Responding with urgency: the role of UK aid in combating climate change

Volunteers help deliver the aid to people affected by Cyclone Idai (Credit: Columbus Mavhunga/VOA)

Yesterday the House of Commons International Development Committee released a report on UK aid for combating climate changeThe report called for consistency across government to ensure that all aid spending is taking the same approach to climate change.

Its publication follows Parliament’s recent declaration of a climate change emergency, which reflects the urgent need to ramp up action, both at home and abroad.

The world needs to be at net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 to have just a 50 per cent chance of restricting average temperature rise to 1.5oC, the level that scientists have indicated would avoid many, but not all, of the worst impacts. This target means all countries need to reduce or avoid locking into development paths that result in higher levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

UK aid, development, poverty reduction and climate change

The UK has been a respected and trusted leader in supporting the development of the least developed and most vulnerable countries over the past few decades. This trust has in part been built because of its flagship commitments to allocating 0.7% of annual gross national income to development assistance (or around £12 billion per annum), a long record of domestic accomplishment in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and maintaining economic growth, and its robust evidence base for making decisions.

When it comes to development support specifically allocated to climate change, the UK has also played a leading role and set an example for other developed nations, supporting, advising and persuading them to take action. A ring-fenced portion is annually allocated to International Climate Finance (ICF), which is coordinated by the Department for International Development (DfID), the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Between 2016 and 2021, the total allocated is £5.8 billon, or around £1 billion per year specifically for climate change-related activities.

These achievements and relationships provide the UK with immense economic and political benefits and opportunities, as well as supporting the most vulnerable in the world.

The current UK aid strategy on climate change is sending mixed signals

However, current UK development support does not fully reflect the climate change emergency that Parliament has now declared.

As the International Development Committee’s report highlights, between 2010 and 2016 around £4.9 billion was spent by UK Export Finance on supporting the development of fossil fuel projects, around the same amount spent on climate change (£4.8 billion).

The ICF spending alone is currently split between the three departments and is only specified to run to 2020/2021. This amounts to between 7–8% of the total aid spending. While this is not an insignificant amount, it is concerning that between DfID, BEIS, Defra and their respective institutions there is no coherent strategy for how ICF spend is allocated or managed.

DfID is responsible for around 75% of ICF spending. Unhelpfully, its Economic Development Strategy (of 2017) still sees climate change as a separate development category from those focussed on poverty alleviation, health, education or disaster support. The strategy does recognise the importance of climate action, but it only receives a brief mention under the sector priorities of ‘agriculture’ and ‘infrastructure, energy and urban development’, while ‘extractive industries’ including oil, gas and mining are highlighted as a priority sector for support with no mention of climate change considerations.

This distinction is also evident in other key UK institutions that are responsible for managing and distributing aid. For example, the CDC (the UK’s private sector development institution), which will receive additional capital injections from DfID of between £600m in 2018/19 and £1.2bn in 2020/21, has a climate change policy approved in 2014 that still allows fossil fuel investments. In 2017 the CDC identified climate change as a strategic initiative, yet it is still investing in fossil fuel-based projects.

UK aid should support low-carbon, resilient, sustainable and inclusive development

International development strategies have to take account of the fact that strong action on poverty alleviation, health, disaster support and climate change are interwoven and complementary.

If these problems are not addressed together, and if climate change action is not placed at the centre of all aid decisions, it is possible that UK aid could have the opposite of the desired effect and promote unsustainable growth and development paths. In turn, this could lead to outcomes that exacerbate other developmental challenges (including exposure to disasters, health or education), or disrupt efforts focussed on addressing them. If the integrated nature of development is not considered, as embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals, there is a risk that efforts are undermined.

The Secretary of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, has said he takes the report very seriously, describing it as ‘sobering reading’. His statement of commitment to making climate change a priority issue for his department is welcome. However, this has to be backed up with concrete action. If many of the actions recommended in the report, and by the submissions to the Committee, are undertaken, UK climate-related funding could increase from around £1 billion per annum to nearer £12 billion. While not enough on its own, this would send a signal to all countries on the scale and urgency of the challenges and the seriousness of the UK’s commitment to meeting them.

The UK is well placed to lead and influence the world on climate change. The responsible institutions should all heed the recommendations from the International Development Committee, and quickly.