Q&A: 'The climate challenge is a development problem. A major development problem.'

Magdy Martinez-Soliman, assistant administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. Photo by: Freya Morales / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

BONN, Germany — Development organizations and donor agencies have a fundamental stake in the outcome of international climate policy discussions — even if they don’t think of themselves as “climate change organizations.”

For the United Nations Development Programme, the U.N. climate talks that take place every year are a critical moment to take stock of what countries plan to do to combat climate change — and how much money the international community is willing to put up to make that work happen. The UNDP is a leading implementer of climate change projects in developing countries, but the money that is supposed to materialize to support the developing world as climate change impacts intensify is still hard to come by.

Devex spoke with Magdy Martinez-Soliman, assistant secretary-general of the U.N. and UNDP assistant administrator, at the 23rd Conference of Parties in Bonn, Germany. Martinez-Soliman described the UNDP’s focus on pushing for the replenishment of key climate finance pools, and on pushing countries to ramp up the ambitions of their climate action plans, which form the foundation of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

“At the end what matters to the countries is, has the Paris Agreement translated into private finance for us? Has it been a generous contribution from the rich countries so that we could adapt and mitigate as they had promised us?” Martinez-Soliman told Devex.

Here is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with COP23. Can you give me a sense of what was at stake for UNDP in the negotiations this year?

Two very important things: Climate finance; and what I call the “Paris plans” for every country [the nationally determined intended contributions].

On the first, I think there is — as has always been the case — a sense of frustration, because the finance is not there. The $100 billion can't be accounted for. The instruments that exist are not being replenished to the tune that many hoped for, us included — and the instruments that have been created are extremely painstaking in terms of their delivery.

The Green Climate Fund? 

Let's not mention any of them. But we sense that there's not enough money. Even where there is money and quite considerable amounts of resources, the funnel is extremely narrow, whereas the mouth of the funnel is very broad. And so at the end, what matters to the countries [in need of support] is: Has the Paris Agreement translated into private finance for us? Has it been a generous contribution from the rich countries so that we could adapt and mitigate as they had promised us, as they have engaged that they would do? That's one thing that is at stake — to continue the advocacy and the persuasion. I have had meetings with GCF people and, of course, with the Global Environment Facility people. I am supporting Naoko [Ishii, CEO of GEF] as much as I can, so that her replenishment round is a success. We need it. She does a good job. She has just created a resilience fund that would be a fundamental platform. [Special Representative of the Secretary General for Disaster Risk Reduction] Robert Glasser is also mobilizing around the [International Strategy for Disaster Reduction] platform. These are all instruments that need money, and I think it’s not too much to ask, frankly.

The second thing that is at stake, but where I have a more optimistic impression, is the process of the nationally determined contributions, how serious they are, and how far they have gotten in terms of implementation since the Paris Accords. Now, the Secretary General has made it very clear that: One, the NDCs wouldn’t, in aggregate, amount to a reduction of 2 degrees celsius, let alone 1.5. So even if we met them scrupulously to the latest dot and inch, we would not attain the objective. But then again we're not even meeting the NDCs themselves. So we are below a threshold that is not meeting the objective, and that is two steps lower than we should have been.

So this is the gap before we even get to the gap that the U.N. Environment Programme report made very clear?

“For UNDP, the credibility of the nationally determined contributions is a little bit at stake here.”

— Magdy Martinez-Soliman, assistant administrator of UNDP

The UNEP Gap Report talks about two gaps: the gaps between the Paris plans and the objective; and the gaps between the Paris plans as they are on paper and as they are being implemented.

For UNDP, the credibility of the nationally determined contributions is a little bit at stake here. And we are trying to say, look, the plans are good, but they're not ambitious enough. So the bare minimum is implementing them with ferocious passion and insistence and drive. But second, the plans are not cast in stone. We have made the plans, you have made the plans, we have made the plans together. So why don't we, as we go into overdrive in implementation [and] we are satisfied that we are meeting those goals, get to the second echelon, and make those plans more ambitious for a second phase?

How do you think about the question of what comes first? It seems to me, if I were representing a developing country I would say, “You are asking a lot of us to put these plans together when we have no guarantee that you're ever going to fulfill this finance pledge you made several years ago.”

If I can use the metaphor, the plan is a key ring, and the financial instruments are the keys. Now I was talking about one of the keys — the key that is constituted by public finance provided from North to South for implementation of discrete projects. But there are at least three other fundamental keys.

One, the key of the national resources devoted to climate change. Countries also need to step up that plane. Waiting for foreign aid to resolve your climate problem is not going to cut the mustard. You need to generate internal revenue so that you have a budget to spend, and then you need to get your priorities right. If your priorities are the army, and the customs, and building … a coal plant, well then, you're not spending the money towards the reduction of carbon dioxide. The most important of all is creating the enabling environment, the stimuli, the regulatory incentives, so that the private sector comes once and for all on board — as it has in China, as it has on solar, as it's starting to come on electric cars, or as it is starting to manage e-waste.

I feel that excellent advocacy is being done with, to, and by the private sector. My administrator had a dinner yesterday night with chief executive officers from Philips and 11 companies that are the biggies — you have an item produced by these companies in your house. And they were all there [at COP23]. They come here. They meet here. They have something to say. They are contributing.

Second, I think member states are taking it seriously — the poor ones, the ones that don't have big budgets. They're taking it seriously and they’re putting their priorities where they put their speeches.

Three, they are increasing their fiscal base. They are mobilizing their domestic capital and and being better at revenue management.

And four, I feel that international public finance, official development assistance, is falling behind. I have been saying that our problem is that in the multiplicity of challenges that are global in nature — migration, security, the new nuclear problems, the big trade fallouts — climate has scrolled down from where it was. It was probably number two, if you put it immediately behind geopolitical security, to number four, number five, number six, depending on where you look.

That dégringolade, as the French say, of priority is very, very dangerous, because we have seen global issues lose momentum, go out of fashion, and suddenly have less political will behind them. In my youth and over the entire 80s, nuclear disarmament was the big thing of the U.N., and of social movements in the developed world. The U.N. was in the lead — in the normative lead, in the advocacy lead. Have you noticed that that cause has disappeared? There are no youth groups against nuclear war, nuclear weapons, nuclear energy.

So let's be very careful that climate action and an agenda for people and planet doesn't follow the same trajectory, because we could see ourselves in a COP five or six years down the line that is a meeting of 800 bureaucrats.

There seems to be a climate crowd and a development crowd, and I wonder if you see those two groups clearly feeding into each other. Do you see that cross-communication happening? Do you think these two tracks are actively feeding back and forth from one to the other?

“The climate challenge is a development problem. A major development problem. The major development problem.”


I heard Dr. Tedros, the new World Health Organization executive director, put very, very high on the agenda planetary health, with phenomena such as climate-induced pollution as a monumental health threat and therefore the responsibility of WHO. I’ve clearly seen UN Women taking climate as one of their key issues in which gender differentiated vulnerability in the face of climate shocks is their big contribution. I'm seeing UNICEF working on climate. We have a senior climate executives group chaired by the deputy secretary general, supported by Eric Solheim and Achim Steiner. I have an administrator who comes from UNEP, and I have a UNEP executive director who comes from the development side of the Norwegian government. If I reduce it to UNDP, we are arguably the greenest development organization in the world, because we deliver climate finance by the gallon.

This being said, I think you were right when you said there's still a cleavage, and there is still an under-representation. Why? Because development … is a very traditional school of thought, and development economists, macroeconomists, economic planners have a tendency to see the issue as one where you can advise on the best use of finite resources for investment in social sectors, care of the people, and in productive infrastructure to generate jobs and livelihoods. And so it's difficult if you have that narrow sense to say, well climate is there. That makes you less interested in coming here and advocating for this than you would if you understood that the tradeoffs in the economy, the transformation of the economy, and what is at stake is actually a development problem. So that’s what we’ve said — the climate challenge is a development problem. A major development problem. The major development problem.

In my experience, the hot topics, the sticking points that arise in these negotiations — things such as loss and damage, pre-2020 commitments — they don't seem to be issues that the development community is raising. If you're working on the ground in a climate-vulnerable country, wouldn't you be concerned about how the loss and damage that community is experiencing is going to be compensated in the future? I wonder what might need to happen for those conversations to disperse a little bit more.

You know there's been a discourse of focus that has enormously damaged flexibility and broad-based mandates across the board that allow you to seize a challenge like the one we're discussing and be responsive to it.

If I look at my organization, we are today in Dominica training a hundred engineers so that they build resilient homes for the future, because we have seen that Dominica has been flattened. But we're also looking at the climate dimensions of the Colombian peace process. At the same time we are working with the Central African Forest Initiative to avoid illegal logging and support sustainable forest management. And at the same time we are working in Brazil to avoid land loss in the Amazon to big logging companies. Two months ago I was at the conference of the Minamata Convention [on mercury], where I was discussing with Latin American ministers the challenges that artisanal and small gold mines pose to their economies in terms of mercury poisoning, which is again, a chemical with a clear climate threat.

So because we are so multifaceted and across the board, I could say we are actually providing a response that is multiple. But we see very few organizations like ours, and I blame “the discourse of the focus.” The discourse of — you need to tell me what you do in a, b, and c. You do governance, you do gender, and you do poverty. Well yeah, sure. But if I say that and if I commit a program of work with those figures, I won't be able to address the complexity of issues like climate, which need trainers of engineers and architects, people who are good at recovery, people who know about mercury, people who know about forests.

If you look at the United States Agency for International Development, a big organization, or if you look at the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, or the German Technical Cooperation Agency — they don't have expertise in all these fields. Some are more green, some are more poverty-oriented, some are more governance, some are more crisis. Pick your priority, but they have espoused the discourse of the focus, and by focusing, my best guess is that climate has not always been part of the three priorities that are chosen to speak to the political establishment.

The pushback would be that they're looking for opportunities to have a comparative advantage and for ways that they can add value to a complicated and crowded global development landscape.

“Same as you make your luck, you make your comparative advantage. You invest. You hire. You build up a capacity.”

But that thinking fosters continuity and not innovation, because it is easier to build my comparative advantage on things that I already do and building on those than trying new things. We were an organization that didn't have a single environmentalist, or biologist, or zoologist, or geologist — not one. And then came James Gustave Speth, administrator of UNDP, American, and a biologist who was teaching at Yale, who said, “we are going to transform this organization into a green organization.” Same as you make your luck, you make your comparative advantage. You invest. You hire. You build up a capacity. You learn and you test. You pilot, and suddenly, hey, you are the first U.N. entity accredited in the Green Climate Fund, probably the most trying and demanding accreditation process that there has been in the climate world.

I find it rather comfortable to say, well I'm going to work in my comparative advantage and therefore, sorry, I'm a development organization. Don't expect that I would work on climate because that is not part of my priorities. I couldn't possibly add value. Well if you believe that, that's a major problem. You probably need to think of how to add value and convince [people] that you need that capacity.

Read more Devex coverage on climate change.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.