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Eye-catching climate donations put spotlight on China at COP climate talks

By Zia Weise, Sara Schonhardt | 12/01/2023 07:08 AM EST

The oil-rich UAE aimed to slough off criticism about its role leading the U.N. climate talks with a $100 million pledge to aid poorer, climate-stricken countries.

Workers hoist flags, including that of China, of nations participating in the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference the day before its official opening.

Workers hoist flags, including that of China, of nations participating in COP28 the day before its official opening. Sean Gallup/AFP via Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The U.N. climate summit kicked off Thursday with a parade of wealthy nations offering big-money pledges to help poorer countries cope with the ravages of a warming world — a surprise that turns up the pressure on countries like China to open their checkbooks.

Leading the charge was the summit’s oil-rich host, the United Arab Emirates, whose $100 million (€92 million) vow seemed designed to defuse months of criticism about whether it can serve as an honest broker in talks about ending the world’s fossil fuel dependence. Its offer matched one from Germany.

The maneuver certainly turned heads — and kicked off a cascade of contributions, making for a remarkable opening day at the 28th annual COP conference. The European Union said it would give at least €225 million for the fund (including Germany’s pledge). The United Kingdom tossed in £40 million, or approximately €46 million.

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Trailing far behind: the United States, at $17.5 million, or roughly €16 million.

Suddenly, it was the UAE getting the praise. EU climate envoy Wopke Hoekstra thanked the country for “leading the way for new donors.”

He added: “Thanks to the EU’s efforts, the fund is open to contributions from all parties that have the capacity to pay.”

His comment was a clear nod to the fact that the pledge transcended a decades-old divide in climate talks between “developed” and “developing” nations, particularly on financial matters. Many activists and climate-vulnerable countries have long argued that rich, industrialized countries responsible for the bulk of planet-warming emissions should take the lead on funding climate action. Even the Paris Agreement echoes this point.

Now, however, the spotlight will turn to countries like China, the world’s second-largest economy, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two small yet affluent countries. All three are still considered “developing countries” under the U.N. climate framework despite amassing considerable wealth in recent generations.

“We are building bridges between traditional donor countries and new, non-traditional donors,” said German Development Minister Svenja Schulze, who announced Berlin’s $100 million contribution via video link in the plenary, in a statement.

Without mentioning any country in particular, she added: “After all, many countries that were still developing countries 30 years ago can now afford shouldering their share of responsibility for global climate-related loss and damage.”

An age-old battleMost developing countries want to maintain their existing categorization, which harkens back to an which countries are rich and poor.

But developed countries like the U.S. and those in Europe are campaigning for high-polluting emerging economies to contribute funding, a push aimed at broadening the donor base as financial needs grow.

The countries’ commitments will go into what’s known as a “loss and damage” fund in U.N. jargon. The money is intended to help compensate for the destruction wrought by extreme weather and other consequences of global warming.

Delegates from nearly 200 countries signed off on the initiative only hours into the summit, a positive sign given the issue was mired in fractious talks in the weeks before COP.

The U.S. pledge, small as it was, was still notable given that Washington has historically been reluctant to offer specific dollar amounts for the new fund. In recent weeks Biden administration officials have indicated their support for the fund but said they wanted to see it finalized before considering donations.

That said, even the $17.5 million may never come to fruition, as the White House could need sign-off from a Republican-controlled House that has been hostile to such efforts and is already stymied on other international aid decisions.

Still, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry was bullish on Thursday.

“We also expect the fund to be up and running quickly,” he said. “We expect that will help address priority gaps in the current landscape of support, and we expect it will draw from a wide variety of sources.”

In the absence of direct bilateral aid, the U.S. is working to draw in more money from the private sector and has supported the idea of funding from more innovative sources, which could include things like levies on air travel.

Behind the U.S. was Japan, which said it would give $10 million.

“While the overall signal from today’s pledges is positive, it is disappointing that the United States and Japan chipped in so little,” said Ani Dasgupta, president of the World Resources Institute. “Given the size of their economies, there is simply no excuse for their contributions to be far eclipsed by others.”

Dasgupta called the UAE pledge “particularly notable,” since it broadens the group of nations providing climate finance.

Making historyThe deluge of announcements came after delegates approved the framework for the new climate disaster fund, a landmark decision that prompted a standing ovation at the summit.

“We have delivered history today,” COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber — who also heads the UAE’s state-owned oil company — told delegates, adding that this marks “the first time a decision has been adopted on Day One at any COP.”

Delegations and civil society organizations broadly welcomed Thursday’s announcements and U.N. climate chief Simon Stiell said the development gave the conference “a running start.”

But some warned of a yawning gap between the initial pledges and countries’ financing needs.

“The initial funding pledges are clearly inadequate and will be a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the need they are to address,” said Mohamed Adow, director of the nonprofit Power Shift Africa.

“In particular, the amount announced by the U.S. is embarrassing for President Biden and John Kerry,” he added. “It just shows how this must be just the start.”

As for China, “I don’t think they will pledge,” said Li Shuo, director of the China Climate Hub at the Asia Society Policy Institute. “But this highlights the urgency for China to consider its evolving responsibilities when it comes to finance.”

Still, the $200 million from Germany and the UAE will cover the cost of getting the fund set up under the World Bank, allowing additional pledges to flow into the fund itself.

“This day is doubly auspicious due to the immediate commencement of the capitalization process,” said Pa’olelei Luteru, a Samoan diplomat who chairs an alliance of island nations long pushing for the fund.

“This is an encouraging beginning,” he added, “but there is much work ahead of us.”

Zia Weise reported from Dubai. Sara Schonhardt reported from Washington.