The 24-member board of the Green Climate Fund met at a Zambian hotel alongside the scenic Victoria Falls in early November with a clear mission: Do something.
The fund was created to be the main conduit for tens of billions of dollars a year from the world’s biggest economies for climate projects. With the Paris climate summit fast approaching, the fund managers were under pressure from major donors to give the green light to its first projects.
So as giraffes and zebras wandered the hotel grounds, the fund’s board pulled an all-nighter, arm-twisting reluctant members and ultimately approving eight projects worth $168 million. The projects included rebuilding wetlands in Peru, underwriting energy-efficiency bonds in Latin America and the Caribbean, restoring areas in Senegal inundated with saltwater and improving wastewater treatment in Fiji.
It was a start, but much more money is waiting to be invested. Before the summit, the world’s leading economies, including the United States, had pledged to give the Green Climate Fund a total of $10.2 billion, just over half of which had been delivered. President Obama has asked Congress to approve $3 billion. More is on the way.
All this is happening while the fund is still getting off the ground. Karen Orenstein, a climate finance expert at Friends of the Earth who attended the Zambia session, said of the first round of projects: “In the grand scheme of things, that’s very little.”
The fund, established under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is bound to draw closer scrutiny. At Copenhagen, developed countries pledged to provide $100 billion a year in public and private money for poorer countries by 2020 to find ways to adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change. Much of that money is expected to flow through this fund. Just last week, Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, said the country would offer $2.65 billion over the next five years.
In Zambia, the fund’s board, which will meet three times a year, aims to approve $2.5 billion of projects by year’s end, “signaling that the GCF is now open for business,” according to the Climate Markets and Investment Association. That volume, however, falls short of what many developing countries expect, and people familiar with the fund say the $2.5 billion figure might be optimistic.
Indeed, the gears are grinding slowly. Proposed in 2009 and set up in 2010 to be the main vehicle for channeling international funds to developing countries struggling to cope with climate change, the fund only took shape and started raising money in 2014. It is still trying to come up with a mission statement about what value it hopes to add.
Based in Songdo, South Korea, the fund has struggled to persuade people to join its staff, which numbers around 58, including administrative personnel, according to Climate Markets and Investment Association. Songdo, built on landfill to be a “city of the future,” is an isolated and unappealing place for expatriates.
Decisions must be made by consensus, essentially giving each of the 24 board members a veto. At the Zambia meeting, India and Saudi Arabia initially resisted the projects but yielded after they were swayed in small group meetings.
The fund must also get approvals, known as “no objection letters,” for every project from the governments of countries it wants to help. A combination of bureaucracy and parochialism has clogged this process already. Some countries want to bargain for more money, which is not the way the fund works. Getting approvals for regional projects poses new layers of complication.
That challenge is one reason many environmental finance experts say governments must turn to the private sector. “The Green Climate Fund is important, and the U.S. should live up to its responsibility by contributing to it,” billionaire financier and environmental activist Tom Steyer said, “but it’s important to remember that the vast bulk of financing to build out the clean energy infrastructure around the world will come from the private sector.” Steyer is one of 28 wealthy business people who on Monday pledged to invest heavily in research and development of new technologies to fight climate change.
The Green Climate Fund, however, might connect with the private sector to leverage its resources, human and financial. One promising area: The fund is looking at providing $700 million for financial projects, where its money would be leveraged by private-equity funds for investment in renewable energy and other climate-related companies.
Indeed, the first set of projects includes U.S. firm Acumen, which received $25 million and will raise another $80 million for investment in ventures involved in distributed energy projects in east Africa. That scenario, as well as the bonds approved for Latin America, could become a model for larger-scale projects.
India, which has insisted that wealthy countries provide more money and technology to developing nations, has said that the fund could use some of its money to pay for technology transfer to places such as India.
One of the fund’s other challenges is coming up with a list of agencies, institutes and companies able to spend the money and be held accountable for it. This year, 20 intermediaries, including two private-sector entities, have been accredited by the fund.
This too has drawn criticism. The list of those awaiting recognition includes HSBC and Credit Agricole. About 80 nongovernmental organizations protested, saying that the big banks should be barred from serving as an intermediary because of their past financial support for coal plant projects. Orenstein of Friends of the Earth says that each bank had provided more than 7 billion euros in loans for coal projects.
But others say that the fund money could be used to “green” the banks and that large financial institutions needed to leverage the funds are all involved in a wide array of lending. Moreover, the danger is that the fund becomes an overseas development tool rather than something targeting how to grow without emitting greenhouse gases.
Niranjali M. Amerasinghe, a sustainable finance expert at the World Resources Institute, said that all the time the fund is taking now drawing up its strategic mission statements, assessing firms or agencies to manage and disperse money, and obtaining permissions from host governments will pay off later, protecting projects from the usual development pitfalls and making this fund different from traditional development banks.
“The GCF could be a really good thing,” Orenstein said, “or it could be problematic. It’s hard to tell.”
There is no magic about the $100 billion a year commitment made in Copenhagen for pledges by wealthy countries. Former World Bank economist Nicolas Stern argued in a 2008 report that rich countries should provide $130 billion a year, or 0.3 percent of their GDPs, in government funding alone to help poorer ones with climate projects. The figure was sliced to $100 billion by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain and later to $100 billion in both public and private funding by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
This explains the attention that President Obama has recently been paying to rounding up private funds. The administration has urged leaders such as Indian Prime Minister Narandra Modi to consider pledges such as Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’s recent vow to invest $2 billion in technology to slow climate change as part of the $100 billion goal. Gates met with Modi privately during the U.N. General Assembly meeting. They shared a dais on Monday with Obama.
“The $100 billion figure enshrined in previous meetings came about accidentally,” said Paul Bledsoe, an energy consultant and former White House aide working on climate change . But he said it was clear that “now we’re really just at the beginning of the whole process of financing for mitigation and adaptation.”
Nigel Purvis, founding president of Climate Advisers and a former State Department official, said that regardless of whether the Green Climate Fund is used or not, if wealthy countries are serious about slowing climate change, investing heavily in projects in the developing world is critical — because it can be cheaper and faster than doing it at home.
U.S. government-supported mitigation projects have reduced carbon emissions at a price of $5 a ton, far cheaper than most projects undertaken in the United States, Purvis said. And he said that is key to hitting the 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degree Fahrenheit) goal set.
“In order to keep the 2 degree target in sight, we need to help the developing countries do more,” Purvis said. “Every country should do more, but the opportunity to do more quickly is through partnerships with developing countries.”