international analysis and commentary

What happened at the Copenhagen summit: a BASIC perspective

At the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen, the world was surprised to find that the negotiating table which mattered in the diplomacy of global warming was one where the United States sat on one side and four emerging economies on the other. It is time to become familiar with a new acronym: BASIC – Brazil, America (i.e. the US), South Africa, India, China.

Given the cacophony of noises that preceded and nearly drowned out Copenhagen, this was no small accomplishment. If one knows who matters, one also can understand what matters. Barack Obama’s gate-crashing of the meeting of the BASIC countries on the last day and the quickfire Copenhagen Accord that the five governments thrashed out has no shortage of critics. But it was almost certainly the best that could be expected given the enormous policy divide that existed between the US and the emerging economies. The US goal, driven by a Kyoto Protocol-allergic legislature and a struggling economy, was to scrap the original protocol and negotiate a new one that brought in countries like India and China. But the emerging economies were wary of what the climate change system would look like if Kyoto was scrapped. The Indians, for example, believed that tossing out the Kyoto Protocol would also undermine the legal basis for a global carbon trading regime – and leave only a Western-based and Western-dominated trading system in place.

The emerging economies also saw developed countries being freed of the only treaty based carbon emission limits they were bound by – albeit very lightly bound.

Finally, they were all wary of undermining the broad principle of “separate but differential” responsibilities for global warming – that rich countries had to do more than poor countries. And this was embodied in Kyoto.

In short, the European Union was nearly alone in desiring a comprehensive, legally-binding carbon treaty. The US could not contemplate embracing such an agreement unless it included the emerging economies. And accepting such a treaty, with all that it entailed including intrusive verification, was a bridge too far for the emerging economies. Though there were various attempts to divide the BASIC countries, the economic stakes for them were too high.
This was especially true for China, the world’s largest carbon emitter and the most energy-dependent of the emerging economies. China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, was openly nervous about the possibility of India’s defection and kept asking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if Beijing could depend on New Delhi. India’s Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh publicly praised the relationship: “India and China in particular have cooperated and collaborated over each word, at every step.”

All the BASIC countries agreed that the developed countries’ promises of assistance, in either money or technology access, would never really materialize. “The West is offering us nothing. The money is really for the least developed countries. And there is no give on technology,” said Indian negotiators. There were some sticks but no carrots visible at Copenhagen. With his eyes on a coming Senate battle over the US limiting its carbon emissions, Obama felt he had to get some understanding with the BASIC countries. The EU had failed to build any bridges with this group and was abandoned. Hence his dramatic move to meet Wen and Singh, and almost inadvertently Brazil and South Africa. “It was clear Obama’s concern was that we would walk out of Copenhagen,” said Indian officials. If he didn’t get the emerging economies to sign a piece of paper, the summit would have been perceived as a disaster back home. The BASIC diplomats later joked, “For a few minutes we were the world’s most powerful bloc.” Indeed, as he left Copenhagen, Obama went out of his way to underline that he had gotten the emerging economies to sign something. “I want to give [the BASIC countries] credit for that,” he said as he left. “If you look at a country like India, they’ve got hundreds of millions of people who don’t have electricity…For them, even voluntarily to say we are going to reduce carbon emissions…is an important step.”

The final goal of the Indian negotiators was to ensure any blame for a Copenhagen failure did not come New Delhi’s way. This was largely accomplished. The US and China were perceived as the main drafters of the Copenhagen text. A variety of countries like the Maldives – which delayed the talks by making impossible demands, Poland – for supposedly blocking the EU’s attempts to offer deeper carbon cuts – and Russia and Saudi Arabia – for opposing pretty much everything because of their fossil fuel interests.

The Copenhagen Accord did produce a fabric from which future climate change negotiations could be cut, one that knitted in the emerging economies and the developed world. Over the next few rounds one will see the conversion of the accord into a binding agreement. One can foresee a broad trade-off being thrashed out: the emerging economies demanding compensation and higher carbon commitments from the rich countries in return for converting their voluntary actions into binding ones.

Senior German officials, in New Delhi days after Copenhagen, told Indian officials despondently, “We don’t matter any more.” But the EU will become a player again the instant that the US Congress approves some version of the Waxman-Markey bill and imposes a carbon regime on the US economy.

At this point, Obama will probably tack closer to Europe and away from the emerging economies. Western interests will be largely common: extract commitments from the emerging economies in return for as little compensation from the developed world as possible. The EU will also be an indispensable part of any compensation package and, because of its existing carbon trading market, will set the tone for any future global carbon trading regime.

The other question mark: how resilient will the present camaraderie between the BASIC countries be? China and India see eye-to-eye on very little. They even differ on what they want in terms of compensation: India wants funds and technology, China wants only technology. Washington is already trying to offer India and China separate green technology agreements in the hope one will abandon the other. They also differ marginally on the issue of carbon emission verification. Relatively confident about its accounting standards, India does not oppose Western verification for projects that use Western funding. China, so far, seems to have a blanket ban on such actions. 

Copenhagen has also raised global awareness about climate change and the stakes involved. This has been particularly true among the publics of the emerging economies. Indians, relatively indifferent to such issues before, topped the international Greendex survey this year when asked if they would buy environmentally friendly products: 60.8% compared said yes, compared to 46.5% of French respondents. The debate in India over Copenhagen, as was the case in most emerging economies, was never that there was no crisis or that countries should shirk from commitments. It was only who was responsible and how that would translate into action.