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Climate distrust – the legacy of development cooperation

Written by Neil Bird

An agreement in Copenhagen is hanging by a thread and we must wait until the end of this week to see what sort of global agreement can be secured. One aspect is clear, however:  the level of trust between developing and developed countries appears to be at an all time low. As international agreements are built upon such trust this is a matter of considerable concern. How have we reached this point? A lot of the blame can be laid at the door of donor countries who have failed to meet their development assistance pledges over the years. Whilst a small number of European countries have reached the 0.7% GNI commitment for aid expenditure, the vast majority have not, despite many years of promises and rhetoric. So when it comes to climate finance why should developing countries believe what these same countries are saying in Copenhagen?

There is a pressing need for action on climate change, reinforced by a wealth of scientific evidence. The countries that are most at risk need assistance now.  But, is the UNFCCC the right forum to move ahead quickly?  As Alison Evans said in her blog today, strong and imaginative leadership is needed more than ever before. Perhaps what is needed is an initiative made up of a ‘coalition of the willing’, rather than continuing to pin all our hopes on a ‘coalition of the seemingly unwilling’. Direct support between individual states, groups of countries or regions needs to be explored quickly to complement any global accord.

Much is said about the principle of additionality when it comes to climate finance. It is important, but is this a principle that is relevant only at source? Concerns have been raised that aid-receiving countries should not see a reduction in their development assistance, so it is clear that additional resources to address climate change need to be secured.  But demonstrating additionality for climate adaptation activities on the ground – something demanded by the international community – raises considerable difficulties, as a recent background note from ODI highlights. Retaining such restrictive measures within international agreements will slow down implementation.

And finally, how can the international funds being created to support climate change actions be established in such a way as to allow recipient countries have Direct Access to these funds? If there is one thing that donor countries could do to show a heightened level of trust on their part, it would be to align themselves behind national systems in recipient countries.  But as the lessons of aid effectiveness have shown, this transition away from project-based assistance is proving to be a more difficult and lengthy process than some had originally hoped.  Much greater attention is needed to move this process along over the short-term.

Without greater trust between developing and developed countries there is little likelihood that a response, at scale, will emerge from any agreement reached at Copenhagen.  Donor countries, in particular, need to reflect on the difference between what they have said they will do, and what they have actually done. And they need to consider how they can prove their commitment to support the necessary implementation in poorer countries, so that climate change can be tackled successfully.