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Pennies for the Planet

The U.N. created the Green Climate Fund to help developing countries get off fossil fuels. Five years on, the money is finally starting to flow.

President Obama is expected to announce a $3 billion contribution to the United Nations' Green Climate Fund this weekend. Last month, Brian Palmer wrote about the fund's history and explained why it's sorely in need of donations.

French President Francois Holland pledged nearly $1 billion to the Green Climate Fund at the United Nations climate summit last week, in an effort to help developing countries move away from fossil fuels.

Green Climate Fund—qu'est-ce que c'est? The Green Climate Fund is so obscure in the United States that most of the journalists who covered the French pledge didn’t mention the fund by name in their headlines. (And neither did I.) But this “near-empty global fund” is worth knowing about it, because its tortured history represents, in miniature, the international paralysis over dealing with climate change.

Five years ago, the participants at the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen recognized that developing countries lacked the resources to transition to a low-carbon economy. Coal and natural gas are dirty and dangerous, but they’re also cheap and getting cheaper. So the conference attendees conceived of an internationally administered fund that would dole out cash to needy countries for green energy projects, giving them a push to forego fossil fuels. For example, the funds could guarantee minimum prices for green energy or reward businesses that construct low-carbon buildings. GCF’s creators envisioned collecting and disbursing tens of billions of dollars each year.

Great idea, but the delegates left Copenhagen without nailing down some important details. It wasn’t initially clear what person, country, or organization would oversee the Green Climate Fund, and countries even argued over where its headquarters would be. The fund was off to a decidedly testudine start.

Money, as always, was the biggest problem. Long before the GCF could get on its feet, developed countries had already committed to support climate change adaptation in developing countries. There was concern that those donors would be hesitant to route their largesse through the fund once it got going. After all, giving the money directly to poor nations might be simpler and would help to burnish the donor country’s image. (“This solar array was made possible by the people of Germany,” for example.)

Since cash was supposed to flow from developed to developing countries, big arguments arose over which nations belonged in which group. The elephant in the room—to the extent that there was a room; initial meetings for the GCF kept on getting delayed—was China. Considered a developing nation in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, China has since become one of the world’s richest and heaviest polluters. Developed countries also insisted on bringing in private sector donors, but how and why those donations would be made was a bit hazy.

Many of these problems have since been sorted—at least for now. The World Bank is responsible for disbursing the funds on an interim basis, several meetings have taken place, and the GCF is headquartered in Incheon, South Korea.

Money, however, is still a problem. In June, GCF leader Hela Cheikhrouhou of Tunisia announced a $15 billion fundraising goal for 2014, but quickly lowered her sights to $10 billion. With $2.3 billion raised to date—and that includes the French pledge—the fund remains well short of even the reduced goal. The fund’s requests for money from countries like China and India have also been met with deafening silence. The Green Climate Fund seems to be in the middle of a bizarre Mexican standoff, in which developing countries won’t make a commitment to clean up their act until bigger countries make the first move, and vice versa.

The big losers in all this—as usual—are the climate, the oceans, global biodiversity, and future generations (especially those born on low-lying islands and pollution-choked cities). There are no longer any persuasive scientific or even bureaucratic reasons to delay funding the initiative anymore. Those outstanding issues that were preventing the U.N. from officially cutting the ribbon on the fund are finally settled. The GCF has agreed on how applications for funding will work, which sorts of projects to prioritize (“readiness” activities, such as assessments of a country’s green infrastructure needs, will be especially favored), and how to make sure those climate-friendly projects actually come to fruition.

So, the Green Climate Fund—remember the name—is open for business. It’s time for countries large and small to finally pony up the cash. If not, I urge you to support the upcoming GCF bake sale.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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