A leaked civil service briefing has warned that the government could break its pledge to spend £11.6bn over five years on sustainable development, climate action and nature protection overseas. It follows Zac Goldsmith’s warning that the promise would be broken as he resigned as International Environment Minister with a broadside against Rishi Sunak for being “simply uninterested” in the environment.
This matters. The £11.6bn pledge represented a doubling of the UK’s previous climate finance commitment and was much trumpeted by Boris Johnson at COP26, as well as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak subsequently. It represents the UK’s contribution to a globally agreed target of at least $100bn per year for mitigating and adapting to climate change in the Global South – those nations which can least afford the effect of rising temperatures or the action required to avert them.
Failing to meet our commitment means global action against climate change and biodiversity loss – already insufficient – will simply get weaker still. Our money can make a tangible difference in helping the very poorest to, for example, build more resistant agricultural systems or meet the high capital costs of new energy infrastructure. Many of those most directly affected are in Commonwealth nations, where the UK has a special role and responsibility.
We must always be prudent in managing the billions of taxpayers’ money spent on aid, especially during a cost of living crisis. Still, we must not see aid purely in terms of altruism – spent right, it is clearly in our interests too. Money spent on investing in clean industries abroad or improving poor infrastructure is an investment in global security, helping us create new trade partnerships, reduce migration flows, and boost the UK’s global influence.
Climate finance may lack friends in the UK, but our friends abroad will be eager to see the government meet its pledge. Post-Brexit naysayers crow that we don’t matter any more, but the truth is that the UK’s voice is still respected on the global stage. Our presidency of COP26 was a particular success: the next time someone queries why we’re bothering to decarbonise when we only account for 1% of global emissions, remind them that it is our leadership that has helped to ensure that countries accounting for 90% of the world’s economy have now followed us in adopting net zero targets. If we make financial commitments, others will follow, as they have done in the past.
But if we are seen to retreat from playing our part in not just providing finance but also encouraging others to do so too, the ramifications for our relationships in key strategic regions like the Pacific will be significant. And if we don’t act, others will. China may not care much for the climate, but it is absolutely committed to exerting its influence overseas by supporting infrastructure development in the Global South. This goes well beyond climate change: votes in the UN General Assembly, where each nation counts equally, are up for grabs.
Conservatives in the West rightly decry China’s malign influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, but our words ring hollow if we aren’t prepared to step up and provide a meaningful alternative path for nations desperate for investment from somewhere. Climate finance can and must be an integral part of our approach, responding to the twin challenges of climate change and global insecurity.
So what should the government do? It would be unconscionable to divert significant sums away from other aid programmes dealing with healthcare, nutrition and poverty alleviation, so more funding may need to be found. But to rebuild trust on the world stage, ministers should use government spending to leverage much more private investment in adaptation and mitigation overseas, demonstrate how the £11.6bn commitment will be met by specifying which programmes it will fund, and urgently recommit to climate finance both now and for the long term. Even putting aside the moral arguments for climate finance, we should be in no doubt that it is in our interests too