How is the world going to finance the implementation of renewable energies in developing countries? “COP 17 will have to answer that question. If it doesn’t, it risks being branded a failure,” said Tasneem Essop, international climate change advocate for the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
She was speaking ahead of the global summit on climate change, which begins in Durban, South Africa, Monday (28 November). Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meet annually, at gatherings known as Conferences of the Parties. Durban will host the 17th such meeting, so it’s branded COP 17.
“If we are to move towards a healthier planet, the Green Climate Fund must become operational in Durban,” said Essop, a veteran of several such summits and a former provincial environment minister in South Africa.
Zambian environmental engineer Alex Simalabwi, who works for the Global Water Partnership in Stockholm, said, “It won’t help us much if only the richer countries implement cleaner energies and the poorer countries continue to burn coal. If we’re to save the planet, developing countries must also establish clean power sources. But for this, they’re going to need a lot of money – money that especially the smaller nations don’t have….”
‘Mirage’ of funding
At the COP talks in Cancun, Mexico, last year, there was international consensus on the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries begin to move away from the harmful practice of burning coal for energy.
Coal pollutes the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and scientists say this is causing global temperatures to rise with devastating results, such as floods, droughts, heat waves and corresponding food shortages and food price increases.
The fund, it was agreed, would raise and disburse $100 billion a year to protect poorer countries against the negative effects of global warming and to help them build cleaner energy sources, such as wind and solar power stations.
“The argument is that the developed countries, especially the United States and Western Europe, built their economies on dirty energy – principally coal. So they’re chiefly responsible for the greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that are causing climate change,” said Olivia Langhoff of Greenpeace Africa. “Yet the worst of the climate change impacts are being felt in least developed countries. So there is definitely a strong argument for the developed countries to greatly help poorer countries to switch to renewable energies.”
But the fund, said Earthlife Africa climate change project coordinator Tristan Taylor, is currently “nothing but a mirage. It’s yet to be filled with any money. It’s an empty fund.”
“There’s no indication of how that money is going to be mobilized. What we’re seeing is false-start financing, not fast-start financing, as it should be,” said Essop.
Economic recessions jeopardize funding
Ahead of the Durban summit, concern is growing among environmentalists that economic recessions in Europe and the United States will prevent any progress on the Green Climate Fund.
“We need to move forward despite the world’s struggling economies,” said one of the world’s leading environmental scientists, Lester Brown of the United States’ Earth Policy Institute. “If that excuse is going to be used at the talks as a reason for not funding a massive global shift to renewable energy, then we’re all in big trouble and future generations of people are in big trouble.”
Essop attended preliminary meetings ahead of COP 17 and said U.S. negotiators were “disappointingly” not willing to discuss the issue of long-term finance for developing countries to invest in renewable energies.
“We understand that what’s happening domestically in the U.S. at the moment is very difficult and the challenges Washington is facing,” she told VOA. “But we do believe that as a key player in these negotiations, the U.S. can at least be part of a discussion about future climate change funding. We need to know how the $100 billion a year that has been pledged by developed countries, including the U.S., will be delivered.”
A new path to finance
But if there’s no agreement around the Green Climate Fund, there’s an alternative, said Dan Ferber, a biologist and journalist for leading international scientific journal, Science.
He recently published a book with American medical scientist Paul Epstein in which they examined the issue of funding for adaptation to climate change.
“We’re proposing a large global fund (of $500 billion a year) to help developing countries make the transition to renewable energy – so it’s a very large investment – so that we can mitigate climate change and so that we can adapt to the change that’s coming,” Ferber explained.
He added that the creation of such a huge fund had a precedent. “In the late 1980s the world established a global fund on a similar scale to switch refrigeration technologies and aerosols and such over to technologies that did not destroy the ozone layer.”
As a result, said Ferber, the world no longer pumps toxic chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) compounds into the atmosphere.
“A similar fund could be set up to fight climate change globally and help the countries that don’t have the funds to help themselves – such as many African countries.”
The big question, according to Ferber, is, “Where does the $500 billion a year come from, especially in the midst of a worldwide economic recession?” The answer, he maintained, lies in an idea advanced by Nobel Prize winning American economist James Tobin to combat poverty – a “very small” tax on international currency transactions.
Ferber explained, “Billions and billions of dollars of currencies are traded all the time. People in finance in dealer markets around the world basically gamble with currencies. Just (a tax of) seven and a half (U.S.) cents on every 100 dollar transaction would generate 500 billion dollars a year,” according to his calculations.
He acknowledged that the world’s “big money traders” have opposed Tobin’s strategy, but said so far it has the support of more than 1,000 top international economists, including the U.S.’s Jeffrey Sachs.
“It’s not pie in the sky,” Ferber insisted. “It’s possible.”
In the build-up to COP 17, leaders of some developed nations have accused bigger developing countries, such as Brazil, South Africa and India, of not using their considerable budgets to sufficiently fund renewable energies in their countries.
Essop is convinced such criticism is unfair. “Many of these countries have, at a domestic level, put in place policy frameworks or strategies to start transitioning to low carbon economies. In some cases they don’t just have plans but have taken some exciting mitigation actions. These actions involve combating deforestation and reducing emissions from their energy sectors.”
International energy analysts say renewable energy in Brazil, for example, now accounts for more than 85 percent of domestically produced power used in the country, which also plans to invest six billion dollars in wind power in the next two years.
In the days leading up to the Durban gathering, the South African government, which is the host, has released its Green Economy Accord.
South Africa is the world’s 14th biggest carbon polluter; it burns about 125 million tons of coal a year to drive its economy and it gets about 90 percent of its energy needs from coal.
The accord pledges that South Africa will reduce carbon emissions “absolutely” by 2036. It’ll achieve this, it says, by injecting billions of rand into green economy activities.
Essop said, “Some bigger developing countries like South Africa are doing all this while many of their people are trapped in poverty. They’re clearly making big sacrifices to fight climate change. They’re doing this without an international agreement (forcing them to do so) and without the kinds of financial support that are actually needed to conduct these actions.”
She added, “A lot of that ambition can be increased if we did see a global agreement on climate change being reached and if we did see financial support being forthcoming.”
But Greenpeace’s Olivia Langhoff said while some larger developing countries, such as India and South Africa, have in recent times made “all the right noises” about lowering their greenhouse gas emissions, they’ve done relatively little to actually implement more environmentally friendly energy strategies.
Langhoff doubts that South Africa’s promise to phase out coal burning within the next 25 years will be realized. She asked, “How does Pretoria intend to do this when it is right at this moment building new coal-fired power stations?”
South Africa’s state power company, Eskom, acknowledged that two power stations it’s currently building will be driven by coal, and that they’re unlikely to be the last coal burning energy plants to be constructed.
Africa must act
Kenyan ecological economist Kevin Chika Urama agreed that most African countries “just talk but don’t walk” when it comes to taking action to adapt to climate change. He insisted that they could do much more, despite their lack of development and small budgets.
Urama is the coauthor of an internationally acclaimed study into the impacts of climate change on Africa.
He pointed out that African countries agreed in 2006, under the African Union, to invest at least one percent of their annual GDPs in scientific research and development. But, Urama maintained, “Our study has shown that only one country, South Africa, has even come close to one percent since then. It is investing 0.93 percent of its GDP in scientific research. Most other African countries are investing below 0.5 percent. And because of that, we don’t have the capacity to develop the technologies to adapt to climate change.”
He said African scientists have the skills to help insulate the continent against climate change but not the necessary support from their governments.
“I know of high level technologies for harvesting energy from the sun that have been developed in Africa, but they are confined to tiny parts of the continent. That’s because we don’t have the arrangements in place to facilitate such technological transfer between countries, or the political will to invest in bigger production of such energies,” said Urama.
The economist also highlighted projects that are gathering solar energy in North Africa and the Sahara desert – to satisfy some of Europe’s energy needs. “But Africa is not wising up to harnessing such technologies for its own people,” Urama commented.
He insisted, “African countries don’t need a big global fund to at least begin investing in such technologies. They don’t need such a fund to at least begin fulfilling their commitments to investing a small part of their GDPs in science that could protect Africa against climate change.”
Urama added, “If Africa doesn’t start doing things for itself right now, even if it’s on a small scale, it will slide backwards even more. And then by the time something like the Green Climate Fund kicks in, much of the continent will already have been severely damaged by climate change and won’t be able to bounce back.”