Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Briefings: Changing the Tide for Small Island Nations

Dec 17, 2009

The heated debate over emission cuts and adaptation funding at the Copenhagen climate conference has so far centered on the tension between wealthy nations and developing states. With today's announcement that the United States will join the European Union in contributing to a $100 billion annual fund to help developing nations fight climate change, the two sides may be edging closer to an agreement.

Yet seeing Copenhagen as merely a battle of wills between industrialized and industrializing nations belies a complex reality and may actually obstruct opportunities to advance the agreement, particularly while the source of the $100 billion remains unclear.

The significant disparities within the developing bloc are encapsulated by the plight of developing island nations. Last week, the small island state of Tuvalu stormed out of the negotiations as larger developing states such as China and India refused to entertain its proposal to deepen emissions cuts and prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Tuvalu is negotiating on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 42 developing nations and observers from around the globe. Although all low-lying coastal areas are likely to feel the effects of climate change, small island nations are particularly vulnerable. Not only are they more exposed physically, they are also some of the least developed countries in the world.

As a result, they have a lot more at stake at Copenhagen than most everyone else. They also have very different priorities compared to the big developing economies.

Tuvalu, for example, is a remote low-lying atoll with no point higher than five meters above high tide. Even a one meter rise in sea level could render the country uninhabitable as Tuvaluans already struggle with increasingly frequent saltwater flooding and accelerated coastal erosion, threatening both food security and livelihoods.

At international negotiations, however, the unique and pressing needs of small island states tend to be eclipsed by the spotlight on larger developing players. The same rule applies when funding for mitigation and adaptation is distributed.

Papua New Guinea's Ambassador to the United Nations, Robert Aisi, sits on the council of the Global Environment Facility, the designated financial mechanism for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. When funds are committed to help developing nations mitigate and adapt to climate change, small island developing states are in the same pool as China, India, and Brazil. "Once they get their share," says Aisi, "then there's really crumbs left for everybody else."

Aisi complains that these larger countries have technical and financial capacities that smaller developing countries just can't match. Add to this the irony that most small island states are close to zero emitters and the need to differentiate within the developing bloc becomes even more acute.

While industrialized nations have been the major contributors to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the last century, industrial China has now overtaken the United States as the biggest emitter on a national basis. Tuvalu, on the other hand, aims to be climate neutral by 2020, and is part of a wider movement of countries that have committed to doing so.

It is understandable then that China and India would block Tuvalu's proposal, since it could commit the larger developing nations to binding emissions cuts which could slow their industrial growth. It also shows a need for a nuanced approach to developing states and raises questions about who the Copenhagen negotiations are aimed to help.

Maxine Burkett, Director of the Center for Island Climate Adaptation and Policy in Hawaii, points out that the odds were stacked against small island developing states well before the agenda for Copenhagen was set: when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change framed a rise of 2 degrees Celsius as the acceptable lower limit.

"If you set the best-case scenario as 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level for temperature rise, and you are fully aware that anything above 1.5 degrees Celsius throws a number of islands into potential non-existence in most cases, then you've already made a decision," said Burkett. "No one wants to admit that, but you've already made a decision that you're willing to sacrifice a number of communities."

Given the reaction to the Tuvaluan proposal last week, the baseline scenario of 2 degrees Celsius seems unlikely to be reversed. In addition, it may be simply unachievable given the amount of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.

If this is the case, and we further consider that the offers currently on the table at Copenhagen would lead to a projected warming of 3.9 degrees Celsius, then funding for adaptation and disaster preparedness becomes even more important. But where will the promised $100 billion a year come from?

Harvard University's Dr. Paul Epstein has proposed a funding mechanism that would at least improve the odds of getting money to the vulnerable states in time to implement adaptation measures. By de-linking funds from the stumbling block of "wealthy versus developing," a Tobin Tax on financial transactions would generate significant funds while also helping to stabilize the global financial system by constraining speculative transfers of capital.

This is precisely the mechanism that the United Kingdom and France proposed last Friday, as the European Union announced a short-term commitment of about $3 billion per year to help poorer countries cope with climate change. The Tobin Tax may be able to bridge the gap to the $100 billion that is considered necessary. "I'm for something that denationalizes the way we generate the funds," said Epstein.

As heads of state from around the world arrive for the last day of negotiations, denationalizing funds over the long term, and differentiating among the developing states at the distribution end, could create a space for progress where it is needed most. While the world's bigger greenhouse gas emitters continue to argue over emission reductions, small vulnerable states fight for their existence.

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