The leaked ‘Danish draft’ text of a Copenhagen agreement: an NGO-created storm that will not benefit poor countries?

There has been plenty of hot air about the leak of the so-called “Danish draft” – the text of a potential communique that could form the basis of any statement from Copenhagen.

The text contains language on some of the issues that must be settled if the summit is to have an outcome.

But the text has been attacked as a “secret” document prepared by developed nations, which would damage the interests of poor countries.

First of all, let’s get things in perspective.

There have been no secret meetings. The Danish hosts of the COP have done what all COP hosts do: they have talked to all of the countries and blocs involved in the talks. They have not excluded developing countries, whatever conspiracy theories NGOs might come up with. Note that this allegation of exclusion comes from NGOs, not developing countries. [UPDATE: Some reports are quoting G77 leader  Lumumba Stanislas Dia Ping as saying the draft "threatens the negotiations" but we have heard little else from the many other developing country leaders at the summit. Chinese negotiator Su Wei merely responded that he hadn't seen the document.] Indeed, the Danish government has become one of the world’s biggest buyers of carbon offsets, partly in its pursuit of meetings with developing countries.

The text is not secret either. In various forms, it has been circulating among delegations, NGOs and journalists for weeks.

It is also one among many draft texts, none of which have any status at all at the talks. Anyone can come up with a draft text – only those that are written within the strict definitions of the United Nations processes can be formally considered by the conference.

Some NGOs have claimed that the text is aimed at destroying the prospects of developing countries.

In fact, the text reflects the state of the talks. Developed countries want a new legal framework for any agreement for Copenhagen – one that takes some of the aspects of the Kyoto protocol, but incorporates them into a different legal framework that would allow the US, which rejected the Kyoto protocol, to take part.

They also want major emerging economies, such as China and India, to formalise the commitments that they have already made to curb their emissions into a legally binding format.

Developing countries, however, are insisting that any new agreement should be a continuation of the Kyoto protocol. They like the protocol because under its format, they do not have to take on any legally binding commitments on emissions. As Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, recently told the FT: “We do not think we should have to take on legally binding commitments, as we did not under Kyoto.”

This will not fly,  and developing countries know it. The White House will not agree to join the Kyoto protocol just because China and India would like them to. But the US will agree to a new agreement that continues some of the aspects of the protocol, such as the means of measuring and monitoring greenhouse gases, but that requires major emerging economies to take on binding commitments to curb emissions – not to cut emissions, as the US and other developed economies have pledged, but only to ensure their future emissions rise at a lower speed.

This impasse can be bridged. Developing countries are holding on to the Kyoto protocol for two reasons. One, perfectly rational, reason is that it is the only legally binding agreement on emissions that there exists, and they feel they can’t afford to lose it. (As Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change offical, puts it: “You don’t saw off the branch you’re sitting on.”)

The second is that they hope to use their insistence on Kyoto as a bargaining chip. Having already announced their targets on emissions curbs, major developing countries have few sanctions left short of walking out of the talks. They have some carrots they could dangle in front of rich nations – they could raise their emissions targets, for instance – but they also need a stick, something to threaten the rich countries with in order to get agreement on financial assistance.

Would the developing countries walk away if they felt they were not getting a fair deal?  Yes. They certainly would. But no one involved in these talks, least of all developing countries themselves, under-estimates how damaging such a refusal would be to developing nations.

If there is no agreement at Copenhagen – where world leaders will turn up next week in order to come away with a concrete pact on what all agree is a vitally important issue – then world leaders will not readily convene again to draw up a new accord. It could take many years to bring key countries back to the table if  these talks dissolve in acrimony. And the poor world is relying on financial assistance from rich countries, not only to cut emissions but also to cope with the effects of climate change, some of which are already being felt.

In fact, the most likely losers from a walkout by the developing world would be not the major developing economies such as China and India, but the least developed countries. If Copenhagen fails, the big emerging economies will sign alternative bilateral agreements with the US, and perhaps the EU and other rich countries. They are huge emitters of greenhouse gases, and as such will retain some advantage – if China carries on emitting without curbs while the US puts curbs in place, it is clear that the US will lose out in the longer term. So the rich countries have a clear interest in preventing the major developing country emitters from carrying on “business as usual”.

The poorest countries, on the other hand, have little to offer the rich nations in return. No one will bother to do bilateral deals on emissions with them, and they will be left reliant on aid programmes from the rich world to help them cope with the dangerous effects of global warming – and these countries tend to be located in the regions that will suffer worst from warming

These countries should certainly aim for a deal in Copenhagen, as it is their best hope of receiving financial assistance.

In fact, the interests of these countries – and this is a pivotal point – are widely divergent from the interests of the major emerging economies that lay claim to be their allies.

The least developed countries urgently need financial assistance from the rich world, or they will plunge further into dire poverty.

For countries such as China and India, with rapidly growing economies, financial assistance is merely a “nice-to-have”.

So – the least developed countries should be very careful not to end up as the stooges of major emerging economies that garner their support when it suits them, but could easily jettison the allegiances if they see their benefit lies more in bilateral talks.

They should also be careful in their dealings with NGOs, whose interests are also not necessarily aligned with theirs.

To return to the “Danish draft”, does all of this mean that developed countries are exerting pressure, financial and political, on the developing world, as some NGOs allege ? Yes.  That is what negotiations mean. The rich countries are demanding something in return for the dollars they are promising to spend, rather than doing what some developing countries and many NGOs demand, which is to give that money for free as “reparations” for the damage they have already done to the climate.

If you are an NGO, you might call that demand for a quid pro quo unfair and yet another example of the rich world squeezing the poor. If you are not an NGO, you might call it political realism.

Fortunately, and as usual, most developing countries have a far more developed sense of political realism than some of the NGOs at these talks. That is what gives hope of a deal.

Related links:

‘Draft text’ triggers Copenhagen furore (FT, 09/12/09)

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