BY ZACK COLMAN | SEPTEMBER 29, 2014 | 5:00 AM
NEW YORK — What once seemed a harmless token of good will from rich countries to poor ones could derail negotiations over a global climate deal next year.
Developing nations want industrial countries to contribute the $100 billion they promised for a Green Climate Fund by 2020 to pay for clean energy and other projects meant to help them adapt to a changing climate.
That $100 billion was never realistic. The fund has $2.3 billion, of which $1.3 billion was raised at the United Nations climate summit last week in New York. Rich nations that were expected to contribute when the U.N. started the fund in 2010 aren’t feeling rich anymore.
Unless developing nations drop their demands, negotiations over a binding climate pact next year in Paris might be over before they really begin.
“The United States and other Western countries and other industrialized countries need to indicate that that amount of money won’t be forthcoming. We can’t allow this funding issue to sabotage an agreement on emissions,” said Paul Bledsoe, senior fellow on energy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Inking a deal would be difficult anyway. Theoretically, nations want commitments to cut enough greenhouse gases by 2020 to avoid a 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise by 2100. Most climate scientists say not enough is being done to curb the emissions they blame for stoking climate change. They argue that even some steps that have been considered bold, such as President Obama’s proposed rules on power plant emissions, are too tame.
The existence of yawning gaps between rhetoric and reality is routine at the U.N. And the hot air is no less plentiful on the subject of climate change than it is on other issues.
The Kyoto negotiations in 1997 set the precedent. They failed because China and India, hewing to their plans for economic growth, refused to participate. The United States balked at signing the treaty without them. The same nations also doomed the 2009 negotiations in Copenhagen, the last major attempt to secure a climate treaty.
India remains obdurate. New Delhi has candidly expressed skepticism about the concept of climate change. It said bluntly last week that its emissions would continue to rise and it would not offer a plan to reduce them before the Paris negotiations.
Although the Copenhagen talks collapsed, the Green Climate Fund was one of the few tangible results of the negotiations. It is symbolic for developing nations and crucial for keeping them engaged in climate talks.
A key moment will come in November, when nations meet specifically to make pledges to the fund. U.N. officials have reduced their first-round goal to $10 billion from $15 billion.
“A strong fund mobilization in November is critical because it’s seen as part of the original deal,” said Lou Leonard, vice president for climate change with the World Wildlife Fund. “If it is not lived up to, then it will be hard to convince the developing countries to live up to the Paris deal.”
In 2040, developing nations are expected to emit 127 percent more carbon dioxide from energy than the world’s most developed countries, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Even though they’re projected to contribute more emissions in the future, developing nations consider the Green Climate Fund a matter of fairness. They point out that they are expected to deal with the consequences of climate change even though a great proportion of the heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere were emitted by rich countries that developed earlier. Many undeveloped nations are ill-equipped to bear the consequences either financially and functionally.
But many rich nations aren’t feeling so wealthy these days, noted Deborah Gordon, energy and climate director with the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. For all the idealism and global cooperation that those leaders aimed to highlight at the climate summit, economic realities might prevent significant financial pledges.
“Whose responsibility is it to act?” Gordon said. “In a perfect world it would be on the shoulders on the developed world … but these countries are going through their own changes, which are expensive.”
Bledsoe said developing nations shouldn’t overplay their hand or they would risk being left out of negotiations while bigger economies search for solutions.
It will be difficult even for big economies to agree to a deal by themselves. Canada’s economy is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, for example, and its concerns are therefore radically different from those of Latin America, where deforestation is a much bigger issue.
“It’s a hard one to slice and dice, which is why they probably looked at a global accord,” Gordon said.
Leonard said there is hope of keeping developing nations on board.
While the fund was originally pitched as a rich-to-poor donation, Leonard noted that some developing countries such as Mexico and Indonesia said they would contribute. He also noted that the United States, European Union and Japan haven’t put down any money, but probably will.
Leonard thinks the $100 billion is possible, but November’s pledges will give a better indication. If the commitment is weak, he said, it could reduce the chances of inking a legitimate draft accord in Lima, Peru, in December.
Gordon says getting to $100 billion is unlikely.
“The deadlines that were set from Kyoto and the U.N. leading up to now — 2020 seemed like the future. 2020 isn’t the future now,” she said.