Trump can do harm, but not reverse the tide

February 3, 2017

Donald Trump’s presidency raises an important question for the future of international climate finance: If the United States eliminates its public contributions to international initiatives for climate adaptation and mitigation, how much will developing countries suffer?

First it’s necessary to understand how large a role the United States plays in climate finance today. According to the most recent numbers provided by the US government to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the United States over the course of fiscal years 2013 and 2014 committed $5.5 billion to climate finance for developing countries. That is only about 7 percent of the $76.2 billion in public climate finance that, according to estimates by the Climate Policy Initiative, flowed from developed to developing countries over calendar years 2013 and 2014. This is no small contribution for a single country to make. But the US share of climate finance isn’t large enough to cause systemic disruption if it suddenly decreases.

There’s another important angle to consider—how would reductions in US international climate funding affect the world’s prospects for achieving the urgent goal of shifting toward 100 percent renewable energy?

Again, US contributions to renewable energy efforts in the developing world are modest compared to other sources of funding. In 2013 and 2014, the three largest emerging economies—China, India, and Brazil, nations collectively responsible for more than 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—invested $171.2 billion in renewables. This investment by just three countries is more than 30 times greater than the amount allocated by the US government to all aspects of international climate finance. And developing countries’ investments in renewables are growing fast.

So it is possible to argue that US withdrawal from international climate finance would not have a massive direct impact in economic terms. But political considerations must also be taken into account. If Trump fails to meet the already existing US climate finance commitments, developed countries’ goal of providing the developing world $100 billion in climate finance each year by 2020 could be hampered. At last November’s climate conference in Marrakech, several key countries—including China, Germany, and France—highlighted the urgency of proceeding with climate action and indicated that attempts to move backwards on national commitments would not be welcomed. With climate change having become a top diplomatic issue, the United States could face reprimands from other countries.

Beyond that, reductions in US climate funding would be a blow against climate justice. Reductions would harm the poorer countries that have contributed little to climate change but stand to suffer the most—if they don’t receive fair and adequate support. Climate finance saves lives, homes, and livelihoods, and in that sense every dollar counts.

In short, the Trump administration can do significant damage on the international climate finance front, harming some of the most vulnerable countries in the world, and harming itself politically. But the US government alone cannot reverse the tide. And where the expansion of renewable energy is concerned, the consequences of altered US policy will be small—because the vast majority of investments in the sector do not rely on public international climate finance.