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Why Is Climate Finance So Hard to Define?

This is the first installment of our blog series, Climate Finance FAQs. The series explores the often nebulous world of climate finance, providing clarity on some of the key terms and current issues. Read more posts in this series.

Surprising as it may sound, there is no standard definition of climate finance. In fact, there are many differing views on what type of funding constitutes climate finance, how it should be delivered, and how much money developing nations will need to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. This vortex of information can be confusing to navigate. Here, we'll do our best to break down all of the components that define “climate finance.”

Defining Climate Finance: Broadly to Narrowly

In its broadest interpretation, climate finance refers to the flow of funds toward activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or help society adapt to climate change’s impacts. It is the totality of flows directed to climate change projects—the same way that “infrastructure finance” refers to the financing of infrastructure, or “consumer finance” refers to providing credit for purchases of big-ticket household items.

The term is most frequently used in the context of international political negotiations on climate change. In this context, climate finance—or international climate finance—is used to describe financial flows from developed to developing countries for climate change mitigation/adaptation activities, like building solar power plants or walls to protect from sea level rise. This interpretation builds off the premise that developed countries have an obligation to help developing countries transform their economies to become less carbon-intensive and more resilient to climate change.

Lessons from Thailand: Mobilizing Investment in Energy Efficiency

Developing countries will need about $531 billion of additional investments in clean energy technologies every year in order to limit global temperature rise to 2° C above pre-industrial levels, thus preventing climate change’s worst impacts. To attract investments on the scale required, developing country governments, with support from developed countries, must undertake “readiness” activities that will encourage public and private sector investors to put their money into climate-friendly projects.

WRI’s six-part blog series, Mobilizing Clean Energy Finance, highlights individual developing countries’ experiences in scaling up investments in clean energy and explores the role climate finance plays in addressing investment barriers. The cases draw on WRI’s recent report, Mobilizing Climate Investment.

The development of Thailand’s energy efficiency sector is an interesting case study. It demonstrates how strong government leadership combined with strategic support from international climate finance can drive the transition toward an energy-efficient economy.

In the early 1990s, Thailand’s economy was growing rapidly at 10 percent per year; the power sector was growing even faster. The government recognized that conserving energy would provide a low-cost way to meet its citizens’ rising demand for energy.

The Private Sector and International Development: A Love Affair, or Cold Feet?

The private sector is a crucial partner in advancing sustainable development, and bilateral aid agencies are grappling with ways to learn from and leverage the activities of companies and markets. As the worlds of business and of aid increasingly intersect—and as development budgets are reined in even as demands on them grow—the pressure is to do more in partnership with the private sector. The real challenge, though, is to do better.

This was the headline message from a recent roundtable discussion with representatives from nine bilateral donor agencies and invitees from the private sector, co-organized by WRI and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London (see notes from the roundtable).

Both sides desire a strengthened relationship. Donor agencies see the private sector as an indispensable partner for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of aid. Agencies are looking for important sources of ideas, technology, and financing to scale up development solutions.

One example is the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF), which is funded by the Australian, British, Danish, Dutch, and Swedish aid agencies. AECF is improving livelihoods of poor people in rural Africa by supporting innovation and new business models to help small-scale farmers adapt to climate change and promote investment in the generation of low-cost, clean, renewable energy.

Private sector actors seek clearer policy signals and more consistent support from donor agencies, particularly in understanding and navigating local politics. They also seek opportunities to develop new products and new markets, benefiting from the “de-risking” role that the public sector can play.

New Blog Series Will Answer Your Questions on Climate Finance

Now is a critically important time for the world to focus on climate finance. Developing nations—those least responsible for causing global warming but most vulnerable to its impacts—need funding to adopt clean energy, protect infrastructure from sea level rise, and engage in other adaptation and mitigation strategies. But these activities are costly—the world will need to figure out how to fund them now in order to protect countries from future climate change.

The problem is that it’s hard to draw attention to a topic that’s difficult to understand. The issue of climate finance is decidedly complex. Several entities--think-tanks, banks and other financial institutions, international institutions, governments, and public sector agencies--are involved in myriad activities related to climate finance. Understanding how they operate, interact, and contribute can be confusing. Even the vocabulary that defines climate finance can be inconsistent, abstract, and nebulous at times. These complexities make climate finance an issue that’s hard for people--even experts, sometimes --to wrap their heads around.

Introducing the Climate Finance FAQs Series

That’s where WRI’s new blog series, Climate Finance FAQs, comes in. Our experts will attempt to shed light on basic climate finance issues through a series of blog posts. By explaining these topics in plain language, we can make climate finance more accessible--and hopefully, draw broader attention to the pressing issue of how to pay for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Are Developed Nations Falling Short on Their Climate Finance Commitments?

UPDATE 4/11/13: After this blog post was published, the OECD released updated figures for 2010 and 2011. The data still shows a decrease in commitments for adaptation, mitigation, and climate finance, as this blog post states. However, adaptation expenditures were 3 percent higher in 2011 than in 2010, as opposed to unchanged. (View updated figures.) The changes in the numbers are a result of donors entering new data for previous years or updating their old data. Preliminary data for 2012 shows that aid to developing countries continued to fall. Detailed figures for 2012 will be released in June 2013.

At the 2009 U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen, developed nations committed to provide a collective $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing countries mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change’s impacts. Recently, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released some surprising new data on this pledge. The figures indicate that developed nations’ recent climate finance contributions have fallen rather than risen toward the level of their 2020 commitment.

A Look at the New OECD Data

The OECD is a consortium of 34 wealthy countries. Among other joint initiatives, it provides a platform to monitor and share statistics on aid flows and climate finance contributed by its members. Most OECD members report both their climate finance expenditures and commitments using the “Rio Markers” (see text box), and the OECD secretariat periodically makes these numbers public. OECD members’ climate finance contributions represent a significant portion of the collective $100 billion commitment, so the numbers reported by the OECD give a good indication of developments in the climate finance field.

Surprisingly, new OECD numbers show that while adaptation expenditures in 2011 remained the same as in 2010, expenditures for mitigation activities decreased. Plus, the total commitment for climate finance decreased from $23 billion in 2010 to $17 billion in 2011.

While a “commitment” refers to the total amount of money a country will spend on an adaptation/mitigation project over a multi-year period—which is reported at the beginning of a project—an “expenditure” refers to the amount a country spends in a particular year on adaptation/mitigation activities. In January 2013, the OECD updated its data for 2011. It is difficult, of course, to predict or analyze trends based on only two years of data (the only data that’s currently available on OECD climate finance commitments). But given developed nations’ agreement to scale up climate finance significantly by 2020, this decrease is surprising—and could be concerning.

Methodology and Database—Public Financing Instruments to Leverage Private Capital

Focus on Multilateral Agencies

These documents explain the methodology WRI employed for its research and provide a listing of the projects considered in its working paper, Public Financing Instruments to Leverage Private Capital for Climate-Relevant Investment: Focus on Multilateral Agencies. The methodology may serve as a...

4 Ways the Green Climate Fund Can Support "Readiness" for Climate Finance

Research shows that developing countries will need about $531 billion of additional investments in clean energy technologies each year in order to limit global temperature rise to 2° C above pre-industrial levels, thus preventing climate change’s worst impacts. While developed countries have pledged to provide $100 billion of climate finance per year, this amount is well below what’s needed to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change.

So how can countries bridge this funding gap? The answer lies in part on how well developing countries implement “readiness” activities, as well how effectively developed nations and international institutions like the Green Climate Fund (GCF) can mobilize finance to support them.

The Need for Readiness

To attract investments on the scale required, developing country governments must provide an attractive investment climate—one that encourages public and private sector investors to put their money into climate-friendly projects like solar and wind energy. On their end, developed countries need to offer financial and technical support for “readiness” activities that create the right conditions for said investments. Readiness includes any activity that makes a country better positioned to attract investments in climate-friendly projects or technologies. A few examples include: developing a policy to promote energy efficiency in industry; passing a law that gives a new or existing institution the mandate to promote renewable energy; conducting an assessment of a country’s wind energy resources; or strengthening a bank’s capacity to lend to small businesses in low-carbon sectors. International institutions such as the GCF can play a big role in supporting readiness activities, thereby helping developing nations attract the investments that will help them transition onto a low-carbon, climate-resilient development path.

Mobilizing Climate Investment

The Role of International Climate Finance in Creating Readiness for Scaled-Up, Low-Carbon Energy

Limiting global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels will require billions of dollars in investments each year to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and shift to low-emissions development pathways. This report draws on the experiences of six developing countries to examine how...

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