from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Explaining the BASIC Coalition

October 04, 2010

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I had the privilege of participating in a workshop last week in Shanghai that included participants from all four BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China). Our conversations took me back to a question that’s been bothering me since the rise of the BASIC coalition last year, and its influential (and in many ways very counterproductive) influence at Copenhagen. With BASIC set to continue its role as a major negotiating coalition, it’s important to make sure we understand what motivates each of its members to negotiate collectively. Here are some thoughts:

China: This, to me, is the easiest one to explain. BASIC’s continuing core positions – insistence on continuing Kyoto, rejection of broad MRV and transparency, opposition to any system that adds nuance to the rich/poor distinction established through the UNFCCC – coincide with the positions that China would have taken by itself. What China gets out of BASIC is three other big countries to back it up.

India: India has no inherent need to resist MRV and transparency. (Neither do Brazil or South Africa.) It might even benefit from a more nuanced rich/poor distinction, depending on how that was established. India became part of BASIC because it was afraid that China would cut a deal with the United States and hurt it in the process. BASIC is its way of keeping an eye on China. The United States could help soften Delhi’s affinity to the group by continuing to reassure India that it isn’t about to screw it.

Brazil: Brazil, like India, has little to gain from most of the BASIC negotiating positions. Indeed any plausible international climate arrangement would probably deliver Brazil a lot of money through schemes to pay for avoided deforestation. But Brazil places a lot of importance on being a defender of Africa. (It’s all about the politics of its long-dreamed-of Security Council seat.) And it sees keeping the sharp rich/poor distinction in the UNFCCC – a key BASIC position – as part of that, arguing that anything else would create a slippery slope to new obligations for the world’s poorest. It’s not clear how to deal with this, except for sweetening the upside, and working through African countries to influence Brazil.

South Africa: Once again, the BASIC positions make little sense for South Africa. But South Africa gets one big thing out of BASIC: a seat at the top-level table. The price is that it has to advocate the Chinese position once it gets there. Alas, international climate politics is often as much about process and representation as about actual substance. The best that the United States can do to soften South Africa’s affinity to BASIC is to reassure it that it will have a seat at the table regardless. How to do this credibly, of course, is anyone’s guess.