Spread out across some 300-odd islands in the South Pacific, Fiji has a front-row seat to the effects of climate change. The Pacific island nation is already experiencing drastic sea-level rise, droughts, floods, and rising temperatures, despite having contributed very little to the man-made emissions that are rapidly altering our planet’s climate. Still, Fiji is leading global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to climate change, not least by presiding over this year’s COP23 in Bonn, Germany. As the first country in the world to ratify the Paris deal, the country pledged to reach 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030—up from around 60 percent in 2013—and to cut total emissions by as much as 30 percent with the help of $500 million in international aid.
Climate finance is sure to be a heated topic once again this week in Bonn, where representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting to continue hammering out the finer details of the Paris Agreement. Everyone agrees that funding is key to climate action, especially for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable nations, which is why developed nations committed to providing $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020. But funders and recipients are generally divided on how that money should be spent.
A look at Fiji’s emissions can provide some insights into the longstanding tension between adaptation and mitigation in the global response to climate change, and why different countries tussle over what to do with climate cash.
Wealthy Countries Would Rather Fund Mitigation Than Adaptation
Climate finance tends to flow from north to south, from developed countries to developing nations. While the Paris Agreement calls for equal funding for mitigation and adaptation, it’s still not quite a 50/50 split: Only a quarter of public funds from developed to developing nations are directed toward adaptation projects, according to Carbon Brief, and investments from multilateral development banks are even more lopsided, with just 20 percent going to adaptation.
Historically, the developed countries in the global north push for more money for mitigation, while the global south wants funds for adaptation—largely because they have fewer emissions to mitigate and more urgent climate woes to adapt to. Fiji, for example, contributes a minuscule amount to global carbon emissions: just 0.04 percent. If you were to plot carbon dioxide emissions of the United States and Fiji on the same graph, the latter would appear as a straight line hugging the x-axis.
Though China overtook the U.S. in annual emissions in 2008, the U.S. has emitted more carbon dioxide cumulatively than any other country since 1980. In 2014, the U.S. was responsible for 5,254,279 metric kilotons of carbon emissions, according to the World Bank, while Fiji was responsible for just 1,170 metric kilotons. Of course, the U.S. and the Fijian islands are vastly different countries, so a comparison of gross emissions is not all that informative. For one thing, the higher the population, the more people there are participating in greenhouse gas-producing activities, the higher the emissions will be. The population of New York City alone is about nine times the entire population of Fiji.
Emissions per capita is often seen as a more useful measure. Americans are individually responsible for 19.78 metric tons of carbon emissions each year, while Fijians emit just 1.47 metric tons each.
Despite these differences, wealthier countries tend to favor mitigation because it promises quantifiable, long-term, and global benefits. “There is a noble debate that if we mitigate more, we don’t actually need to adapt,” says Nilesh Prakash,…