28 July, 2010

The BASIC meeting in Rio has made more progress than the official statement said

Sérgio Abranches

The BASIC meeting in Rio has had many new developments, but they were not mentioned in the official Joint Statement. Ministers from the BASIC countries shared a growing sentiment that it is unlikely that a second period of commitment to the Kyoto Protocol will ever be agreed by parties to the climate talks. This sense that the Kyoto Protocol is no longer a feasible route will likely change their negotiation strategy in future global climate meetings. India was rather clear about the need fort such a change, proposing that they should, from now on, work towards a single, inclusive global climate change agreement. This was one of the many turns in the discussions among ministers and negotiators that was not in the Joint Statement issued at the end of the meeting.

The BASIC ministers’ joint statement still stresses the importance of the

“two pronged approach, which envisages, on one hand, an ambitious and comprehensive outcome for the negotiations under both the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action under the UNFCCC and the Ad Hoc Working Group on Further Commitments by Annex I Parties under the Kyoto Protocol.”

Another important sentiment the ministers have shared in their private conversations was that the notion of “historical responsibilities” and “equitable burden sharing” could hardly lead to legally binding responsibilities for developed nations’ past emissions, especially regarding the pre-industrial and early industrial times. CO2 was not even regarded as a polluting emission at the time. This sobering view has also been concealed by the almost meaningless diplomatic jargon of the communiqué.

“A global goal for emission reductions should be preceded by the definition of a paradigm for equitable burden sharing. They emphasized that equitable access to carbon space must be considered in the context of sustainable development, the right to which is at the heart of the climate change regime, and which demands the implementation of ambitious financing, technological support and capacity building.”

Quantified comparable pledges

What the ministers in Rio have really concluded even though tentatively was that developing nations with advanced economies will have to adequately quantify their share of the burden to curb emissions. To do that they agreed to take the initiative to develop a model to assess their pledges registered under the Copenhagen Accord. A group of high quality experts was present to the discussions and will continue to meet in order to work towards this common assessment. Although there was some opposition to the idea, especially from the Brazilian side, they decided that experts should attempt to make all BASIC pledges comparable, and equally measurable, reportable and verifiable. Ideally, they should try to find a common base to convert all pledges to a single measure.

This goal of comparable pledges on a single base was particularly defended by India and South Africa. China gave it a reluctant support at the end, probably conditional on deliberation by the Chinese top leadership. Brazil didn’t veto the initiative, although opposed to it. The general feeling, however, was that the Brazilian government will give no material support to the group of experts.

South African experts have presented what appears to be a very interesting preliminary model, considering multiple indicators. There was a general feeling that it could serve as a starting point for the development of  a methodology to assess the pledges and measure their real implications for the continued economic and social development of the countries. The South African minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Buyelwa Sonjica, stressed her country’s great interest on this technical work.

Less words, more numbers

What became clear from the discussions is that the BASIC countries will have to abandon rhetorical demands and start to table sound technical proposals at climate talks. Instead of saying, as they still do, that their contribution to the global goal of emissions reductions cannot impose restrictions to their development goals, they will have to show the real effect of their pledges on their economies. The Joint Statement still refers to the “equitable access to carbon space in the context of sustainable development”, but they all know this has become an empty phrase. Very soon they will have to put actual numbers on the table to add value to this demand in future negotiations. This quantification of pledges, their requirements and impact will also be necessary to assess the financial needs of these larger developing economies to contribute to global emissions reductions efforts. Finance is an important issue for South Africa and India. China and Brazil would be able to finance most of their own climate change programs, especially on their initial stages.

That is what is in between the lines of the joint statement, when it says that the ministers

“underlined the need for further collaboration among BASIC experts on this issue, with a view to understanding the economic, social, scientific and technical implications of equitable access to carbon space and strengthening a common consideration of this matter.”


China’s top climate negotiator, Xie Zhenhua, has caused some surprise when he proposed that the methodology for MRVs (measurable, reportable, and verifiable actions) should be discussed and developed by the group of experts. MRVs will be on the agenda of the next meeting to be held in Beijing in October. This is another area where there is a considerable distance between what the BASIC countries actually think and what they keep saying in public.

The Joint Statement says that the ministers

“noted the distinction between MRV of emission reduction commitments by developed countries, which is related to compliance and comparability, and MRV of nationally appropriate mitigation actions (NAMAs) by developing countries, which is related to transparency. Ministers emphasized that work on the MRV of international support must advance urgently, including through the development of common procedures for the reporting of finance. They underscored that only supported NAMAs should be subject to international MRV, in conjunction with the MRV of international support, while non-supported NAMAs will apply a domestic MRV. International consultations and analysis of information regarding non-supported actions would be useful to enhance transparency, through a multilateral technical exchange under the UNFCCC.”

But in their conversations the ministers have shared the conviction that the Copenhagen pledges won’t escape being submitted to some MRV procedure still to be agreed upon. They know that to “non-supported NAMAs” that were registered as official pledges under the Copenhagen Accord will apply something more than “a domestic MRV”. They therefore concluded that the best thing to do is to be proactive and forward a methodology that could meet the terms of the Copenhagen Accord. That’s the true meaning of the phrase “international consultations and analysis of information regarding non-supported actions would be useful to enhance transparency, through a multilateral technical exchange under the UNFCCC”.

It was agreed that a starting point to develop this new form of MRV to meet the Copenhagen Accord requirements could be the procedure already adopted to review the national communications of emissions. National communications are reviewed by a group composed of representatives of the developed and developing countries, an UNFCCC technical official, and an independent expert.

It is interesting that the Joint Statement does not explicitly mention the Copenhagen Accord, although most of the technical issues they have agreed to pursue are associated to the pledges made under the Accord. The only mention to Copenhagen is indirect and related to finance.

There is no reference to Copenhagen when the Statement informs their position on MRVs, and the communiqué does not convey transparently what they have really concluded about  the need to develop an MRV methodology to meet the Accord’s transparency requirements. This was an issue arduously negotiated between President Obama and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in a historical meeting of the BASIC countries at the last hours of the Copenhagen Summit. Obama and Wen Jiabao discussed for a couple of hours the MRV issue and reached an agreement with the active intermediation of India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Brazilian President Lula da Silva. It is a good sign that the Chinese government is trying to honor what they have agreed. The relevant line of the Accord in this regard reads

“Non-Annex I Parties will communicate information on the implementation of their actions through National Communications, with provisions for international consultations and analysis under clearly defined guidelines that will ensure that national sovereignty is respected.”


A side issue with some disruptive consequences for the geopolitics of climate change talks was whether they should move towards a BASIC+ arrangement. That is, whether other countries should be admitted as voting parties to the group. Indonesia, for instance, seems to aspire becoming a full member. The ministers have shown strong concern that such an idea could raise great difficulties with G-77 countries. South Africa’s minister, Buyelwa Sonjica, was particularly concerned that any expansion of the group could raise dissatisfaction among other parties. Since Copenhagen, the South African government has been under considerable pressure from African Union countries because of its participation in the BASIC. The living example was of the G-8 being superseded in many relevant issues by the G8+5 and, ultimately, by the G-20.

Although the BASIC countries are also a part of the G-77 all of them have it clear that their interests are becoming increasingly differentiated from the interests of the majority of other member states. They decided to maintain the BASIC original formation and to have observers and discussants at all their meetings, without decision-making power. This time, one of the invited observers was Venezuela. Yemen, now holding the G-77 chair, was also present and will be invited to all forthcoming meetings. The ministers have also agreed to always have observers from the small-island States, AOSIS, and from the African Union. Other developing countries would be invited when they could contribute to the debate of central issues in the agenda. In Beijing, for instance, one of these issues will be the impact of climate change negotiations on the international market. Argentina has been leading discussions on this issue within the G-77 and will be invited to Beijing.

Eppur si muove

There has been small, but significant, progress in the meeting of  the BASIC countries in Rio. Far more than the official Joint Statement has conveyed. Progress and consensus are stronger at the expert level. At the political level there still are important differences on the degree of conviction of each country regarding these new views. India and South Africa seemed far more convinced of the need for a change in attitude and negotiation strategy. China seems to be moving forward more cautiously. Brazil is far more reluctant to accept any change.

Jairam Ramesh, India’s Environment Minister, made a compelling defense of the benefits of giving more transparency to these shared views. He would like them to show in the communiqué. But Brazilian officials preferred a noncommittal phrasing of the joint statement.

Ramesh has also manifested his government’s willingness to lead the BASIC group into an effort to bridge the gap between them and the United States. He has also called the BASIC countries to reach out to develop countries like France and Germany that hold similar views to their own about global climate change.

It is unlikely that these changing views will be mature enough and find sufficient common ground among the BASIC countries to lead to a different attitude at COP16, in Cancun. But some of the sentiments they’ve revealed are likely to emerge more publicly in Mexico. It is likely, for instance, that they will have more technical proposals to table. It is also likely, but less probable, that their insistence upon a second phase of commitment of the Kyoto Protocol will recede to some visible degree, helping faster progress on the AGW-LCA towards a more inclusive global agreement some time in the near future. The signs of a paradigm shift on the BASIC countries’ climate change politics are becoming clearer.

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