The United States has pledged billions to fight climate change. Then came the Ukrainian war


The United States owes billions of dollars in climate finance to developing countries. But the war in Ukraine is delaying payments and slowing US progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s leaving leaders in low-lying, less wealthy countries feeling frustrated and forgotten.

“Indeed, the United States owes the rest a climate debt that must be paid,” says Mohamed Adow, the head of PowerShift Africa, a coalition that advocates for climate policies across the continent. “Our continent is indeed on the front line, and we are paying the wrongs [of] these climate pollutants.

In 2021, the United States pledged to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions this decade and send long-overdue funds to help developing countries transition to cleaner energy and protect communities. residents from rising seas, heat waves, food instability and other dangerous climate effects.

If the United States follows through, it is still possible to prevent global temperatures from rising catastrophically and avert tens of millions of unnecessary deaths, scientists and economists say.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine could put many American promises on hold. Months after renewing its pledges at the international climate conference in Glasgow, the United States has failed to pass any major climate legislation. The Biden administration has reduced limits on domestic oil and gas drilling to deal with rising energy prices. This spring, Congress allocated less than a third of the international climate funding he has pledged, even as he has funneled billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.

“It’s very disheartening and worrying,” says Alejandra Lopez, climate policy expert at Transforma, a Colombia-based environmental think tank. “I don’t want to be disrespectful. [The war] is a major crisis,” she said. But “even if it [war] is a very scary scenario, climate change continues to be scarier.”

The lack of urgent action from the world’s richest economy – and the country most responsible for climate change due to its historic greenhouse gas emissions – is particularly frustrating for developing countries. who suffer disproportionately from global warming. And where every day of delay puts more people at risk.

By 2030, climate change could push nearly 5.8 million people into extreme poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the World Bank. The prognosis is even bleaker for island nations that are on track to be fully underwater by mid-century, and for cities in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. where heat and rising seas will force millions of people to migrate in order to survive.

“We have already lost so many lives to climate change,” says Adow. “Whether it’s drought, floods or cyclones, our continent has paid a huge price. It’s deeply unfair.”

The United States owes billions of dollars to developing countries

The United States owes billions of dollars in climate finance to less wealthy countries. It is not charity, but something akin to reparations. The idea is that countries that industrialized in the early and mid-twentieth century became rich partly by burning oil, gas, and coal. Climate change caused by emissions from this early industrialization poses the greatest threat to developing countries, which have contributed much less to global warming.

In global climate talks, countries have determined that some of this wealth must now be used to build a cleaner global economy and protect low-income countries from the effects of a warmer Earth. As part of the 2015 Paris Agreement, developed countries including the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and European countries agreed to provide $100 billion each year to developing countries .

“This is the responsibility of developed countries because their emissions are the main driver of climate change the world is experiencing today, of which a disproportionate burden falls on developing countries,” says Rachel Cleetus, international climate policy expert for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science advocacy group in the United States

But that $100 billion never fully materialized. In 2018, the most recent year for which full data is available, contributions were just under $80 billion, in part because the United States contributed so little.

Under the Obama administration, the United States has delivered just $1 billion, about a third of what it pledged under the Paris climate accord. Then the Trump administration completely canceled the United States’ membership of the agreement.

The Biden administration has said it will deliver on past promises by disbursing more than $11 billion a year to developing countries by 2024. The first step toward that goal was taken last fall, when states United announced that they would send $3.1 billion to climate-vulnerable developing countries. .

Then, in March, Congress only allocated $1 billion in international climate finance.

“When Biden came to power, he was a huge source of hope,” says Adow of PowerShift Africa. “I would say some of that hope was misplaced. He spoke of a good game, but he didn’t have a lot of substance. And now we’re seeing billions being pumped into the war in Ukraine.”

In March, the United States sent more than $13 billion to Ukraine, and another $40 billion in support is going through Congress.

A State Department spokesperson told NPR that U.S. international climate funding has been insufficient this year, but the U.S. is nonetheless committed to increasing its climate support to developing countries.

The Russian invasion influences US climate policy in multiple ways

According to climate economists, the war in Ukraine is setting back U.S. climate action in several ways. The Russian invasion is contributing to global economic inflation, which is fueling opposition to major infrastructure legislation stalled in Congress. This legislation would help the United States meet its emissions goals by investing in electric vehicles, solar and wind power, and energy-efficient buildings.

Rising gasoline prices have also led the Biden administration to encourage US fossil fuel companies to produce more oil and gas.

And then there’s the issue of mental bandwidth. “The biggest risk to U.S. climate action is simply a lack of focus and attention,” says Trevor Houser, a climate analyst at the Rhodium Group think tank in the U.S. “Policymakers in any country have limited attention, and the war in Ukraine is a giant crisis that requires a lot of focus and attention.”

Houser says the money going to Ukraine is not taken directly from climate initiatives. But the focus on the war and its effects distracts American policymakers from the urgent work of reducing emissions and adapting to climate change around the world.

“One of the great climate challenges is that [climate change] is still seen by policy makers as tomorrow’s problem,” says Houser. “That’s always the issue that you can come back to later.

This week, UN climate envoy Mark Carney warned that the war in Ukraine should not delay action to bring global warming under control, and cited the worsening effects of climate change on people living in developing countries.

This is a watershed moment for climate investing

Developing countries are acutely feeling the effects of missing money, as climate change causes more severe floods, cyclones, droughts, wildfires and heat waves around the world.

Dong Jianghui/Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

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Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images

Recent disasters have underscored the human cost. In April, hundreds of people died in weather-induced heat waves in India and Pakistan and floods in South Africa. Relentless heat and drought in the Middle East and Central Africa are causing crop damage and famine. And countries in Latin America are preparing for another season of destructive hurricanes without adequate infrastructure to protect people in coastal areas.

Plans are underway to protect the people of the United States from such dangers. For example, public funds finance the strengthening of coastal cities to manage floods, modernize early warning systems for hurricanes, build cooling centers to protect people during hot days, help people rebuild destroyed houses by forest fires and pay farmers when crops fail due to drought.

But in developing countries, many such projects are awaiting funding. For example, says Lopez, in Latin America there is a huge need for public health infrastructure to deal with diseases that will be more prevalent as the Earth warms. Countries also need physical infrastructure to protect populations from hurricanes and reduce urban emissions from cars and trucks.

However, such projects require public funding. And many developing countries don’t have the domestic tax revenue to fund these changes and protections themselves. “They already know how to do it, but they don’t have the money to invest,” says Lopez.

Such investments can also help reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Many developing countries have both abundant renewable energy and undeveloped oil and gas. If humans hope to prevent global temperatures from rising above the critical 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) threshold set by scientists, countries must stop investing in fossil fuel development, according to the International Agency. Energy.

“This continent is incredibly endowed with renewable energy,” says Adow, referring to Africa’s vastly underdeveloped wind, solar and geothermal resources. If more funding were available to launch clean technology projects across Africa, it would help address both the causes of climate change and its effects, according to a recent United Nations report.

“We will efficiently power this continent and lift people out of poverty without increasing emissions,” he said. “We just need the investment.”

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