, Biden tried to persuade developing countries that they will be given the tools and inducements needed to agree to tightly limit their future emissions, contend with climate change and develop sustainably. This is crucial, because if large developing countries such as India and Indonesia instead follow the path that China has taken, emissions will spike and global warming will go far past the 1.5 degrees Celsius benchmark that scientists say will cause catastrophic climate change.

One further sticking point, of course, is Congress. Democrats hold only razor-thin margins in each chamber. With no support from Republicans for Biden’s climate action agenda, and centrist Democrats calling for cuts to his domestic spending proposals, it remains to be seen whether the president can marshal the majorities needed to make good on his climate finance commitment.

Biden repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. is back on the world stage and ready to reengage. But some listeners didn’t see enough of a change.

“Climate finance to help the world’s vulnerable people is the elephant in the room heading towards the COP26 climate summit,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, in a statement, referring to the Glasgow conference. “So, it’s good to see President Biden is upping the amount that the U.S. is contributing, and others should certainly follow suit. However, the U.S. is still woefully short of what it owes, and this needs to be increased urgently. As the world’s major historic and current polluter, the U.S. is responsible for the climate crisis, which is destroying lives and livelihoods around the world, including in my home country of Kenya. Biden doing the bare minimum is not what we expected from a Democratic president who claimed to be a major break from the dark days of the Donald Trump era.”


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