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The Tensions Over U.N. Climate Finance, Captured in One Graph

A look at Fiji's emissions offers insights into the longstanding tension between adaptation and mitigation in the global response to climate change—and why different countries tussle over what to do with climate cash.
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Fiji boat

Spread out across some 300-odd islands in the South Pacific, Fiji has a front-row seat to the effects of climate change. The Pacific island nation is already experiencing drastic sea-level rise, droughts, floods, and rising temperatures, despite having contributed very little to the man-made emissions that are rapidly altering our planet's climate. Still, Fiji is leading global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change, not least by presiding over this year's COP23 in Bonn, Germany. As the first country in the world to ratify the Paris deal, the country pledged to reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030—up from around 60 percent in 2013—and to cut total emissions by as much as 30 percent with the help of $500 million in international aid.

Climate finance is sure to be a heated topic once again this week in Bonn, where representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting to continue hammering out the finer details of the Paris Agreement. Everyone agrees that funding is key to climate action, especially for the world's poorest and most vulnerable nations, which is why developed nations committed to providing $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020. But funders and recipients are generally divided on how that money should be spent.

A look at Fiji's emissions can provide some insights into the longstanding tension between adaptation and mitigation in the global response to climate change, and why different countries tussle over what to do with climate cash.

Wealthy Countries Would Rather Fund Mitigation Than Adaptation

Climate finance tends to flow from north to south, from developed countries to developing nations. While the Paris Agreement calls for equal funding for mitigation and adaptation, it's still not quite a 50/50 split: Only a quarter of public funds from developed to developing nations are directed toward adaptation projects, according to Carbon Brief, and investments from multilateral development banks are even more lopsided, with just 20 percent going to adaptation.

Historically, the developed countries in the global north push for more money for mitigation, while the global south wants funds for adaptation—largely because they have fewer emissions to mitigate and more urgent climate woes to adapt to. Fiji, for example, contributes a minuscule amount to global carbon emissions: just 0.04 percent. If you were to plot carbon dioxide emissions of the United States and Fiji on the same graph, the latter would appear as a straight line hugging the x-axis.

Carbon dioxide emissions (kilotons) in Fiji and the United States, 1960–2014

Carbon dioxide emissions (kilotons) in Fiji and the United States, 1960–2014

Though China overtook the U.S. in annual emissions in 2008, the U.S. has emitted more carbon dioxide cumulatively than any other country since 1980. In 2014, the U.S. was responsible for 5,254,279 metric kilotons of carbon emissions, according to the World Bank, while Fiji was responsible for just 1,170 metric kilotons. Of course, the U.S. and the Fijian islands are vastly different countries, so a comparison of gross emissions is not all that informative. For one thing, the higher the population, the more people there are participating in greenhouse gas-producing activities, the higher the emissions will be. The population of New York City alone is about nine times the entire population of Fiji.

Emissions per capita is often seen as a more useful measure. Americans are individually responsible for 19.78 metric tons of carbon emissions each year, while Fijians emit just 1.47 metric tons each.

Despite these differences, wealthier countries tend to favor mitigation because it promises quantifiable, long-term, and global benefits. "There is a noble debate that if we mitigate more, we don't actually need to adapt," says Nilesh Prakash, the director of the Climate Change Division at Fiji's Ministry of Economy. "But we need to look at the scale of mitigation happening. The targets set under the Paris Agreement won't get us to 1.5 degrees, so we know we need more ambitious targets. In the meantime, what happens to us?"

Fierce cyclones put Fiji's infrastructure at risk, rising tides are eating away at the country's coasts and agricultural lands and weakening fresh water supplies, and ocean acidification is threatening the country's reef ecosystems and fish stocks. In 2012, Vunidogoloa became the first community in Fiji to relocate in response to the effects of climate change, and the Fijian government has identified dozens more coastal communities that will need to be relocated in the not-so-distant future. Now Fijian officials are crafting national guidelines for planned relocations, which will make Fiji one of the first countries in the world to develop an official relocation plan.

How Island Nations Are Making the Case for More Adaptation Funds

"Adaptation is unlike mitigation, where you are able to sort of quantify what will be the benefit," Prakash explains. "What we want to be able to do is to be able to make a case for adaptation that is quantifiable." He adds that making the "business case" for adaptation includes common-sense math, like calculating the benefits of climate-proofing public infrastructure. Cyclone Winston, the Category 5 storm that battered the Fijian archipelago last year, damaged 90 percent of Fiji's schools, Prakash notes; if a similar disaster strikes the nation before they have a chance to improve the infrastructure in schools, it puts the social development and educations—both quantifiable measures—of Fiji's children at risk.

Still, public opinion in donor countries is not swayed by the magnitude of climate-related damages in recipient countries like Fiji, according to a 2014 survey of Americans and Germans. Both populations were less likely to approve of funding for adaptation alone, or of funding plans in which the recipient country had the final say in how to use the money.

It's worth noting here that there are plenty of problems with letting outside funders decide which climate projects live and die in a country they are often unfamiliar with. Electricity generation, for example, is the low-hanging fruit for Fiji's sustainability targets, as outside donors are eager to support projects that involve renewable electricity technologies. But the transport sector, and shipping in particular, makes up a much larger share of the country's fossil fuel use than electricity generation.

While it's not clear how much weight public opinion holds over policymakers' funding decisions, finding ways to measure the success of adaptation plans will be critical to the future of climate finance, which depends on trust and transparency from both donors and recipients.

What's Next for Climate Finance?

The future of climate finance is uncertain—not least because of the Trump administration's plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement and renege on at least $2 billion in previously promised donations to the Green Climate Fund, which amounts to a 20 percent cut to the GCF. But the president's decision to back away from the previous administration's financial responsibilities could have other, indirect effects as well; according to NPR, "various analysts say the loss of U.S. engagement in the day-to-day running of the fund could have less tangible but no less dramatic downsides because the U.S. government has particular expertise when it comes to keeping multinational organizations accountable and effective."

While the Paris Agreement outlined the broad goals and plans for climate action, the subsequent COPs are dedicated to figuring out how to accomplish those goals. The parties have until 2018 to deliver a finalized set of guidelines to implement the agreement. Last year in Marrakech, negotiators essentially kicked the climate finance can down the road, agreeing to keep discussions on finance and the United Nations' adaptation fund open, and otherwise agreeing on little else. Now, with a Pacific island nation at the helm of COP23, progress on adaptation funds is sure to be a priority.

We're also likely to see a push on the controversial concept of "loss and damage," a provision that would codify just how historically liable wealthier countries are for their contributions to catastrophic climate change. "We have to recognize that there are limits to adaptation," says Achala Abeysinghe, principal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development and legal adviser to the chair of the Least Developed Countries group of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Already, Abeysinghe says, "countries are losing their territories."

This year, delegates will finally adopt a five-year working plan for the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, which focuses more on data-gathering than direct action. "The problem is that's not enough; it's just talking about doing research and furthering understanding," Abeysinghe says. "That's not what islands are asking for.

If the parties to the Paris Agreement truly want to help less-developed countries, and especially island states, Abeysinghe says, "We have to go beyond the research, beyond the conceptual stage. We have to think about action related to loss and damage. We will have a difficult time in Bonn and beyond, but we will, at the same time, be pushing for it. It's the first time that a COP president has taken this issue very seriously."