July 08, 2010

Cancun Week: BASIC Meetings

The Copenhagen Conference, which took place last December, was billed as the conference where participant countries would nail down a legally binding agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.  Yet the Conference is now broadly viewed as a failure because of the participants’ inability to settle on a binding agreement to curb carbon emissions.  That failure was broadly seen as the result of entrenched views between the United States and China; China brought its rapidly growing economic power to bear in representing the point-of-view of the developing world.   

The BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), led by China itself, argued that historically, the developed world is the major source of global carbon emissions that contribute to climate change; thus, they should be primarily responsible for promising to cut emissions.  Furthermore, they argue that it is developing nations, in particular low-lying islands and the driest countries, that will suffer the greatest from the impacts of climate change, and that developed countries should therefore contribute to adaptation and mitigation efforts.  Developed countries, led by the United States, believe differently: they point out that the BASIC countries are quickly catching up to the developed world in terms of carbon emissions; in fact, China’s total emissions passed ours in 2008 to become the greatest contributor of carbon emissions in the world.  What is more, its total yearly CO2 emissions grew by another 9 percent in 2009.  In total, developing countries accounted for nearly half of the world’s carbon emissions in 2009.  Therefore, according to them, developing countries like China should contribute equally to emissions cuts and mitigation efforts.

This issue of accountability is shaping up to be a major impediment to finding an agreement to binding reductions targets in Cancun in December.  The BASIC countries, along with the G-77 bloc of developing countries, again led by China, emerged as the most influential players in the global climate change negotiation structure in Copenhagen, where their positions and interests coalesced nicely.  The BASIC meetings that are taking place between the Copenhagen and Cancun Conferences (the fourth will happen in Brazil in July) provide these countries the opportunity to firm up their position for the upcoming conference.  These meetings, therefore, could determine whether or not the world reaches a binding agreement in December – or at the very least an agreement on where they can make concessions.

The BASIC ministers have released several statements that hint at how their negotiators will behave in Cancun.  Perhaps the most important is that their statements continually underscore the importance of the UNFCCC negotiating process.  So while many predicted the demise of the UNFCCC after the Copenhagen Conference, the BASIC countries’ commitment to and validation of the UNFCCC process could well ensure that it will remain the central attempt at global cooperation on climate change.

Another bright spot comes from the BASIC nations’ commitment to making progress in a number of specific areas included in the Copenhagen Accord, including ‘fast-start’ finance, technology transfer and monitoring, reporting and verification.  According to their statements, they also welcome the progress that has already been made on a proposal to finance and implement the REDD+ mechanism (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), and committed to undertake close coordination of the program.  These statements indicate that the Cancun talks may lead to significant progress on a number of more immediate, policy specific areas such as deforestation.

The ministers have also reiterated their position that “equity will be a key issue for any agreement,” arguing that cuts in carbon emissions must be structured to avoid “jeopardizing economic growth and poverty alleviation.”  This can probably be understood as a kind of code for “the United States has to agree to cuts too,” which may be an issue considering Congress’ fleeting attempts to pass legislation in the United States, something I addressed in my last post. BASIC nations also called for the early flow of the 10 billion dollars that was pledged under the Copenhagen Accord for adaptation and mitigation efforts in the least developed countries, small-island developing states and countries in Africa, emphasizing their commitment to urgent action to address the impacts of climate change in the most affected areas of the world.  Finally, they reiterated the BASIC position that negotiations must continue under the two-track process that emerged from the Bali Roadmap in 2007.  Again, this can be interpreted as code for rebuffing efforts by the United States and other developing countries to formally incorporate the Copenhagen Accord into the UNFCCC negotiation process: whereas the United States would like to create a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which it has not ratified, developing countries would prefer to continue negotiating an extension of the Kyoto Protocol . The statements also indicate that BASIC is largely adhering to the same position that they took in Copenhagen, which raises the question: if the United States and BASIC both remain firm on their incompatible positions, how will the world reach an agreement?