Global climate negotiations through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have focussed on targets for mitigation and the need for adaptation in vulnerable nations and communities. But from the beginning of talks at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), climate finance has been a central pillar of the global negotiations.

Despite the central importance of emissions reductions, the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change would not have been finalised without a pledge by wealthier nations on climate finance. Under the Paris Agreement, OECD countries were set a target of US$100 billion of climate finance per annum by 2020 from public and private sources.

Last December, a UN expert group reported that developed nations have failed to meet their funding commitments. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are especially angered by this failure to extend sufficient and easily accessible financial grants. At the April 2021 Biden Climate Summit, the Alliance of Small Island States stressed: “It is critical that this commitment not only be honoured, but that the ambition be increased, and major emitters should contribute more to its financing. Significant hurdles remain and the pace of implementation does not reflect the urgency of the climate crisis.”

At COP26 in Glasgow in November, the call for wealthy countries to increase their international financing will only grow louder.

Why is the failure to pledge significant new climate funding such a serious problem? The Paris Agreement depends on all parties implementing their voluntary Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). But important research published in Climate Policy shows that developing countries’ NDCs are often conditional on prior action by OECD nations: “No less than 136 countries have made their NDCs partially or wholly conditional on receiving one or more types of support – climate finance for mitigation or adaptation; technology transfer; and capacity building.”

Beyond this, the US$100 billion annual target is not enough to meet existing needs. The latest Adaptation Gap report of the United Nations Environment Program says that adaptation costs in developing countries could rise to US$140-300 billion per annum by 2030 and US$280-500 billion in 2050. There are also important debates over the effectiveness, accessibility and development outcomes of existing programs.

On the road to Glasgow, a few countries are responding – but not enough. This month, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed his pledge to double US climate funding. However, based on relative economic strength and contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, Australia is failing to contribute its fair share. Research groups like ODI and CARE have found Australia’s total contribution from public and private sources should reach at least A$3.2 billion per year, with at least half being public funding for adaptation. Australia is nowhere near this amount.

Over the last decade, both major political parties in Australia have used the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget to provide the funds for Australia’s international climate financing obligations. Australia is currently the largest ODA donor to the Pacific islands, but the ODA budget stands at the lowest ratio of Gross National Income – just 0.19% since 1974. Increased climate funding means cuts elsewhere.

Pacific island leaders have also stressed the need for predictability, coordination and access to climate funding. In recent years, however, Coalition government policy on overseas aid and climate finance has been marked by ever greater unpredictability. Since 2013, the Coalition has announced withdrawal, reinstatement and then withdrawal again of financial commitments to the Green Climate Fund (GCF), disrupting our longstanding engagement with this important global funding mechanism.

In November 2019, DFAT issued its climate strategy “Tackling Climate Change through Australia’s Development Assistance Program 2020–2025.” However this plan has been overtaken by the global coronavirus pandemic. Despite climate finance pledges in 2019, a January 2021 overview of Australia’s aid program found that only one per cent of Australian aid is directly targeted on climate adaptation.

Given the low returns for corporate investors, climate adaptation in low-lying atoll nations needs much greater government than private resources. At a time of tax cuts and COVID spending, there is a need to find new, innovative sources of climate financing. Other countries have already begun this work, from France’s 2015 Canfin-Grandjean Commission to proposals from non-government groups like the Overseas Development Institute or Heinrich Böll Stiftung. Pacific neighbours like Solomon Islands and Marshall Islands are leading the charge within the International Maritime Organisation to introduce levies on emissions from maritime bunker fuel.

Pacific governments and communities have been calling for action on financing for many years. In response, the Australian government should appoint a commission to report on new and innovative sources of climate funding outside the ODA budget, in order to guarantee ongoing public financing for climate adaptation and loss and damage.

The Australian government needs to expand its portfolio of funding programs through diverse mechanisms, including Climate Investment Funds and new non-government windows. Many Pacific leaders have called for Australia to reinstate Green Climate Fund funding. The government should do so, as well as increasing its commitment to the proposed Pacific Resilience Fund, alongside bilateral programs.

There is also a need for a bipartisan commitment to improve the outcomes and quality of climate finance programs and ensure the adequacy, accessibility and predictability of funding. Now is the time for Australia to step up.


Nic Maclellan works as a journalist in the Pacific islands. As a correspondent for Islands Business magazine, he has reported widely on climate finance in the region, and has authored research papers on climate funding for the Lowy Institute for International Policy and Oxfam International.