NGOs, climate aid, and China’s change of heart

Climate ChangeIn what is becoming an all too regular scene, the recent UN Climate Summit saw impassioned pleas by the leaders of developing countries calling for stronger climate action. The President of the Seychelles, one of the many island nations threatened by rising sea levels, likened climate inaction to a “crime against humanity,” while the Mongolian President, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, told world leaders they should come to Mongolia if they still had doubts about whether climate change is happening or not.

In some of the strongest language the country has ever used, the Chinese Vice-Premier, Zhang Gaoli, told the Summit that China intended to make an “even greater effort to address climate change”, and urged leaders of wealthy nations to give more technical aid and assistance to poor countries vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In a surprising move, Vice Premier Zhang also announced that China would double its commitment to a South-South cooperation fund specifically targeting climate change adaptation.

While the magnitude of China’s contribution remains unclear, the announcement – made on the world stage – does signal China’s intention to be a visible player in climate change action.

Historically, China has given little of its aid budget to climate change adaptation projects. Information collected by AidData, a website that tracks global aid and development flows, shows that China has provided direct assistance for only two projects related to the environment and climate change since 2000. This is out of more than 2,100 official finance projects funded by Chinese aid in developing countries, worth over $US 70bn.

Chinese aid in this area would be extremely welcome. Traditional aid donors, such as the EU, have contributed to adaptation efforts over time, but the sums provided fall well short of what is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. A 2011 study by the World Bank estimates that developing countries will need between $US 70bn and $US 100bn a year by 2050 to effectively adapt to a 2 degree Celsius warmer world; on the most optimistic forecasts this represents more than half of the current total aid budget from developed countries.

These figures suggest grim prospects, without immediate and dramatic intervention. Climate change adaptation is costly and a difficult domestic sell for developing country governments still struggling with high rates of poverty. The beleaguered UN Climate Fund, launched in 2009, presently has no realistic chance of making up the shortfall. Help, if it is to come, must be from elsewhere.

With a budget of around US$6.4bn in 2013, Chinese aid could make a sizeable contribution to the rate of climate change adaptation in the developing world.

China sign-posting its intention to be visible in this space gives rise to some interesting questions, the implications of which will likely influence and shape global aid and development considerations into the future. One such question is whether China’s engagement on climate change will influence other BRICS country donors (that is, Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) to take climate threats more seriously.

More broadly, one might ask whether the BRICS countries and the South-South cooperation model that guides their approach to development generally, is flexible enough to encompass increasingly different (and possibly increasingly divergent) interests and intentions. For example, will the BRICS be able to look past the principle of non-interference on issues of global public goods, such as climate change?

There are also important questions to be asked in regards to key development actors and their engagement with rising donors. China has in the past avoided collaboration with civil society and NGOs in developing countries, but new types of work may make that increasingly impractical, if not counter-intuitive to achieving outcomes. Will work in climate change adaptation lead China to engage in new ways with civil society and NGOs? Will NGOs and civil society look to engage China in new ways?

The Australian overseas aid and development community will be coming together in Canberra this week to explore these questions and many others as they interrogate what changes in the global arena mean for development at the Australian Council for International Development’s (ACFID) Annual Council.

ACFID Council is being held on 23-24 October, 2014. To register or for further information, please see here

Priyanka Sunder is the Government Relations Advisor for ACFID.

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Priyanka Sunder

Priyanka Sunder is the Senior Economic Development Policy Advisor for World Vision Australia and focuses on economic development, private sector engagement and development finance policy. Priyanka has a Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University with a specialisation in development economics. She previously worked for Macquarie Bank as an investment banker and as the Senior Policy Advisor for the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID).


  • Priyanka,

    Your post raises an important question about the role of China and other emerging economies in delivering global public goods such as climate change. Even if China only acts domestically to reduce its domestic greenhouse gas emissions, as the world’s largest emitter those actions will deliver global benefits for the world’s climate – so it’s reasonable to expect that China will continue to devote most of its climate-related resources at home. But there’s definitely a case for China and some other emerging economies to step up their international funding as well, not least as an expression of solidarity with poorer countries.

    Having said that, I think it’s important to put in perspective the magnitude of current flows. China’s pledges at New York were, as you say, somewhat unclear. The only concrete dollar figure mentioned was US$6 million ‘to support the UN secretary general in advancing South- South cooperation on climate change’ (). A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine described the sum, correctly in my view, as ‘paltry’ ().

    The other financing pledge that China made at New York was the one you mentioned – doubling South-South cooperation on adaptation. But the announcement made no mention of the baseline from which funding would be doubled. As far as I can tell (), China pledged at the Rio+20 summit about RMB 200 million (around US$33 million) for the fund. Pledging the same amount again is quite a bit more substantial than the $6 million figure featured at the summit, but still very small compared to the size of China’s overall development cooperation budget.

    It’s perhaps also worth recalling that while China has contributed to the Global Environment Facility for many years, in the most recent GEF replenishment this year it chipped in around half of one per cent of total funding (about US$20 million) ().

    By contrast, even if the Green Climate Fund may not meet the expectations of many – let alone the funding needs of developing countries – it has already attracted over $2 billion in funding (), and is likely to generate considerably more in a formal pledging session in November. While some emerging economies – notably Korea, Mexico and Indonesia – have started to make pledges to the Fund, the lion’s share has come from industrialised countries.

    So I agree that it’s fair to expect some emerging economies to do more on international climate funding. But the big challenge will be to boost this funding beyond token levels, and I’m not sure that there are clear signs that this is happening yet.

    Finally, whether or not China earmarks more funding specifically for climate change, another challenge looms large – climate-proofing its existing development cooperation program.

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