Seven years ago, while world leaders gathered in Cancun to discuss how to address climate change, a new world order was in the making.
Or at least it sounded like it was.
Some 5,400 representatives of United Nations member states attended, eventually hammering out a landmark decision that would ensure that developing nations would be able to combat the threat of rising seas.
Countries like Mongolia, Tajikistan and Kiribati, a Pacific island whose very existence was threatened by rising waters, were to receive aid with the help of more affluent nations and private enterprise. The program, the Green Climate Fund would not only help ensure smaller countries could meet formidable economic challenges, but would address the planet’s greatest environmental problem: global warming.
Almost a decade in to the project however, funding organizations are beginning to question whether the program will actually work. Critics say it isn’t that countries aren’t investing. More than $2 billion has been allocated from the fund and $6 billion has been co-financed. But places like that small Pacific island, Kiribati, have yet to see any of it.
That’s peculiar, because according to the Green Climate Fund’s website, Kiribati and many of its neighbors have already signed an agreement of partnership with the fund’s sponsors, albeit only recently. Tonga’s agreement with the fund was only formalized this month.
For the Republic of Kiribati, an atoll of 33 coral islands that needs buttressing from the rising seas and a desalination plant that would help it maintain its fresh water supply, that delay could be a real problem. Its population of 110,000 residents must either find a way to mitigate climate change quickly, or leave.
The science relating to sea level rise has been in a great state of flux,” states Kiribati’s Climate Change website. “Some long-term predictions of sea level rise for Kiribati have suggested that there is a margin of safety present, but this is regularly contradicted by local eye witness observations.
And funding for other projects have received criticism as well. According to an expose on the issue by New York Times business writer Hiroko Tabuchi, the problem that is taxing mitigation projects in places like Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Tajikistan isn’t that the money hasn’t been invested, but where it’s going.
Funding organizations have expressed concern that there is often a lack of transparency about how the monies are distributed and the efficacy of projects. An approved contract that has helped put solar on the map in Rwanda and Uganda, for example, is being administered from the tiny island of Mauritius, long considered a tax haven. A $50 million loan was approved to repair an antiquated dam in Tajiskistan, but faces huge liabilities because of the likelihood of worsening climate conditions down the road.
And funding agencies that raise questions, says Tabuchi, often found the projects were approved despite objections.
This isn’t the first time that the Green Climate Fund has faced criticism. In 2015, the fund was reportedly having problems getting sponsors to meet their commitments. By October of that year, the organization faced difficulty meeting its stated funding goal because not enough funds had been collected. Even the United States, which promised a total of $3 billion into the fund is $2 billion short of its commitment.
But there’s also questions about the way the funds are being restricted. The German Climate Finance website reported that mainly UN-institutions and regional development banks have access to GCF-finance.” In total, 83 percent of the approved projects are implemented by internationally acting institutions, including the Deutsche Bank …” The website points out that large global banks do have the experience to handle complex, multi-project funding programs like this, but points out that the process excludes the administration and oversight of national institutions.
And the issue isn’t just whether national organizations are being deprived the ability to oversee and develop projects themselves, says BankTrack.org, a website that reports on banking transparency and the projects they support. As early as 2015, nonprofit organizations were sounding the alarm that banks that had been implicated in scandals were giving access to funding projects for the Green Climate Fund.
The Green Climate Fund (GCF) must not channel its money through two scandal-ridden international commercial banks that are leading funders of the coal industry, say civil society groups at a meeting of the GCF’s Board in Livingstone, Zambia,” reported BankTrack.
Meanwhile, the Republic of Kiribati has realized it is running out of time and is formulating its own emergency climate action. It’s working on a multi-stage mitigation process that includes raising the elevation of vulnerable neighborhoods and planting mangrove trees in large numbers to slow coastal erosion.
Will it be enough to save a small sea-level island?
No one knows. But one thing that has become clear to remote areas like Tonga and Kiribati, havens for island tourism is that fixing their climate problems will most likely come at the expense of their own efforts, not the generosity of rich countries or well-planned global commitments.