It has taken 15 months for Climate Home News to pin down an interview with Howard Bamsey.
He started work as executive director of the Green Climate Fund the same month Donald Trump was inaugurated as US president, throwing 20% of its start-up capital into doubt. Trump has since openly attacked the fund as a waste of US taxpayer money.
Before the Trump bombshell, the organisation was already understaffed, bureaucratic and politically fraught. After it, the challenges looked formidable.
Bamsey knew the institution had issues and although he had a “perfectly interesting – fascinating, really” academic position at the Australian National University, says the job was too important not to accept.
“It had all sorts of problems but the GCF really had to succeed,” he says by Skype from the fund’s base in Songdo, South Korea. “In some ways, it was the foundation to the whole global response to climate change.”
With $10 billion pledged, of which Trump is threatening to withhold $2bn, the GCF is not the biggest climate fund in the world. But it is fundamental to trust between rich and poor countries. Bamsey said as much in a 2015 article for the Conversation, before he had any thought of leading it.
The GCF board is equally composed of developed and developing country representatives. At meetings, donors and recipients wrestle for control over how climate finance money is spent.
In this context, the former Australian climate envoy apologetically describes himself as coming from an “unfashionable demographic”. But amid the politics, Bamsey is there to make stuff happen: draft long overdue policies and speed up the sluggish flow of projects. His hesitancy to talk to the media, insiders say, reflected a need to win the board’s trust before sounding off in public.
This month the GCF board approved more than a billion dollars worth of projects – its biggest tranche yet. Now with progress to report, Bamsey is candid and thoughtful on the fund’s remaining challenges, ultimately upbeat about its growing role – even though with Trump in the White House, it is unlikely to see the outstanding $2bn US pledge any time soon.
Bamsey is keen to highlight a milestone from the last board meeting: a Namibian project became the first to win approval through a new simplified process that launched in November 2017. The fast-track is a response to criticisms the fund’s required paperwork and long timelines were unfair to under-resourced applicants.
“We are showing, I think, both board and secretariat, that we are now capable of streamlining,” says Bamsey.
But other initiatives are still running into bureaucratic hurdles. For example, the fund is trying to mobilise more private sector cash for large-scale programmes. It got nearly 300 responses to a call for proposals, but several of the most promising came from organisations that have not been approved to channel funds.
“For private sector organisations, typically long timelines mean they move on to somewhere else,” says Bamsey: “What do we do about those very interesting, potentially transformational, proposals that are not accredited [by the GCF]?”
After unsuccessfully trying to convince the board to make exceptions for these projects, the secretariat is looking for other workarounds. Bamsey is hopeful they can get some approved this year, perhaps by matchmaking the new applicants with established partners.
Then there is the vexed question of how to define half the fund’s mission. It has a mandate to deliver equal funding to climate change mitigation – cutting emissions – and adaptation – protecting people from the impacts of warming.
“For many developing countries, adaptation is the main concern, because they contribute very little to greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Bamsey. “That is why we have been instructed to take a balanced approach in our funding, but when you get to defining what adaptation is, there are many different views around the board table.”
The GCF’s portfolio dashboard shows the proportion of funds approved for pure adaptation projects lags behind mitigation, 29% to 43%. “Cross-cutting” projects account for the rest.
That third category may look like a fudge, but Bamsey argues some of the best innovations have elements of both mitigation and adaptation. A distributed renewable electricity system for a small island, say, can cut emissions and help residents to bounce back quicker from tropical storms. “That is the kind of integrated approach that I think will become more frequent.”
While this debate rumbles on, 2018 is set to be the year the fund – finally, critics will say with an eye-roll – gets money to the people on the ground. To date, $3.7bn worth of funding has been allocated. Just $147.7 million – 4% – was disbursed last year. The disbursement target for 2018 is $900m.
“Disbursements so far have been relatively slow, but we will see them ramp up rapidly this year,” says Bamsey, acknowledging concerns. “It is the first question that people often ask when they knock on the door… it is a very natural question.”
In the fund’s defence, he notes many projects are due to receive money in instalments. Looking at the value of “projects under implementation” in 2017 gives a more generous figure of $596.1m. “It might take up to 20 years before the last dollar is actually disbursed. It is not like winning the lottery, where the cheque is in the post the next day.”
As the fund’s activities continue to expand, it is set for a hiring spree. There were 157 employees on the February payroll, Bamsey says, due to reach 250 by the end of the year. Attracting staff to the satellite city of Songdo has proven tricky for the fund in the past.
And with money moving, the prospect of drumming up a new round of donations is looming.
Trump made clear in a speech last June he opposed sending more money to the GCF, saying it would obligate the US to “commit potentially tens of billions of dollars… nobody else is even close; most of them haven’t even paid anything – including funds raided out of America’s budget for the war against terrorism”.
There is no sign of the US stumping up the $2bn it owes from this year’s budget, Bamsey accepts, but he has not written it off. “What happens in the future, I am not betting on. We will just have to see.”
It is not clear yet when the fund will need a top-up, he says. “If we were to continue at each meeting to approve a billion dollars worth of funding, we would get to a consensus view that we would reach the trigger point fairly quickly. But I don’t think we will keep at the same pace.”
On Trump’s stance, Bamsey is circumspect. “I take note of the president’s speech. I also have to take note of the fact that the US has already given us a billion dollars. I am sure there are many in Washington who want to see that that one billion dollars is spent well,” he says. The US still has a representative on the board.
Meanwhile, Bamsey is exploring alternative funding sources. Some philanthropic foundations have expressed an interest in contributing, he says – although that would depend on the board agreeing to change the rules.
He doesn’t name names, but billionaire climate advocate Mike Bloomberg has previously shown willing to stand in for the US federal government, pledging $15 million to the UN climate body when Trump declared his intention to cut funding. “If we beat the bushes a bit, I think we would find quite a lot of interest from organisations that have not yet approached us.”
It is clear that Trump’s hostility has not dimmed Bamsey’s confidence in the fund.
“Countries are demonstrating there is great demand as to what the fund can do. Every dollar spent on climate change is a dollar spent on development,” he says. “We still do suffer, to be frank, from a relative lack of recognition around the world. But it is beginning to know us. Things are changing.”
Note: The Green Climate Fund is a sponsor of Climate Home News. This article was produced independently of that relationship.