• Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

The "Danish Text," Tuvalu, and the Leverage of Poor Nations in Copenhagen

10 December 2009 2:11 pm

The disappearing Tuvalu made waves yesterday in Copenhagen. Officials from the Polynesian island nation forced a delay in negotiations to press world leaders to adopt a goal more aggressive than limiting warming to 2˚C. That followed an outcry by developing countries over the leaked "Danish Text." Both incidents highlight the uphill battle facing small, poor nations that are likely to feel the effects of global warming first but that lack the political clout to gain international recognition.

In an e-mail to ScienceInsider, international law expert David Victor of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, describes the major elements of the draft deal laid out in the "Danish" document, and why he thinks the response to it is "overblown." He also predicts that developing nations will walk out of negotiations at some point—since their signature on the final deal is really the only bargaining chip they have.

I'll annotate Victor's analysis with notes and links:

When you look at the language of the draft, this is not a serious departure from the norm. It lines up exactly with the major agenda items that were set forth in the Bali roadmap.

Each of the industrialized nations is expected to lay out its commitments. Most of the major developing countries are encouraged to do the same. All of these commitments will be outlined in ways that make it possible to know whether countries are actually honoring them (the registry). And lots of new money will be needed for a host of purposes, such as low‑emission investment and adaptation. 

This has attracted a firestorm of criticism, for the following three reasons: 

A) It was a deal done by a small group of countries.  But that's normal‑that's how all these important deals get done.

George W. Bush took much flack from the left for his refusal to push for greenhouse gas limits. But some climate scientists liked his push to get together the world's major greenhouse gas emitters outside of U.N. meetings like the Copenhagen conference. In smaller groups, the thinking went, the nations most responsible for the problem could hash out the most important details.

B) On the document's mandate that the "increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees C." and that there should be "a peak of global emissions as soon as possible, but no later than [2020]," Victor said:

The ambition of 2 degrees and of peaking world emissions by 2020 (a date in brackets) and of $10b annually in new "public finance" will be a stretch.

 As I wrote in Nature reacting to the Meinshausen et al papers in early summer, the 2 degree target is a delusion. Most likely, the world is already set to blow through 2 degrees. And existing commitments will see emissions peak in 2035 to 2040, and even that is highly uncertain. So my view is exactly the opposite‑the big criticism isn't that it isn't enough (that may be true) but that what seems to be on the table is already beyond what governments can probably deliver.

C) Some worry that the the document's call for "multiple sources" of funding will mean a strengthening of institutions like the World Bank, which is controlled more easily by the richest countries. They would prefer to have funds set up under the U.N. climate treaty's bodies, which give a greater say to poor nations. Victor sees it differently:

My read of section V of the text is exactly the opposite: The financial architecture will include a new Fund and an oversight system that will remain under management of the UNFCCC and its institutions. If so, that will probably make it harder for donors to mobilize all the needed money. And the Danish text is evasive about what really matters, which is private finance. It is totally unclear how much private finance will (and can) be mobilized and how that will interact with public finance. 

So why is the reaction so much at odds with the reality? I view the reaction to the Danish text as an ink blot test.  Nerves are raw, especially in the small developing countries that are most vulnerable to climate change and feel (correctly) they don't have much sway on the outcomes in Copenhagen. Those raw nerves have been evident in the statement by the G77 at the end of the last negotiating session and the periodic threats to walk out of the talks. With nerves already raw, a text is "leaked" that many delegates had never seen and that seems to be a back room deal; trust is already low, and that generates an instinctive response to lash out at the text. I would not be surprised to see the delegates from the most vulnerable nations walk out of the talks, and as a strategy that might be a good one.  These countries rarely have the world spotlight and they have little real influence on the final outcomes. They must use all arrows in their quiver.

Victor also had a lot to say about the fate of the Clean Development Mechanism – but I'll save that for a later post.

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