A Guide to the BASIC Coalition – climate after Copenhagen

by | Feb 2, 2010

One of the most significant developments at Copenhagen was the emergence of the BASIC coalition – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – which negotiated the final details of the Copenhagen Accord with the United States.

My understanding is that BASIC was formed at China’s instigation. China agreed a Memorandum of Understanding with India in October 2009, committing the two countries to working closely together at Copenhagen. It then invited Brazil and South Africa to join the party, at a meeting in Beijing a week before Copenhagen started. Sudan was also invited to represent the G77.

According to Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment minister, the four countries decided that they’d walk out of Copenhagen together if necessary:

We will not exit in isolation. We will co-ordinate our exit if any of our non-negotiable terms is violated. Our entry and exit will be collective.

During Copenhagen, China worked extremely closely with India, with the two delegations meeting up to six times a day. It also engaged intensively with the other members of BASIC. In the final meeting with the Americans, China agreed to accept a limited international monitoring of its targets (India claims to have pushed China on this point).

The decision was also taken to drop language, setting a deadline for turning the Copenhagen Accord into a legally binding agreement. South Africa and Brazil both appear to have been unhappy with this decision.

Since Copenhagen, the BASIC countries have met once and have agreed to continue to get together on a regular basis. They want the Copenhagen Accord to set the stage for a ‘twin track’ agreement – with tough and binding targets for developed countries through Kyoto #2 and voluntary commitments for themselves under a new agreement.

No-one really knows how the US would fit into this picture. It is also increasingly clear that they and the US left Copenhagen with quite different impressions of what will happen next. The US believes that large emerging economies now have “very explicit activities and obligations”. I don’t think they believe they are committed to anything significant, beyond what they agreed at Bali or put on the table on a voluntary basis before Copenhagen started.

Over the past few days, the BASIC countries have lodged their “mitigation actions” with the UNFCCC, meeting a Jan 31st deadline. Here are the highlights:

China and India have submitted their commitments using exactly the same form of words. They are both prepared to increase decrease their carbon intensity by set amounts – 40-45% for China; 20-25% for India.

These commitments are made reliant on “financial resources and transfer of technology” from the developed countries, in line with the 1992 Convention, though China has elsewhere made it clear that it isn’t expecting to get much money.

China also offers a bit more detail on its plans than India – saying it will “increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15% by 2020 and increase forest coverage by 40 million hectares and forest stock volume by 1.3 billion cubic meters by 2020 from the 2005 levels.”

Brazil goes quite a bit further, setting out a fairly detailed action plan that it says it expects will reduce its emissions by 36.1%-38.9% against business-as-usual by 2020.

This is a more robust target than China or India’s – as it implies a cap for emissions in 2020 (if that is, the Brazilians publish – or have published – what they expect BAU to be). China and India’s expected emissions can only be calculated if one makes assumptions about their economic growth.

South Africa, meanwhile, underlines that it negotiated both as part of a broader group of countries working for a deal, and within the BASIC coalition, disassociating itself ever so slightly from BASIC’s robust line during Copenhagen’s endgame.

Like Brazil, it sets out a 34% deviation below business-as-usual in 2020, and a 42% deviation by 2025. Its figures are based on this study.

It also, with some hedging, commits itself to a peak year for its emissions:

With financial and capacity building support from the international community, this level of effort will enable South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions to peak between 2020 and 2025, plateau for approximately a decade and decline in absolute terms thereafter.

Try asking the Chinese governments when it expects the country’s emissions to peak and you’ll be as welcome in Beijing as Larry Page and Sergey Brin. It’s worth noting, though, that South Africa emits much more than China on a per capita basis and has comparable emissions intensity – facts that it admits puts it “in a difficult position” in climate negotiations.

My conclusions:

  • BASIC is here to stay, but it’s not entirely on the same page as yet. The four countries talked recently about harmonising their commitments on emissions – it’s not clear how that will happen.
  • If I had to guess, I’d say that China will be able to keep the alliance together – and probably will also keep the G77 on side. (The latter is probably bad for poor countries, with high climate vulnerability and low emissions.)
  • BASIC, the US, and the EU are also some way apart, despite their willingness to sign up to the Copenhagen Accord. BASIC thinks the Bali negotiations are ongoing. The US thinks negotiations have been put onto a new footing. The Europeans are hoping for the best.
  • It’s going to be another rocky year for the international climate regime, especially with few governments expecting cap and trade to pass the US Senate.


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

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