A puzzling, piddling aid cut: Australian funding for UNEP

Now, shortly after announcing a zero contribution to the UN’s Green Climate Fund (citing unidentified bilateral climate change assistance programs as sufficient), the government has cut funding to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). [Update: A day after this post was published, the government reversed its decision to stay out of the climate fund.]

In this case, the amount of money concerned is not very large—but the cut will matter both materially and symbolically to UNEP. It will not matter materially to the Australian aid program: Australia’s contribution to UNEP falls from A$1.2 million in 2013-14 to A$200,000 in 2014-15, and reportedly stays flat thereafter, yielding a saving of only A$4 million over the four years to 2017‑18. Presumably, then, it is intended to matter symbolically.

Australia hasn’t kicked UNEP this hard for almost thirty years. As can be seen from the chart below, funding hit the floor in the early years of the Hawke government, which oversaw major aid cuts, rose steadily as a share of total contributions until the election of the Howard government, dipped and remained fairly constant until the election of the first Rudd government, then increased in line with the aid budget up to last year.

Australia’s ODA vs Australia’s share of global contributions to UNEP 1973-2013

Australia UNEP contributionsSource: UNEP and OECD QWIDS

Greg Hunt, Minister for the Environment, suggested that the savings achieved by this cut—rather than being spent on ‘bureaucratic support within the UN system’—would help pay for coral reef protection and forest conservation within our region. Dog-whistling aside, it is hard to know if this is true. Perhaps the savings will, and were intended to, offset the cost of Hunt’s A$6 million pledge to ‘support regional efforts to combat illegal logging’, made in the context of a poorly conceived and attended Asia-Pacific Rainforest Summit. If so, there’s a good chance the funds will be wasted.

More likely, though, the cut will simply free up a little money within Australia’s overall multilateral aid budget. There’s no doubt a good multilateral home can be found for a stray A$1 million per annum. However, this is no way to make allocation decisions. If UNEP has been found wanting in some respect, by all means reduce funding, but say why, and say where in the multilateral system the funds will be put to better use.

With no rationale supplied, one might think the decision reflected UNEP’s propensity to say things like this: ‘Australia is no longer on track [to meet its unconditional 2020 emission reduction pledge], due to the abolition of its carbon pricing mechanism’ (The Emissions Gap Report 2014 [pdf], Ch. 3).

Robin Davies

Robin Davies is an Honorary Professor at the ANU's Crawford School of Public Policy and an editor of the Devpolicy Blog. He headed the Indo-Pacific Centre for Health Security and later the Global Health Division at Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from 2017 until early 2023 and worked in senior roles at AusAID until 2012, with postings in Paris and Jakarta. From 2013 to 2017, he was the Associate Director of the Development Policy Centre.


  • The UNEP fared pretty well in the Australian Multilateral Assessment in 2012 – satisfactory in most areas, strong in a few, including contributing to/supporting with Australia’s aid priorities. The funding cut really makes you wonder what the point of the AMA was. Particularly given the likely prominence of sustainable development in the post 2015 era (this being a big part of the UNEP’s work), it seems strange. The apparent lack of explanation for the decision seems to align with one of the common features of the current government – an inability to effectively sell policy decisions. If the rationale for the cut was more money for actual programs/less for the UNEP’s policy and normative leadership, this should be spelt out.

  • It appears that Julie Bishop will have lots of environmental credentials to promote at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in in Lima this week. On top of the A$200m contribution to the Green Climate Fund, the government announced yesterday that it is allocating $31 million over six years for research to assist in the management of coastal and marine water quality in Australia’s tropical regions, including the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.

  • Now that Australia has announced an A$200m contribution to the Green Climate Fund overnight, it seems that we may have an answer to where the UNEP savings have gone. But the fact that UNEP and the Green Climate Fund complement rather than duplicate each other’s work means the UNEP cut remains puzzling (except perhaps for the fact that the Fund isn’t likely to scrutinise Australia’s domestic climate policies). And then there is the question of where in the aid budget the other A$199m of the Green Climate Fund pledge will be drawn from.

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