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Climate change: A better British offer to the developing world

Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam were invited to the G7 meetings in Japan over the weekend, where the main issue was an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC). Indeed, free and open countries will need to better accommodate the interests of developing economies, else risk making the PRC’s alternative more attractive. 

32 countries abstained from the United Nations (UN) vote calling for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. These included countries that the United Kingdom (UK) has historic ties to through the Commonwealth – India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and South Africa. Although such abstentions do not imply support for Russia, they detail how the perspective of Britain (and most free and open nations) towards the war can lack appeal. At the same time, the PRC has been forging stronger economic and security ties with countries that are key to the functioning of the global economy, and now Britain’s specifically, like Qatar, and carving out its own narrative on Russia’s aggression.

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, has said that the PRC poses the ‘biggest challenge of our age’. Part of responding to that challenge should be helping countries to protect themselves from what could be a more direct threat to their own security: climate change.

Climate change will place greater environmental pressure on many developing nations. Nigeria, for instance, is experiencing threats to its food security and rapid rural-to-urban migration due to desertification in the north and high-intensity rainfall in the south. This is not all caused by climate change – agricultural methods are also to blame. But it is a salient example of how a country needs support dealing with environmental pressures within its own borders.

Part of the G7’s offer to developing nations regarding wider competition with the PRC should include helping them to deal with these pressures. Many developing nations need support to leapfrog fossil fuels, especially coal, but also to increase their climate resilience. On the first issue, developing more just energy transition partnerships, as we have seen in South Africa, Vietnam, and Indonesia, would help.

Rather than the UN loss and damage fund, the UK could seek to work with Commonwealth countries to make investment in environmental resilience its priority.

On the second, His Majesty’s (HM) Government should lead efforts on the faster dissemination of climate finance to where it is needed. Many developed economies let the rest of the world down when they failed to meet the promise made in 2009 to deliver US$100 billion (£81 billion) in climate finance by 2020. This allowed the PRC, which employs discursive statecraft in its climate diplomacy to sell itself to the world and criticise developed free and open nations, to point the finger of blame.

But the replacement idea of a loss and damage fund likely may prove to be as disappointing. It is an open-ended liability which will be placed entirely on what the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change classifies as ‘developed countries’. The PRC, the world’s largest polluter, has refused to put money in. Yet as James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, pointed out: ‘China has pumped more carbon into the atmosphere in the last 10 years than this country has since the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 18th century.’

The UK has recently increased the amount it is spending on adaptation. HM Government will triple its international climate finance funding for adaptation from £500 million in 2019 to £1.5 billion in 2025 and support new approaches in Disaster Risk Financing. 

This is a positive move given the strong, but slower-than-needed progress on global mitigation. Last week, news broke that there is now a 66% chance the 1.5°C global warming threshold will be passed between now and 2027. While more must be done to lower overall temperature rises, much more should be done to help vulnerable countries cope.

There is a strategic benefit to investing more in adaptation. If fragile states are allowed to succumb to environmental pressures, there could be significant spillover from likely conflicts over resources. Not demonstrating leadership on climate change may also allow rivals to claim that space.

But to capitalise as much as possible on the benefit, developed countries should seek the fastest and most politically durable methods of getting climate finance to where it is needed. Rather than the UN loss and damage fund, the UK could seek to work with Commonwealth countries – which include a great number of climate vulnerable countries – to make investment in environmental resilience its priority.

The Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub helps countries to unlock the available climate finance. Small and vulnerable member states bid for access to climate finance. It has some fantastic case studies, but only US$252.5 million (£203.8 million) has been mobilised as of April 2023.

The Commonwealth could be upgraded as a vehicle to get climate finance to its most vulnerable member states. Britain should work with other developed Commonwealth countries – like Australia and Canada – and encourage emerging Commonwealth economies to take on more responsibility in the world – like India – to get billions of dollars to where it is urgently needed. This would deliver results faster than the UN loss and damage fund, which might never arrive in practice at the scale required.

Jack Richardson is James Blyth Associate Fellow at the Council on Geostrategy. He is also Head of Energy and Climate at Onward.

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