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The Rich Are Under Funding Climate Change Mitigation

In today's edition of This Week in Climate, we look at the rich-poor divide when it comes to climate change.
Abigail Bassett
Nov 8, 2023 9 min read
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The world continues to grapple with the rich-poor divide when it comes to climate change, and a couple of recent reports underscore this trend.

First, a recent report from the U.N. shows that rich countries have failed to pay up on their commitments to poorer countries to help adapt to climate impacts, to the tune of as much as $366 billion. Second, a recent report by ClimateWorks Foundation, a philanthropic organization that tracks climate donations, indicates that donations in 2022 were flat for the first time in three years. Finally, a report in August noted that the wealthiest 10% contribute to as much as 40% of the planet's pollution thanks to both their lifestyle and their investments.

Closing the rich-poor gap when it comes to battling climate change will take a lot of effort and creative solutions, and it remains to be seen if the global collective is up to the task.

Rich Countries Continue to Fall Short on their Financial Climate Commitments to Poor Countries

Back in 2009, rich countries made a commitment to give poorer nations $100 billion per year in funding to adapt to everything from rising temperatures and sea levels to helping developing nations cut greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) reported that those countries only sent $25 billion during the 2017-2021 period, leaving a shortfall of an estimated $194 billion to $366 billion for poor countries.

As the Washington Post points out, the reasons behind the shortfalls come down to a variety of issues. Politics plays a significant role, especially when it comes to the commitments made by the U.S. As partisanship and division become the norm in Congress, and as the U.S. enters what promises to be a dramatic election year in 2024, financial commitments to poorer nations become less of a priority.

Additionally, the number of new projects supported by funds like the Green Climate Fund has dropped as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the latest conflict in the Middle East, and other crises. Furthermore, accessing these funds is complex due to stringent requirements that create barriers for smaller countries.

Western countries have also made their own green transitions a priority over sending funds to poorer countries, according to the Post. Case in point, the Inflation Reduction Act does not include any financing for foreign climate aid.

Expect the climate funding shortfall to be a key discussion point at the upcoming COP28 in Dubai at the end of the month, as leaders meet to attempt to figure out new ways to raise enough money to help poorer countries deal with climate change.

Climate Donations are Slowing

In spite of one of the warmest summers on record, climate donations are slowing down, according to a report released last week by the ClimateWorks Foundation.

The platform said that philanthropic funding for climate change mitigation remained essentially unchanged from 2022. That might sound encouraging, but ClimateWorks says it's a marked shift from previous years. Climate giving plateaued in 2022 after consistent growth from 2019 to 2021.

The report notes that there are a number of reasons that they believe that people gave less to climate causes this year. Economic factors, including inflation, a declining stock market, and a decrease in global growth all contributed to the trend.

Despite this, however, ClimateWorks says there were some bright spots in giving in 2022. From 2018 to 2022, donations to Africa and maritime causes to help fight climate change more than tripled. Funding also increased for the built environment, corporate accountability, and minerals for green energy in 2022. Despite these increases, the organization says that overall funding is still not at the scale needed for transformative climate solutions​​.

The Richest 10% Contribute up to 40% of Climate-Heating Emissions

While it’s not news that the wealthiest individuals have a tremendous impact on climate change, a report from August quantified that impact for the wealth in the U.S. alone. A study published in PLOS Climate showed that the wealthiest 10% of Americans are responsible for nearly 40% of the human-caused, planet-heating pollution. The report includes the investments that the top 10% make in oil, gas, insurance, and other companies (which tend to be the highest emitters) and takes into consideration the wealthy lifestyle (think multiple huge homes and private jets). As CNN proclaimed, the nation's biggest polluters are also the richest.

A Multi-Pronged Solution

Climate change is exacerbated by the rich-poor divide regardless of whether we are talking about it on the global or local scale, and plenty of business and political leaders and academics are trying to come up with a new way to manage the growing climate inequality gap.

Some argue that donations amount to little more than a tax write-off for the wealthy, and global commitments have proven to be mostly empty promises thanks to the continually shifting winds of international and local politics.

Some suggest a multipronged approach is needed. Leveraging everything from enhanced accountability for nations making public commitments to simplifying access to funding for poorer nations is on the table. Like almost everything in the climate space, it will take a creative combination of carrots and sticks to incentivize wealthy countries and individuals to do their part to reduce their carbon footprints and help lift the world's poor out of impending climate disaster.

There are also conversations about tax changes and incentives to further level the playing field on climate change. We'll keep tabs on the proceedings at COP28 for you to see if realistic, enforceable, and actionable solutions come to light with the aim of reducing the climate inequality gap around the world.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett