Owning up to Canada's 'fair share' of the climate burden

In an interview before the publication of a new report he co-authored on how much developed nations are doing to help developing countries fight climate change, then Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson figured he had relatively good news to share.

Sending money abroad is seldom good politics — but there's no other way to tackle the threat

People hold hands and navigate their way through a flooded street in Mumbai, India. Severe weather driven by climate change is having particularly dire effects in coastal regions of nations that may not have the resources for costly mitigation efforts. (Rajanish Kakade/The Associated Press)

In an interview before the publication of a new report he co-authored on how much developed nations are doing to help developing countries fight climate change, then Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson figured he had relatively good news to share.

The early reviews were less inclined to look on the bright side.

"This document is certainly not a plan to deliver the $100 billion in full and on time. And it's a failed attempt to provide hope on climate finance by pushing the target to 2023," Eddy Perez, international diplomacy manager for the Climate Action Network, told a news conference held two hours after the report's release.

Nonetheless, Perez "personally" (and perhaps sarcastically) thanked Wilkinson and Germany's State Secretary at the Ministry for Environment Jochen Flasbarth for their "honesty."

What developed nations are bringing to the table is not nothing: an OECD report in July estimated that the richest countries contributed $79.6 billion in 2019 to support climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts in lower-income countries. And Wilkinson and Flasbarth's report estimates that the annual total will reach $100 billion in 2022 or 2023.

But that's not what those countries promised in 2009 when they set the goal of reaching $100 billion in annual funding by 2020.

And so, once again, a failure to move far enough and fast enough may lead to difficult and urgent conversations at another international climate conference.

A moral and practical interest

"I think this is really good news," Wilkinson said in an interview on Sunday. "Understandably, some of the developing world will be disappointed that it wasn't achieved in 2020, but I think everybody knew that reading the OECD report.

"The issue was, can you do it and by when? And what we're showing them is you can do it and actually you can do it pretty soon."

"Climate finance" — the term given to this aid — is a key piece of the global climate puzzle.

Richer nations obviously have the wherewithal to help poorer countries. But the developed world is also responsible for the lion's share of the current problem — the historic emissions that are already driving climate change. Developing nations, meanwhile, are being asked to forgo some of the high-polluting activities (such as using coal for power generation) that helped developed nations get rich in the first place.

So for the sake of fighting climate change and reducing global instability, the wealthiest nations have both a moral and a practical stake in the developing world's mitigation and adaptation efforts.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a speech on the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, on November 30, 2015. (Stephane Mane/Reuters)

In November 2015, just three weeks after being sworn in as prime minister, Justin Trudeau went to Paris and announced a commitment of $2.65 billion over five years for developing nations. That promise still fell short of what some groups consider Canada's "fair share." But this past June, Trudeau announced that commitment would double to $5.3 billion over the next five years.

That move seems to have prompted Alok Sharma, president-designate of COP26 in the United Kingdom, to ask Wilkinson and Flasbarth to co-author a "delivery plan" on the developed world's progress toward the $100 billion goal.

With United Nations Secretary General António Guterres warning of a "worrying" degree of "mistrust" between developed and developing countries, Monday's report might be read as an attempt to assure developing nations that their richer cousins are still attuned to the problem.

Too optimistic

The report states that developed nations were far too optimistic about the role of private finance when they released a "roadmap" for reaching the $100 billion goal in 2016. At the time, it was suggested that private funds would account annually for $33 billion of the cost of fighting climate change by 2020.

In fact, said the OECD, private sources provided just $14 billion in 2019. As Perez said on Monday, rich nations can hardly blame anyone else if their own calculations proved to be unrealistic.

In light of the new report, Perez is calling on Sharma to convene a new meeting of environment ministers to tackle the shortfall.

  • Have questions about COP26 or climate science, policy or politics? Email us: ask@cbc.ca. Your input helps inform our coverage.

Shared burdens are always difficult to negotiate. It gets more difficult when political leaders face criticism if they lift a finger to help.

After Trudeau returned from Paris in 2015, Conservative environment critic Ed Fast lamented that the prime minister was pursuing "his own vanity projects, like the $2.65 billion he spent on environmental projects outside of our country when the money could and should have stayed in Canada."

Conservative Ed Fast attacked the Liberals' contributions to climate change measures abroad, accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of spending taxpayers' money on overseas 'vanity projects.' (Canadian Press)

When President Donald Trump removed the United States from the Paris Accord in 2017, he singled out the commitment to climate finance as "yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States."

"I think it's incumbent on governments to actually try to communicate what this is about and why this is being done. And the Europeans have done that probably most effectively," Wilkinson said. "But the reality is, in the absence of this kind of an accord between the developed and developing worlds, there's no collaboration on climate change."

Wilkinson said it helps that the United States is involved again in international climate talks and President Joe Biden's promise to double the country's climate finance contributions — to US$11.4 billion annually — makes it easier to tell other countries that they should increase their commitments.

Slow progress

But it's also now unclear how much of Biden's climate agenda will get through Congress.

This may read like a microcosm of all international climate efforts to date: slow progress and frustrating politics in the face of increasingly urgent calls for action and potentially dire consequences. Monday's report might also add to a sense of pessimism that is starting to linger around COP26.

But Wilkinson — who said efforts by the U.K., Germany and Canada have led to increased commitments by other countries — is trying to point to progress.

"I think that certainly there will be some that will criticize the fact that it wasn't done by 2020. And in that sense, from the developing world's perspective, it's not perfect, and I don't think anybody should pretend it is," he said. 

"But I do think that many in the developing world will see the work that we have done as incredibly helpful in the context of building trust, rebuilding trust, that the developed community actually remains committed to the goal and … we're going to hit it."


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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