By Omer Javed and Dan Beeton
WASHINGTON DC, Jan 12 2024 (IPS)
The world faces the existential threat of a climate change crisis, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the outcome of the latest UN climate summit, COP28 — hosted as it was by the CEO of one of the world’s largest oil companies, and filled with a record number of fossil fuel lobbyists — is not going to do much to change that.
Even calls to “phase-out” fossil fuels were met with foot-dragging from the COP28 president and Saudi Arabian delegates. Meanwhile, highlighting the gravity of the challenge at hand, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) pointed out that the last decade (2011–2020) was the warmest on record. Along with the COVID pandemic, this likely contributed to an increase in absolute poverty over the same period.
A key question that COP28 was supposed to tackle is how low- and middle-income countries will be able to pay for climate crisis response and adaptation. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been thrust into a key role in this regard, but it should not escape criticism for its own climate hypocrisy.
For the Fund to truly begin to join the fight against the climate crisis, it must first end its pointless, unfair, and damaging surcharge policy. The Biden administration could ensure that the Fund instead plays a crucial role in responding to climate challenges by supporting a major new issuance of IMF reserve assets.
Currently, the IMF’s solution is to offer more debt to already severely debt-burdened countries. An October paper from the United Nations Development Programme Global Policy Network noted: “At least 54 developing economies are suffering from severe debt problems,” of which 28 are among “the world’s top-50 most climate vulnerable countries.”
And more than 70 percent of climate finance for these countries has been in the form of loans, as a recent letter from 141 civil society groups points out.
Moreover, a Development Finance International-led report notes the lopsided spending priorities being forced on developing countries, many of which are highly vulnerable to climate change. Among these, “debt service is 12.5 times higher than the amount spent on climate adaptation,” a number projected to “rise to 13.2 times” in the next year.
Contributions to the “loss and damage” climate fund have also been far from satisfactory. Reports note that the US, the EU, and other rich countries have failed to meet their pledges to provide $100 billion per year.
These countries face debt distress partly because the IMF demands they follow overly broad austerity policies as conditions to receive the loans. This is an avoidable problem, considering that the IMF possesses a ready and appropriate alternative: Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), a reserve asset intended to be issued during times of crisis.
The Fund last allocated $650 billion worth of SDRs in August 2021, in response to the COVID pandemic. But now even countries battered by the climate crisis, such as Pakistan, a third of which was flooded in 2022, are being pushed to take on more debt while the US Treasury Department refuses to green-light a new major SDRs issuance.
This points to the root of the problem: the governance structures of the IMF and World Bank. The US by itself has a veto over decisions, and in practice can control most of what the IMF does, because other high-income countries — mostly in Europe — almost always line up with the United States, giving high-income countries 60 percent of voting power, thereby leaving most of the world without a voice at the IMF.
Critics point out that most of the 2021 SDRs went to rich countries, since they provided the most to the IMF’s resources (their membership quotas); while efforts to rechannel those SDRs have also been wanting both in terms of speed and quantity.
Worse, the IMF’s rechanneling mechanisms turn the SDRs — an international reserve asset that countries receive without any debt or conditions attached — into loans, with conditions attached.
The IMF is contributing to the global debt crisis in other ways. It continues to levy surcharges, essentially, “junk fees” added onto its non-concessional lending. Writing for Eurodad, Daniel Munevar highlighted how climate crisis-ravaged Pakistan faced surcharges of $122 million in 2023, and another $69 million in 2024.
A country that faced catastrophic flooding in 2022, that is one of the most vulnerable to climate change, and that was simultaneously facing possible default, should not be forced to pay surcharges. Moreover, many countries in similar circumstances, such as Armenia, Jordan, and even war-torn Ukraine, also face surcharges.
A recent CEPR report noted, “The IMF will charge over $2 billion per year in surcharges through 2025,” which is unnecessary and counterproductive, given the already constrained fiscal space of developing countries.
Time is quickly running out. The IMF must be brought into the twenty-first century if it is to play a constructive role in ending the climate crisis. The IMF should end its punitive, unnecessary, and counterproductive surcharge policy. And there must be a new major allocation of SDRs to enable developing countries to better deal with debt distress and meet their goals for climate-resilient spending.
This will require leadership by President Biden, since the US is the largest contributor to IMF resources and has the greatest say in IMF decisions. The COP meetings could even be used for timing a yearly release of climate-related SDR allocations to highly climate-vulnerable countries, as suggested under Barbados’s “Bridgetown Initiative.”
These steps would at least show that the Fund is addressing the climate crisis with the leadership and seriousness required.
Omer Javed holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Barcelona, and previously worked at the International Monetary Fund. His contact on ‘X’ (formerly ‘Twitter’) is @omerjaved7.
Dan Beeton is the International Communications Director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (cepr.net) in Washington, DC. He Tweets at @Dan_Beeton.
IPS UN Bureau