Among the thousands of delegates heading to Durban for this year’s United Nations climate summit, there will be hundreds of European officials fresh from a sovereign debt crisis that some fear could engulf the global economy. If it does, this will be the second time in less than three years that the world has faced economic and financial disaster.

Yet one of the main items on the agenda in Durban is a promise wealthy countries made two summits ago to provide poorer nations with $100bn a year by 2020 to help them deal with climate change, and $30bn in “fast-start” money over the three years until the end of 2012.

To an outsider this sounds ambitious. How can countries be expected to find so much money when some in Europe have had to be bailed out?

As it happens, the $100bn annual goal may not be quite as far-fetched as it appears. At least $97bn a year is already being provided for climate-related development projects, according to a new study by the Climate Policy Initiative, a research group funded by George Soros, the US financier.

And just as surprisingly, the private sector is providing nearly three times as much as public budgets, the report says.

That does not mean countries can relax about their $100bn annual UN commitment, says Barbara Buchner, the lead author, explaining that this is supposed to be “new and additional” money, and “some of the $97bn was promised years ago”.

Still, it does suggest the $100bn figure was chosen “without too much understanding of what is already out there”, says Nick Robins, head of the climate change group at HSBC, the bank.

Either way, as European leaders fall and financial markets remain volatile, there is little sign that officials from wealthy countries will be going to Durban with a large cheque in their suitcases. And this is only one part of the financial dilemmas confronting the summit.

Another large one is the fate of the green climate fund, a new body agreed to at last year’s summit. Campaigners hope it will be a one-stop shop, replacing the complicated jumble of funds and initiatives that clutter the climate landscape.

The fund could also play a big role in channelling the annual $100bn that is supposed to have been mobilised by 2020. But first, it has to get past first base – something that is not guaranteed.

The green climate fund was first suggested two years ago, at the December 2009 UN summit in Copenhagen. It took another year of talks to get it formally agreed at Cancún, where it was decided a “transitional committee” should work on its design and operation.

That committee, co-chaired by Trevor Manuel, the former South African finance minister, met in Cape Town in October to finalise its report to the Durban summit.

And that is where efforts hit a snag, with the US and Saudi Arabia opposing adoption of the report, leaving Mr Manuel to describe the meeting’s outcome as “sub-optimal”, according to an account by observers for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a non-profit group.

Saudi Arabia wanted more in the report about one of its favourite issues, so-called “response measures”, or compensation for oil-producing countries for revenues lost as a result of measures to tackle climate change, the observers said.

The US wanted more work done on the relationship between the fund and the UN, private sector involvement and which countries would contribute to it.

One representative from Germany said the committee’s failure to agree “will likely result in not having the green climate fund this year or the next”, says Mike Shanahan, press officer of the International Institute for Environment and Development, a UK-based research group.

Others are more hopeful.

Laurence Graff, a senior European Commission climate official, told reporters in Brussels earlier this month that it is not clear whether the US and Saudi Arabia have “serious concerns”, or just “wish to add to recommendations”.

Some people close to the talks think both countries will end up using their dissent as a negotiating ploy to get more of what they want on other issues in the gargantuan negotiations.

What this episode does show, however, is that, as is so often the case at the UN climate talks, progress has been waylaid by the rancorous divide between rich and poor countries that has long kept the negotiations deadlocked.

One of the most troublesome issues surrounding the green climate fund has been how much control developing countries will have over it. “There is a perception that the US wants it to be run by the World Bank,” says Tim Gore, international policy adviser on climate change for Oxfam, the charity.

Some developing countries fear this would mean more of the bureaucratic delays the climate fund is supposed to overcome, and less on-the-ground control for them over the sorts of projects that really need funding. They would prefer the UN had more say because that is where their voices are strongest.

But the involvement of a body such as the World Bank, whose president is generally an American, would give more control to a group with extensive financing experience, which many western observers say is crucial.

“Some developing countries want a very significant wealth transfer from fiscally constrained developed countries so they can spend it as they want, which would seem fanciful even if we weren’t in a massive fiscal crisis,” says Ben Caldecott, head of European policy at Climate Change Capital, an investment and advisory group in London.

The climate fund transitional committee’s report in Cape Town recommends the fund should have a board of 24 members, half from developed countries and half from developing nations, with the World Bank acting as a trustee that will manage the fund’s financial assets for the first three years of its operation.

It has left open another troublesome question: exactly how much money the fund should get from public and private sources.

Many developing countries favour public money, arguing it is more reliable and easier to direct to their requirements. Some in the private sector say this is hopelessly unrealistic.

“There is no earthly way developed world governments will resource it to the tune of $100bn per annum,” says Michael Liebreich, chief executive of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group. In contrast, the global investment industry, even after the last financial crisis, sits on assets worth more than $100,000bn in the form of pension funds, mutual funds, private equity or hedge funds, Mr Liebreich argued in a paper earlier this year.

He thinks it is pointless to create a green climate fund to manage a “mirage of funds which will never materialise”, and says it should be sidelined in favour of a “green climate finance framework” that would encourage far more private sector involvement.

But as the Durban summit nears, it is possible he need not worry. There still seems to be a chance the green climate fund will be sidelined by the negotiators themselves.

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