Together Alone: BASIC countries and the climate change conundrum

November 22, 2011 | 00:00

Together Alone: BASIC countries and the climate change conundrum

Since 2009, Brazil, South Africa, India and China – known as the BASIC group of countries – have cooperated in international climate negotiations, reflecting their aspiration to have a larger say in global politics. But there are some who claim that the approach of the bloc has obstructed progress in the talks.

Yet this is a superficial view: for real insight into the BASIC group’s approach, it is necessary to grasp the development concerns of each country and the geopolitical value they see in cooperation. As four separate states, it is domestic policy priorities that condition how far they can work together, and what they can contribute to climate discussions.

This report commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers from the Stockholm Environment Institute arrives at a more nuanced understanding of the BASIC cooperation. Such an understanding is crucial if international climate negotiations are to succeed.

Summary of the report

Carried by the weight of their increasing economic and geopolitical influence, the BASIC countries – both individually and collectively – are rapidly moving to the centre stage of international politics. Their increased influence in international climate diplomacy was clearly seen for the first time at the Copenhagen Climate Conference (COP15). The four appeared to have a joint strategy, and played a key role in negotiating the conference’s final political outcome – the Copenhagen Accord – with the United States.

The emergence of the BASIC group just before COP15 was largely a response to external pressures. The rise of these countries in world economic and political affairs, and the fact that they have rapidly increasing emissions, has generated strong pressures from industrialised countries for them to accept obligatory greenhouse gas emission reductions. These pressures target the larger emerging economies, particularly China and India. Two clear examples of the carrot-and-stick approach being used to apply such pressure are their invitations to participate in the Major Economies Forum on Climate and Energy and the G8 plus 5 Dialogue on Climate and Energy.

The foundation of the BASIC cooperation can be traced back to a common “third world” identity formed during several decades in the G77 group of developing countries, in which the four BASIC countries have each played leading roles. The BASIC countries have also been working together in different constellations outside the climate negotiations for more than a decade. For instance, India, Brazil and South Africa work together within the IBSA Dialogue Forum with a broad agenda to reform the United Nations Security Council. Similarly, Bra il, ussia, India, China and South Africa have come together as B ICS with the goal of counterbalancing
S dominance in the world economy. This suggests that while BASIC ostensibly deals with climate change, its raison d’e tre may well be broader. A more encompassing agenda could mean that the countries might disagree on some climate change issues, yet continue their collaboration for the foreseeable future.

While they sometimes work together, the BASIC countries must be understood as four separate entities with their own policy priorities and strategies. Different norms and ideas, material concerns and relationships
affect the stance that each country brings to the negotiation table, and these in turn shape the substance of BASIC cooperation, explaining why they partner on some issues but not on others. An example of this was seen at COP16 in Cancun when India collaborated with countries other than the BASIC group to have the phrase “equitable access to sustainable development” inserted into the Shared Vision part of the negotiation text. One commonality among the four countries is the fact that each has made a pledge under the Copenhagen Accord that amounts to a significant deviation from business as usual emissions. Particularly in Brazil and China, these pledges are supported by domestic legislation through policies to promote development, energy security and environmental qualities.

These policies also have positive climate co-benefits, which have moreover helped establish dynamic clean technology sectors. Since COP15, BASIC ministers responsible for climate-related issues have met quarterly, suggesting that the group is committed to continued cooperation. From the joint statements issued after the meetings, two clear patterns emerge: first, a call for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol; and, second, an effort to build bridges with and show support for the rest of the G77. The discussions thus seem to generate agreement on a few broad principles, but have so far been unable to settle the finer details needed to articulate concrete contributions for the international negotiating process.

One issue on which the BASIC countries have been working to find a common position on is equity, and how the remaining carbon space should be shared between countries. A handful of technical-level workshops on equity have been held in conjunction with the quarterly highlevel meetings, but it appears that reaching consensus has been difficult. One of the main reasons for this is the diversity of views held by the countries themselves. India favours a per capita approach, Brazil and China prefer historical emissions and South Africa favours a mixture which also takes capacity into consideration. The lack hitherto of a common agenda has led some observers to argue that the BASIC countries are ultimately an “obstructive grouping” that can agree only on avoiding mandatory international emission reduction commitments for as long as possible.

While this may be a part of their shared agenda, such an argument is simplistic and misses the fact that finding a joint agenda between four countries as diverse as the BASIC countries is very challenging, and that the intricacies of the climate negotiations are tightly tied to other areas of both domestic and international politics that must be juggled simultaneously. There are, however, signs that some BASIC countries are unilaterally helping to bring about convergence on global solutions. The role played by India in brokering an agreement via the needs-based concept “equitable access to sustainable development” at COP16 in Cancun was widely hailed as constructive in the international media.1 This does not, however, appear to have been a joint coordination effort between the BASIC group, suggesting a pattern – at least for now – in which individual BASIC countries are more likely to bring about solutions than the collective. In that light, BASIC may well prove to have been a temporary constellation that served a particular purpose at a very important juncture. In particular, China’s growing dominance could make it a challenging partner for the other three. There could also be opportunities for any of the BASIC partners to maximize broader diplomatic and geopolitical benefits through other relationships. Regardless of what direction their joint future takes, the BASIC countries are countries on the rise in the international system and will continue to occupy a larger space both in climate diplomacy and elsewhere.

To read the full report, click here.


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