Covid-19 has hit every country in the world, rich and poor alike, but low income countries (LICs) are the hardest hit, and half of them are at high risk or are already in debt. Although in April this year, G20 finance ministers approved a Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) to provide temporary relief to LICs to help manage the impact of the pandemic, the adoption to date seems limited. The DSSI covers only part of the total debt of LICs. Private sector lenders have largely refused to come forward, undermining government efforts.
On the other hand, climatic disasters are increasing both in frequency and severity. The first line victims are the LICs, with very little adaptability. So far, the mitigation ambition of the main emitters is very low compared to the temperature targets set in the Paris Agreement. The Climate Action Tracker’s “thermometer” predicts a temperature rise of up to 4.1 degrees Celsius by 2100, unless dramatic climate action is taken. Even if this happens, the IPCC 1.5 degree Celsius report made it clear that massive climate damage to lives and livelihoods in LICs is to be expected. This makes the need for adaptation investments immediate and urgent.
However, adaptation funding is extremely poor, despite the commitments made by donors. As the private sector is not very interested in adaptation in LICs due to the ineffectiveness of market instruments and adaptation actions being mostly public goods, international public finance is the best possible source. adaptation. These countries received preferential treatment for support in the Paris Agreement. It should be remembered that the provision of climate finance is a legal obligation for developed countries, under both the Convention and the Paris Agreement, and Article 7.4 has recognized that adaptation is a global responsibility. Faced with this, adaptation financing representing less than 10 billion dollars per year is below, by order of magnitude, the needs of 140 to 300 billion dollars per year by 2030. Despite the promises of a balanced allocation, adaptation finance is less than 20 percent of total climate finance. LIC citizens receive an average of US $ 3 per person per year, or less than a cent per day, according to Oxfam.
The Global Commission on Adaptation (GCA) advocated for investments in adaptation and resilience, finding that benefit-cost ratios of interventions ranged from 2: 1 to 10: 1. However, the private sector’s contribution to adaptation still represents only a meager 3% of their total climate finance, and goes mainly to mitigation. Clearly, there are barriers to investing in climate resilience, including a lack of awareness of its benefits and capacity constraints. The GCA underscored the need to rapidly scale up adaptation finance through international and national sources.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, repaying the external public debt of developing countries will cost between $ 2.6 billion and $ 3.4 trillion in 2020 and 2021 alone. ‘amounts to over six billion dollars a year. However, Bangladesh only receives support in the hundreds of millions, compared to domestic investments of more than $ 3 billion per year in adaptation. Clearly, without adequate liquidity support and major debt relief, the global economy, especially LICs, cannot return to pre-pandemic growth levels without risking severe climatic distress and social unrest. In light of these concerns, the G20 called on the IMF “to explore additional tools that could meet the needs of its members as the crisis unfolds, drawing on relevant experiences from previous crises.”
Faced with the persistent poverty of adaptation finance, it is necessary to seek alternative sources. One of those instruments worth considering is a “climate debt swap” option. The global community has had experience with “debt-for-nature swaps” (DNS) since the late 1980s and 1990s in developing countries, where debt relief was linked to investments in reforestation, biodiversity and the protection of indigenous peoples. In Bangladesh, we have the experience of the Arannyak Foundation, established in 2003 under the US Tropical Forest Conservation Act, where part of the debt owed to the United States was converted into local currency for investments in nature conservation. Overall, this instrument could not have much impact on debt reduction due to its very small scale. For example, the share of DNS-derived debt relief by some creditors is tiny, barely 0.3% of total climate finance in 2012. Since then, it has not increased much.
While there is global agreement that adaptation finance is new and additional and largely based on grants for LICs, the question of whether debt for adaptation trade (DAS) can be considered as such is controversial. These debates aside, in this time of global financial crisis, DAS may be an option for the global climate community to explore.
It is argued that, when properly designed and implemented, DAS can be a win-win option for both creditors and debtors. However, it depends on many conditions on both sides. Making DAS a viable and sustainable option requires relatively large amounts of public debt to have an impact on debt reduction. In view of its acceptance, the management modalities, including budget support or via the creation of a dedicated fund, could be decided later.
The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London, in a recent study, argues that climate and nature debt swaps offer a way to restructure debt while promoting pro-poor growth and debt sustainability. IIED proposes to establish a global expert group to better understand these exchanges.
Another potential source is also being explored to boost adaptation finance. In 2019, the Climate Bonds Initiative (CBI) launched the Climate Resilience Principles, which inspired the issuance of the first bond dedicated to climate resilience by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in September 2019, highlighting an opportunity for the creation of a new market for such instruments. But given the experience of the private Green Climate Fund facility and the World Bank’s International Development Association, successful blended finance models are still rare. Debt instruments such as green bonds, including climate resilience bonds, may not be universally applicable or viable in all markets. However, faced with a very limited budgetary space, they can in certain cases offer an essential lever for private financing in the short and medium term for the objectives of resilience.
These questions will likely be raised at the next annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF on October 12-18. Obviously, the Bangladesh delegation to these meetings should be aware of these issues to share their thoughtful interventions, in alliance with like-minded nations.
Mizan R Khan is Deputy Director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University of Bangladesh and Program Director at LDC Universities Consortium on Climate Change (LUCCC).