Former UK PM Gordon Brown says China must pay into climate fund for poor countries

Chinese China economy growth

China must pay into a new fund for poor countries stricken by climate-driven disaster on the basis of its high greenhouse gas emissions and large economy, the former UK prime minister Gordon Brown has said.

“America and Europe will have to provide most, but China will have to contribute more too,” he told the Guardian.

Last week, at the Cop27 UN climate summit, rich governments finally agreed to a fund for poor countries suffering the impact of extreme weather, known as “loss and damage”. But there is no agreement yet on how to fill that fund, and it is likely to be the subject of bitter fighting this year.

Brown wrote in Saturday’s Guardian that poor countries must be entitled to payments from the rich based on the latter’s historic greenhouse gas emissions, rather than relying on a “begging bowl”.

“A world addressing an existential challenge should not have to rely on charity,” he writes. “An action plan that requires donors to contribute to climate finance based on their capacity to pay and historic liability for greenhouse gas emissions should be the starting point for the next round of climate finance. Adequately funding our global goals for the first time would be something to really cheer about.”

At Cop27, the status of China – the world’s biggest emitter and responsible for more cumulative emissions than any country apart from the US – came under the spotlight, along with that of other countries classed as developing under the 1992 UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC).

Many of those countries now have high greenhouse gas emissions and GDP, but under the still unchanged 1992 definitions, China and similar countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Russia are regarded as recipients of rather than donors to any fund.

Brown told the Guardian that needed to change too. “The distinction between developed and emerging market countries is breaking down amidst the need for both to fund action to reduce their still-rising emissions, and help low-income countries who are suffering because of them,” he said.

Those payments must be made urgently, as poor countries face “dramatically escalating” impacts from extreme weather, and must be reached through a “burden-sharing formula” that would include formerly developing countries such as China as donors, according to Brown.

Without clear agreement on where the cash for a loss and damage fund comes from, Brown warned, “eulogies of praise [for the outcome of Cop27] will soon turn into allegations of betrayal. The president of next year’s Cop28 will have to answer for yet another fund without funders.”

Poor countries must also be granted relief from their debts as a matter of urgency, Brown added. “[Rich countries and creditors] should cancel the unpayable debt of low-income countries in return for those countries taking action on climate, and should agree that debt repayments can be varied in the event of climate disasters,” he writes.

The World Bank must also undergo fundamental reform, to refocus its lending on the climate, he added. “Climate finance is needed urgently. It should be kick-started immediately by transforming the World Bank into a global public goods bank,” he writes.

Brown’s work in the past decade on development for the poor world has won international plaudits, and this robust intervention into the climate finance debate will be controversial to many. At Cop27, fights raged for two weeks over how the rich nations should pay towards the rescue and reconstruction of poor areas, known as “loss and damage”.

It was only in the closing hours that the US, EU and UK, and other developed country governments, agreed to the setting up of a loss and damage fund, for the first time in 30 years of climate talks, but there is still no agreement on how the fund will be filled, and by which countries.

At Cop27, China made it clear to the Guardian that it already helped vulnerable countries on a voluntary basis, and saw no need for change.

“We strongly support the concerns from developing countries, especially the most vulnerable countries, for addressing loss and damage because China is also a developing country and we also suffered a lot from extreme weather events,” Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate official, told the Guardian, speaking through a translator. “It is not the obligation of China to provide financial support under the UNFCCC.”

The amounts needed for tackling the climate crisis in the next decade will run to trillions. Research by the climate economist Lord Stern and his colleague Vera Songwe of the London School of Economics, published during Cop27, found that about £2tn a year would be needed by 2030 to shift the economies of developing countries (excluding China) to a low-carbon footing, to help them adapt to the impacts of extreme weather and to cover the damage they suffer.

While these sums sound large, they are “not scary”, according to Stern, as much of the money will come from the countries themselves, and some from private sources, and the total amounts to only about 5% more than would be invested in any case in a high-carbon economy over the same period.