The United States is beginning to pay its overdue bills to poorer countries on the front lines of climate change.
President Joe Biden’s $1 billion infusion to the U.N. Green Climate Fund on Thursday doubles America’s total contribution to that account, which last received a payment from the United States in 2017.
Yet the ledger tells a story of broken promises.
The United States remains in arrears from almost a decade ago, when former President Barack Obama promised to give the fund $3 billion. The receipts show that the United States — with the biggest economy worldwide and the most carbon emissions released among all nations — is struggling to meet its international commitments on climate finance.
Total U.S. payments to the fund are $2 billion. That’s just two-thirds of Obama’s 2014 pledge. And it won’t get any easier. Biden promised in 2021 to provide $11.4 billion a year in climate aid to developing nations. With Republicans in control of the House, that’s unlikely to happen.
Here are the biggest questions, and answers, about America’s role on global climate aid.
Is this a big deal?
Yes — and no. It’s significant that the United States is trying to make good on its commitments. Climate advocates say it will help restore U.S. credibility on the global stage, and it might encourage other countries to boost their contributions.
It will also infuse the Green Climate Fund with additional money at a time when demand for adaptation and clean energy projects is outpacing what the fund can pay for. The program’s acting director, Henry Gonzalez, said in a statement that the money would provide “urgently needed” finance for climate-vulnerable countries.
Unlike commercial loans, the fund provides money at below-market interest rates, making it an important source of support for countries that are weighed down by major debt burdens. It’s the world’s largest dedicated climate fund and was mandated by the Paris Agreement to spend its money evenly on adaptation and mitigation projects.
But critics say the Green Climate Fund has struggled to get money out the door. That’s raised questions about whether the program is the most efficient vehicle for distributing limited climate dollars.
Where did the money come from?
The State Department’s economic support fund from fiscal 2022 and 2023. That’s money Congress appropriates to State to use in ways that help promote economic or political stability in other countries.
In other words, the Biden administration got creative.
That happened after Congress debated — and then denied — Biden’s budget request for $1.6 billion for the Green Climate Fund in this year’s omnibus spending bill. The fund has been a lightning rod for Republicans — so much so that Congress has never appropriated money to it.
So finding money for the fund has not been easy. One reason it might have taken Biden two years to come up with the cash could be the government’s concern around ensuring the money wasn’t being taken away from other climate priorities, said Joe Thwaites, an international climate finance advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Future funding will likely need to go through the appropriations process. That could take awhile.
Is this the only climate fund?
No way. It’s just one part of an increasingly complex landscape.
Countries agreed at last year’s climate talks to create a dedicated fund to pay for losses and damages caused by climate change. In layman’s terms, those are known as the unavoidable destruction of lives, cultures and property from rising seas, stronger storms and disappearing food. Negotiations on the specifics of that fund are ongoing. That means it doesn’t have any money yet.
The inability of the United States to make good on its past commitments — like the Green Climate Fund — has cast doubt on America’s willingness to find money for other programs.
Paying into the Green Climate Fund is politically important, said Clemence Landers, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development. “But it is one piece of a large amount of commitments that have been made that have not yet come to fruition.”
It’s a challenge climate envoy John Kerry says he’s well aware of.
“The developed world has a responsibility to step up. There’s a growing anger among nations, which I completely understand and everybody ought to understand, which comes from promises that have not been kept, promises broken,” he said during a recent interview with Foreign Policy.
Will the U.S. find more money?
Biden has pledged to quadruple U.S. climate finance to more than $11 billion annually by 2024, but the federal spending bill for fiscal 2023 contains just $1 billion to help developing countries respond to climate change. Closing that gap will be an uphill battle.
While domestic finance for climate has scaled up dramatically, particularly with passage of the climate law known as the Inflation Reduction Act, international spending has stayed relatively flat.
The Biden administration has instead focused on reforming the World Bank and other multilateral development lenders so they can offer more lending to deal with climate change.
The United States also has turned increasingly to the private sector and philanthropic funding.
Why did Biden announce the money now?
The Green Climate Fund will launch a call for fresh funding in the fall. It’s also undergoing a leadership transition, with Mafalda Duarte set to take the helm soon.
She has led the Climate Investment Funds — another multilateral account — since 2014, and observers say new leadership at the Green Climate Fund could provide an opportunity to reset the institution.
If the United States commits to a new round of funds during the program’s replenishment period, it could spur additional promises from other countries — and build goodwill for the United States. But the Biden administration would need to clear its current deficit of $1 billion for that commitment to carry any weight.
“Ultimately the U.S. is still a billion dollars short, and maybe they do this again next year and complete their pledge,” said Bella Tonkonogy, director of the U.S. climate finance team at the Climate Policy Initiative. “[But] there’s a lot of countries that are coming with new resources and saying, you know, ‘We’re going to increase our pledge.'”
The United Kingdom, Japan, France and Germany have all provided more than $2 billion to the fund — outpacing the United States.
Beyond that, the United States is trying to get other countries, including China and wealthy Persian Gulf nations, to contribute more to climate finance — not just to the Green Climate Fund but potentially to a new loss and damage program.
“It’s very hard to make that case for expanding the contributor base if the largest economy in the world is not actively contributing,” said Thwaites of NRDC.