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Spending deal undercuts Biden’s UN climate pledge

'We are taken aback,' says Union of Concerned Scientists climate policy director.

Climate activists demonstrate against fossil fuels at the Capitol Reflecting Pool on October 15, 2021.
Climate activists demonstrate against fossil fuels at the Capitol Reflecting Pool on October 15, 2021. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The spending legislation President Joe Biden signed Tuesday provides about one-third of the money the White House, the House and the Senate wanted to spend on international climate programs and stripped out all congressional money for a fund for low-income nations to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

In its budget request for fiscal 2022, the administration called for about $2.7 billion in international climate finance, up from $669 million the previous fiscal year, while the House appropriators called for about $2.8 billion and their Senate counterparts approved approximately $3.13 billion.

But the final deal will allocate far less than any of the three parties wanted: roughly $1.06 billion.

“We are taken aback,” Rachel Cleetus, policy director for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. “I’m at a loss to explain why it has come to this.”

The spending bill eliminated funding for the Green Climate Fund, a U.N. project to help emerging economies prepare for and mitigate climate change, and cut funding for the Clean Technology Fund, which finances low-carbon energy projects. It also reduced contributions to the United Framework Convention on Climate Change, which manages global efforts to fight climate change, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which studies the course of changing climate. And it cut money for a fund to carry out the goals of the Montreal Protocol to reduce emissions of ozone-depleting chemicals.

It does, however, keep funding for a tropical forest conservation and coral reef program at the Treasury Department at $15 million, the sum the administration called for.

Undercuts pledge

The legislation undercuts Biden’s pledge at the U.N. in September to increase climate financing for low-income nations and will place American negotiators at upcoming international climate talks on weaker footing with their foreign counterparts, experts said.

In that speech, Biden said the U.S. would contribute $11.4 billion annually by 2024 to a broad swath of climate funds and programs supported by industrialized nations to help the world’s low-income countries. That pledge doubled one his administration made in April 2021 to contribute $5.7 billion annually.

Even the administration’s larger pledge is less than what some climate-impact experts say the U.S. should pay. A September paper from the Overseas Development Institute, a U.K. think tank, found the U.S. responsible for roughly 25 percent of historical carbon emissions and should pay about $43 billion annually in international climate finance, a general term for funding to address climate change and brace for the damage it is causing and will continue to cause.

Meeting Biden’s funding goal will likely require a significant spending increase for overseas climate programs, which typically flow through the State-Foreign Operations and the Financial Services and General Government spending bills.

Asked who made the decision to cut climate financing from the spending bill and how the Biden administration would meet its annual target of $11.4 billion, a spokesperson for John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate, referred an inquiry to the Office of Management and Budget at the White House. An OMB spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

At a January 2021 summit in the Netherlands on climate adaptation, Kerry said the U.S. would “significantly increase” climate funding abroad. The Biden administration would “make good on our climate finance pledge.”

At the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, the U.S. pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund, most of which is still owed.

Weak position

“We’re still 2 billion outstanding,” Billy Pizer, a researcher at the nonpartisan Resources for the Future, said in an interview. “So that does make it hard for us to negotiate contributions” from other countries, said Pizer, who worked on climate finance issues at Treasury during the Obama administration. “It makes it harder for us to leverage action from other countries when we are not fulfilling pledges that we’ve made in the past.”

The omnibus legislation zeroed out money for that fund. The White House wanted $1.2 billion for it, and appropriators in the House and Senate respectively allocated $1.6 billion and $1.45 billion for the fund.

Spokespeople for Democrats and Republicans of both the House and Senate appropriations committees did not respond to requests for comment about why the fund was cut entirely or who made that decision.

Joe Thwaites, an associate at the World Resources Institute’s Sustainable Finance Center, said it seemed 2021 “had started to light a little bit of fire under congressional leadership” to back climate finance programs, citing the higher overall figure from Senate appropriators than their House colleagues.

Following climate talks in Scotland in November, “there was a sense that that the eventual landing ground” would be between the House and Senate numbers, Thwaites said by phone. “Instead what has happened is that we’ve dropped all the way down to $1 billion,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure out what went on.”

The other big cuts went against the World Bank-based Clean Technology Fund.

After the Biden administration requested $300 million for it, House appropriators cut that to $200 million before the Senate Appropriations Committee boosted it to $450 million. The omnibus deal lowered that figure to $125 million.

“I think a lot of the blame really lies with congressional leadership,” Thwaites said of the cuts generally. “They could have held stronger on these accounts.”

Thwaites said the Biden administration could move some money from an account at the State Department called the Economic Support Fund, as the Obama administration did in January 2017.

Funding for the Global Environment Facility, a multilateral trust fund for developing countries, stayed steady at $149 million – the total the Biden administration requested.

Global carbon dioxide emissions hit a record high in 2021, the International Energy Agency said last week.

After four years of the Trump administration, which cut climate financing, removed the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement and largely shunned international forums, the Biden administration had generated some good will in international climate circles, Thwaites said.

This spending bill with lower climate finance totals undercut that sentiment and will make climate talks in November in Egypt more difficult, he said: “It’s going to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.”

Said Cleetus, “On the global stage, our credibility is at stake here.”

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