Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program. Photo by: UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

While U.N. Development Program administrator Helen Clark is confident that the upcoming COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be a success, much will depend on the level of financial and political ambition on show in Paris in December.

This, Clark said, was because the cost of dealing with climate change is set to rise exponentially and because much needs to be done to secure the necessary financial clout to effect sustainable change.

Clark also gave a stark warning: “We are not yet there with the intended nationally determined contributions that are required.” These, together with a formal agreement, would represent the first, crucial steps. But looking beyond COP21, an even more crucial issue will be to actually “help countries actually put the INDCs into action.”

In order to do so, Clark suggested that some important questions need to be addressed as matter of urgency: Are the INDCs fully reflected in national strategies? What do these action plans entail? What legislation might need to be changed and what investments need to be made?

In an exclusive interview on the sidelines of the Convergences Forum in Paris last month, Clark gave Devex her take on the challenges faced by the international community in addressing climate change and the implications for the program she heads up.

Here are some highlights from that conversation:

What strategies can be implemented to create synergies between global development, environmental and climate actors?

This issue has already impacted on UNDP’s strategic plan that was launched last year. It’s about finding sustainable development pathways: How do we, in advising the weakest countries, support [them] to go down the path of sustainable development? How do we support countries with the necessary governance to build the resilience to cope with a more volatile climate? ...

Countries are going to need to have development strategies that are able to deliver on cleaner energy, cleaner transport, better designed cities, all things [that] will reduce greenhouse gas [levels] … We are very much engaged — in terms of strategic thinking and dialogue — and supporting countries to work it out how they can deliver on these objectives.

Do you believe this discussion can also impact the ways in which development projects and programs are designed and implemented?

Yes, definitely. The objective is low-carbon, climate-resilient development. There is no point backing a kind of development that isn’t consistent with that. It is not the way things are going. When we look at this year, with the new global climate agreement coming, with the Sustainable Development Goals, with the Sendai U.N. conference on disaster risk reduction, with the outcomes on financing for development discussion outcome from the big conference in Addis Ababa — all of these are converging around the need for climate-sensitive development.

And what are the main difficulties with mainstreaming climate policy?

Internal silos. When I came to UNDP, you had a poverty group and you had environment and then you had governance — governance for what? Really we’ve tightened it up and we don’t have a poverty group and an environment group now; we have a sustainable stream of activity and we are saying all the time that we are dedicated to reducing poverty in the context of sustainable development. We have to support countries to work on solutions that eradicate poverty and support the maintenance of healthy ecosystems.

In terms of financing, what strategies are being employed to better integrate climate and development finance?

In the context of the climate talks, the discussion has always been about climate finance being additional, separate and predictable. The reality is, from the point of view of the donor governments, that it all comes out from the same budget. But the reality also is — from the development perspective — that climate finance is essentially finance for developing countries. Any finance that goes to developing countries is going to be finance for development … I tend to look at it more holistically and … I don’t care what pot it is taken from. In the end it is going to add up to a better, more sustainable form of development.

So what are the main challenges or obstacles to achieving this goal? Why is it so difficult to create effective synergies?

I think the real issue is leadership. Leaders need to step forward and express confidence that their countries can develop and prosper with this approach. Often people think, “I know the conventional path of development, I understand that, but what about this new path? Can I afford it? Can I get the technology? How can I do it?” We know from so much work that has been done … that the economics of acting on climate change do add up. It’s in every country's medium and longer term interests to move in this direction, but they will [incur] up-front costs and that’s [why] the issue of public finance, grant finance, multilateral banks, concessional finance, is very important.

In the overall picture of financing for development, private investment is going to play a very significant role and to get quality private investment into sustainable infrastructures and business, governments need to look at their regulatory frameworks. There is plenty you can do with the way in which you design your energy strategy in a country that can incentivize renewable forms of energy, or disincentivize others.

One of the points that the [International Monetary Fund] and [IMF Managing Director] Christine Lagarde constantly make is that countries are spending a huge amount of money globally on fossil fuel subsidies. That should be money that is released for clean development purposes, and a tiny fraction of that money spent on the fossil fuel subsidies would be needed to compensate poor people for what they would lose from the removal of subsidies. It leaves an enormous amount of money for other purposes. So it’s a question of leadership and vision and seeing that this can be done.

And what role will official development assistance play here?

It plays a catalytic role, because the scale of resources needed for the climate challenge and for sustainable development are far, far in excess of what ODA will ever provide. ODA is running at $135.2 billion. Tragically, with the protracted conflicts the world is now seeing, more and more of [it] is going into vital tasks … ODA is a fraction of the total picture, but it can be a smart and helpful fraction if it can help to build the capacities of poor countries to access other climate finance, because climate finance is a very complicated business.

To access the financing mechanisms you need expertise, you need partnerships. We know, because UNDP is a partner in accessing climate finance for a huge number of countries, now including the Green Climate Fund …

If we look at some of the specific needs of poor and vulnerable countries, there’s something deeply unfair about having to borrow for adaptation for a problem they never caused. Public finance must definitely have a role in helping the poorest and the most disadvantaged countries. I saw one example from Sudan where a tremendous proportion of the population still exists depending on rain-fed agriculture — that’s less predictable and secure than it ever was. Part of our work, with support from Global Environment Facility funding, is to support the adaptation of those small communities to the conditions they are now facing. You are not going to have private investment for that … We have to have public finance available for those sorts of projects.

And looking ahead to COP21, you can find an agreement, but how is it translated into practice? What are the biggest obstacles you envision in terms of implementation?

First, it’s a little different when actions are pursuant to a global agreement, which in some areas would be binding and have reporting mechanisms and so on. That’s different from the SDGs, which have a moral power, but not a binding power. If you sign into a treaty, you are binding yourself and this is quite helpful. Countries makes their commitment and are expected to honor them, and that will be very much under review.

But I think it is also reinforced by the SDG agenda. We have many countries … coming to the U.N. country teams and saying that they want to write these goals into their national development agenda and incorporate them from the beginning. [That's] a good start and I think it’s actually a very exciting time for development — exciting because I hope we are overcoming what I have always seen as a false dichotomy between environment and development.

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.