Climate adaptation: Brown paints the big money picture – now to get the details right

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stepped out in front of all the contending parties to state the UK’s position five months ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in a speech today. Committing the UK to spend on helping poor countries adapt to the consequences of climate change on top of overseas development aid, Brown proposed “a working figure” for support for adaptation and mitigation from the world’s rich countries “of around $100 billion per annum by 2020.”

This announcement is a significant step forward in its own right in the international debate. It takes us much closer to what poor countries will actually need and is a significant step ahead of any other comparable move by any other developed country. Viewed in terms of the realpolitik of climate negotiations, putting a significant sum of money on the table like this (even though it’s not Brown’s to promise – he’s trying to get the others to stump up too) could be an important step in getting the parties closer to an agreement.

The contrast with the Waxman-Markey bill currently in front of the US House of Representatives is quite striking. As I explained in an earlier post (16 June), the bill anticipates committing about $700 million to fund adaptation internationally in 2012/13, rising to about $4 billion by 2030 (depending in part on the value of carbon emission rights). Assuming countries pay for adaptation in proportion to their share of carbon emissions, that implies a world total of about $16 billion being spent on adaptation in poor countries.

Gordon Brown and the UK government are being far more realistic by going for a working figure that is six times higher – even though we don’t know what the real cost for adaptation is going to be. The much smaller amount in the Waxman-Markey bill will be simply insufficient to meet the challenge. As a sceptic about the claims New Labour has often made over the past 12 years about leading the world in this and that, it gives me a strange kind of pleasure to read what Brown and co have come up with and say I hope others in the international community will now follow Britain’s lead.

In fact, before we move on, I think the Brown government – covered as it is with the ordure of scandal and recession that is dished out daily by the UK news media, the commentariat and the blogosphere – deserves a whole heap of credit for getting out in front of the crowd like this.

But key questions remain. These include detail on how the money will be spent , because the issue is not exhausted simply by saying how much would be allocated. The central question is how the UK government (and others as they join in) propose to deal with the fact that for many of the most vulnerable people already living with the impact of climate change, and therefore most in need of assistance, their own governments cannot be counted on to use the money properly.

International Alert’s report A Climate of Conflict identified 46 countries – home to 2.7 billion people – in which the effects of climate change inter-acting with existing social, political and economic problems create a high risk of violent conflict. Failing to act now to help people in poor countries adapt to climate change would be unforgiveable, which is part of what the Prime Minister said in his speech today. It would mean abandoning hundreds of millions of people to face the double challenge of climate change and conflict unaided.

But there’s another side to this. Global leaders must also be careful with the money they commit to this issue. They’ve got to ask not just “How much” but also “How”. Projects designed to help can often contribute to making conflict-affected countries where states are fragile even more vulnerable to violence. They can do this if projects inappropriately favour one social group over another, or one region over another, so that the largesse dispensed on one group becomes the source of resentment for others. And externally funded projects can also have a negative effect when the money gets into the wrong hands and slides off into the foreign bank accounts of a small fraction of the social and political elite.

Letting this happen would be equally unforgiveable.

We need to accept and respond to the uncomfortable fact that governments in many of the regions that are most affected by the combination of climate change and conflict risk may not have the best interests of their citizens at heart. That means that simply giving the money away is not the answer.

There are two aspects of this problem – two levels, perhaps – at which we need to focus on careful design, bringing those who are working on peacebuilding as well as development into the climate adaptation debate. These are two aspects of the issue of “how”:

  1. What is the best kind of financial mechanism? Gordon Brown came up with some suggestions in his speech. We need a good detailed discussion. What is the best combination of automatic mechanisms and discretionary budget instruments? What is the relationship between adaptation funding and overseas development aid? On this, Brown suggested 10 per cent of ODA could be used for adaptation; I would plump for a much higher figure of around 25-30 per cent – but that’s nothing more than hunch, so let’s get the discussion going. And who controls how the funds are disbursed? Some of the G-77 countries are arguing that they should and that certainly the World Bank shouldn’t. If we want to get the funding away from the control of the bilateral and multilateral development system (the Bank, the UNDP and individual donor governments), it is not going to be acceptable to public opinion in many rich countries simply to leave spending control to developing country governments, for fear that the money won’t get through to the people. So the nerdy-looking details of the choice of financial mechanisms really matter.
  2. What is best way to ensure that communities are involved in adaptation, that they build it from the bottom up, so that the money does not all go on big infrastructure projects? How do communities develop the capacity they need? Adaptation will not be real if it is a state-centric, top-down programme – especially in countries where the state lacks capacity and the government lacks the will. At its best and most effective, adaptation will combine bottom-up participation with central coordinated strategies at national level (so there is a top-down element), supported by international funding.

So Gordon Brown has painted the big picture. Now we must attend to the detail.

3 thoughts on “Climate adaptation: Brown paints the big money picture – now to get the details right

  1. Dan,

    Good article, but important to clarify:

    — $100 billion per annum by 2020 is for both adaptation and mitigation

    — Sources include carbon markets so unclear how much of this would be public finance

    Nonetheless it is definitely a step in the right direction and your central point holds: we need to focus on “how” as well as “how much

    Matt, E3G

  2. Excellent points, Dan. Precisely what must be discussed here at the Global Environmental Governance Forum this week at Montreux Switzerland .. I am here to speak on some of the perspectives from Southeast Asia. Your insights and arguments here are most helpful. Best regards to the IA family!

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