Q&A: Climate finance for poorer countries is ‘in our interest’

Kiribati flooded isles - MAIN
A man walks to his house through a flooded area during high tide in Kiribati's Eita village, Tarawa, which is regularly flooded during high tides despite residents attempts to build sea walls. Copyright: Panos

Speed read

  • Environmental lawyer Alan Miller has watched climate policy evolve over four decades
  • He is worried by lack of access to energy in poor countries
  • Financing climate adaptation in developing nations will help the whole world, he says

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This article was supported by The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

In its latest special report, the International Panel on Climate Change says “there is no documented historical precedent” for the speed with which the world needs to act on global warming. Alan Miller, a veteran in climate policy, disagrees. He sees a clear parallel in war preparation and says the money needed to act decisively is “peanuts”.
Miller is an environmental lawyer who has been involved in climate policy negotiations for about four decades. Now a consultant for international organizations, including the UNDP and the UN initiative Sustainable Energy For All, he watched the politics evolve over the years while working with institutions such as the World Bank.
This interview is the first in a series as part of the Bellagio Center’s Science and Development residency. Miller tells SciDev.Net why finance for energy technology in the developing world is essential to face the climate crisis – not just for the global South, but for all countries.

You have said that one reason the Paris Agreement was hard to achieve was the rise of developing nations. Why?

The first couple of environment policy meetings I attended were small. One meeting I attended in Munich in the 1970s had fewer than 100 people, almost all from industrialised countries. There were no environmentalists, no press, and there was a lot of industry. That was how things worked. A small number of countries which shared economic interests could come together, and that led to an international agreement in 1985 [to tackle ozone depletion], which was signed by very few developing countries – not including China or India.
By the time you get to the Rio conference in 1992, the whole economic and political context had begun to change. There was the rise of the oil-producing countries, but also the rise of China and, more slowly, India. The kind of agreement that could be made by a small number of countries could no longer be done. That was the beginning of a new era in which we find ourselves now.

You’ve said that, in this context, it’s “politically necessary” to provide finance to developing countries. Why?

The latest IPCC report emphasises that if small islands go underwater, if coastal areas with hundreds of millions of people are regularly flooded, if agriculture on a very large scale is decimated by extreme temperatures – if all of these well-documented and exceptionally likely things happen, then there's no way that rich countries will not be seriously affected. The refugee crisis we're now seeing will become inordinately greater, food issues will explode dramatically. If we don't help developing countries to respond effectively, it's clear that the whole world will suffer.
On the other hand, the IPCC report says that there is no precedent in human history for acting in such a dramatic way so quickly. In fact, there are: the efforts that countries made in wartime. Look at what the United Kingdom and the United States did to transition their economies for war. It's not that it cannot be done, it's a question of political will.
More and more of the planet’s projected economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions will come from developing countries, particularly China and India. Consequently, there's no way that industrialised countries can deal with these issues without working hand in glove with the large developing countries.

What’s the finance needed for?

The answer has changed dramatically since the beginning [of climate talks]. In the 1990s, the issues were largely seen as helping bring clean energy, particularly solar and wind, to developing countries. That made it relatively simple to figure out how much money to give.
But it quickly became apparent that only about 20 countries really matter when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions. Then there are well over a hundred countries that collectively contribute maybe 5 or 6 per cent of emissions. So even if all their energy was renewable, it wouldn’t make much difference.
The more complicated issue is: what financing will you provide to help those countries adapt to climate change? It's often difficult to separate this from a traditional development project.

How do institutions decide the best way to help them?

Nowadays, we rely more on countries to tell us what their priorities are. A lot of projects are just trying to do capacity-building, for example projects that improve weather forecasting and emergency warning systems, which are often terrible. That's just shocking in a world in which almost anywhere you go has cell phone service.
Another example of what’s being done is the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which tries to address the absence of energy in rural areas. This is particularly severe in parts of India and many countries in Africa. If the basic objectives of reducing poverty by 2030 are going to be met, under the Sustainable Development Goals, you can't do it unless you can provide modern energy.

Is there progress on the clean energy transition in developing nations?

The world is not doing very well, frankly, although there are exceptions. One is the expansion of small solar energy systems, which the World Bank has done a good job on. Insofar as small solar systems and mini grids can be introduced, this will be very important. It avoids what would otherwise be dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions from traditional grid connections powered by fossil fuels.
But it's complicated. People would still like to have a connection to an electricity grid. Just take a report put out earlier this year by the International Energy Agency called The Future of Cooling. It asked: what is one of the first things that people want to buy when they achieve a modest level of income? The answer is, they want an air conditioner. And they want the cheapest one, which is not efficient. This is causing a massive increase in the demand for power in India. If this continues, it will add tremendously to the need for new power plants, many of which will undoubtedly be run on fossil fuels.

What are the barriers to developing and using clean energy technology?

It's important to acknowledge that there are technological answers. That it is not too late. The biggest challenge is one of leadership and political will.
Still, there are questions around the technology. I've gotten deep into the subject of carbon capture and storage, which increasingly seems to be one of the essential technologies for keeping warming below 2 degrees. The challenge is to effectively commercialise technologies that can be attached to power plants, or even remove carbon from the air, which is increasingly being attempted. We don't know if they will work, or if they'll work soon enough.
Solutions are technically possible, and would have multiple benefits – the world would be cleaner. In contrast with fighting a war, developing these technologies does not call for tremendous sacrifice. It calls for tremendous leadership.
This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.

This article was supported by The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center. For nearly 60 years the Bellagio Center has supported individuals working to improve the lives of poor and vulnerable people globally through its conference and residency programs, and has served as a catalyst for transformative ideas, initiatives, and collaborations.

From November 5 – December 3, 2018, the Bellagio Center hosted a special thematic residency on Science for Development, with a cohort of up to 15 scholars, practitioners, and artists whose work is advancing, informing, communicating, or is inspired by the use or design of science and technology to address social and environmental challenges around the world.