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In March 2021, the UK Government said “tackling climate change and biodiversity loss is its number one” international priority in 2021 and beyond.

This briefing summarises the potential effects of climate change on the development needs of lower-income countries. It also looks at how climate change is prioritised in UK aid policy and aid spending, and its effectiveness in helping vulnerable states respond to climate change.

How does climate change affect development?

In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its report on the physical science of climate change. It concluded climate change is already affecting every inhabited region in the world, and that its effects depend on the extent of temperature rises.

The IPCC said that, with high confidence, effects were likely to include more intense flooding in Africa and Asia, increased aridity (degree of dryness) in the Amazon, and sea level rises threatening small islands as well as delta areas in Asia.

How climate change affects the development needs of countries will also vary. The poorest and least-developed countries are considered among the most vulnerable to climate change. Potential challenges include greater water scarcity and lower crop yields, leading to 1–183 million additional people being at risk of hunger by 2050.

The World Bank has also estimated that up to 132 million will be pushed into extreme poverty by climate change by 2030.

While lower-income countries are among the most vulnerable to climate change, it is middle-income economies that currently have the largest per capita increases in CO2 emissions (though actual per capita emissions are still below those seen in higher-income countries).

According to the Commons International Development Committee’s UK aid for combating climate change report, this creates a tension in aid spending: whether to prioritise countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, or those that need support to lower their carbon emissions.

UK aid priorities on climate change

Addressing climate change and biodiversity loss is one of the four priorities for UK aid in the 2022 international development strategy. The strategy will be in place for 10 years.

The strategy reiterates a 2019 commitment that all UK official development assistance (ODA) would be aligned with the objectives of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. This means, for example, that all aid will contribute to the stabilisation of greenhouse gas emissions at a safe level.

In October 2021, an Independent Commission for Aid Impact review said there had been a lack of progress towards this goal. The 2022 aid strategy states that all new UK bilateral aid will align with the agreement from 2023.

ODA refers to aid intended to promote the economic development and welfare of developing countries. This aid must be reported to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

UK aid spending

There are no specific data for UK ODA spending on climate change. This is because ODA is treated as a cross-cutting theme for data reporting. ODA spending on climate change can be estimated by the two methods outlined below; however, both provide only a partial view.

From 2013 to 2019, the UK reported to the EU its level of climate-related aid. This was £1,184 million in 2019. The highest was £1,254 million in 2015.

Alternatively, according to statistics published by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office for 2015 to 2021, spending on “general environmental protection” and “energy sources, renewable sources” was highest in 2015, at £540 million. Spending was lowest in 2020, at £306 million, rising to £404 million in 2021.

Climate finance to developing countries

In 2009, developed countries with high greenhouse gas emissions committed to raise at least US$100 billion a year (PDF) from public and private sources by 2020 to help developing countries adapt to climate change. Known as ‘climate finance,’ it includes loans, grants, and export credits. In 2021, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development stated that the climate finance target may be reached in 2023.

In the financial years from 2015/16 to 2020/21, the UK committed at least £5.8 billion (PDF) in international climate finance (ICF). The 2022 aid strategy commits the Government to increase funding to £11.6 billion (2021 to 2026), twice that in the previous five years. Around half will be spent on mitigating the effects of climate change, and half on helping countries adapt to its impacts.

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