The Green Blog

BU professor aims to follow the money for climate change

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / December 14, 2009

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Excerpts from the Globe’s environmental blog, filed this week from the UN Climate Change Conference, which is being held in Copenhagen.

Following the climate money
At their core, the climate negotiations in Copenhagen are all about the money: how much rich nations will pony up to developing nations to adapt to climate change and to jump-start low-carbon economies.

But unlike negotiators fixated on how many billions of dollars will be paid and to whom, a Brown University professor here is determined to find out where it all goes.

J. Timmons Roberts, director of the Center for Environmental Studies, and a group of partners from around the world have spent the past six years developing a public database that will track development money, from its award to a final project.

He wants to know if the money for a sea wall in Tuvalu means a sea wall gets built. Or if funding to Thai researchers to develop drought-resistant rice plants really reaches them.

Perhaps you would think, with the billions of dollars in aid flowing back and forth between nations for generations, that there would be a highly evolved system to make sure the money gets where it’s supposed to go. No. Roberts says there are many reasons, including the reality that funding can be expensive to track and that some governments do not want it to be tracked. Regardless of why, he said, the result is enormous sums of money are swallowed up by consultants, middlemen, and corruption long before the money gets even part of the distance it needs to go.

“Sometimes, a country doesn’t even know it has been awarded aid,’’ he said.

While the problem is longstanding, it’s about to get worse: No matter what the exact figures are, tens - and more likely hundreds - of billions of dollars are going to be flowing between countries in coming decades to deal with climate change.

Without some database tracking it all, Roberts says, it runs the risk of failing. Already, aid history is pockmarked with unmet promises.

For example, roughly $18 billion was voluntarily pledged for climate projects through around 2008 (although it has been ramped up significantly in recent months), but less than a billion has been disbursed.

Roberts’s project is being supported with $2 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Along with the College of William & Mary, Brigham Young University, the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Development Gateway, and others, Roberts will launch the AidData website in March. The group has spent six years gathering more than 850,000 development activities financed by approximately 70 countries and multilateral institutions, from 1946 to the present.

Not all are green projects, but Roberts hopes to give a special focus to climate-related ones as money is promised.

Learning climate-speak
There’s some new climate language coming out of the Copenhagen talks, and it’s not Danish or science-speak. Here are the new coinages I’ve overheard in just my first few days here:

Climarati: The climate elite, as in, “I am going to drink white organic wine with the climarati in the LEED-certified grand hall.’’

Bella-ed: Not allowed into the sprawling Bella conference center where negotiations are taking place, as in “I’ve been Bella-ed! How am I going to help change the course of history if I can’t get in the building?’’

Cop-lifted: A space that has been overtaken by the Conference of the Parties, the official name of the Copenhagen climate talks, as in “The central bus station has been cop-lifted.’’

Overweight: Having an excessive carbon footprint, as in, “I feel so overweight - I had to take a taxi instead of the subway downtown.’’