Responsibilities in transition: emerging powers in the climate change negotiations.

Author:Hochstetler, Kathryn

The BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) play an increasingly prominent role in global climate negotiations. Climate governance spotlights burden-sharing arrangements, asking countries to take on potentially costly actions to resolve a global problem, even as the benefits are generally indivisible public goods. This article examines the BASIC countries' own Joint Statements and their individual and collective submissions to multilateral climate negotiations to identify the rationalist and principled arguments they have made about the climate burden-sharing requirements that developed countries, developing countries, and they themselves should face in global climate governance. It argues that their expectations for their own role are particularly unclear, with greater national action than international commitments to do so. Keywords: climate change, emerging powers, power transition, burden sharing.


In the twenty-first century, there is little doubt that the emerging powers are transforming the institutions and habits of global governance. They are seeking and gaining new influence on global rule making in areas from trade to finance to poverty reduction. In contrast, they spent much of the 2000s trying to avoid notice in global climate change negotiations, even as other countries were looking to them to play a larger role. At the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, however, the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) began to coordinate their positions and made their first promises to reduce at least the pace of the rise of their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Their ministers have met quarterly since then to discuss their climate positions, even as the grouping has kept a low collective profile in the formal negotiations. We argue that examining the BASIC countries' evolving positions after 2009 regarding their responsibilities and capacities in the climate regime provides important insights into the role of emerging powers in global governance, especially in burden-sharing regimes such as climate change.

The fact that climate governance spotlights burden-sharing arrangements is a key structural feature that provides a window into how the emerging powers will engage in the future provision of global public goods. Most studies of the emerging powers have focused on economic arenas where burden sharing is balanced by significant power sharing. (1) Power sharing usually results in tangible economic benefits for the participant, including influence in rule setting that may open new economic opportunities. In contrast, climate change negotiations often focus on the zero-sum task of distributing obligations to reduce emissions while benefits are generally indivisible collective goods. Thus, countries are asked to take on substantial upfront costs in exchange for much more diffuse benefits.

Climate change is also one of the first burden-sharing arenas that involves explicit demands by the North for a subset of actors in the South to share the costs of providing a global public good. Yet studies of climate politics are only beginning to direct attention to the emerging powers in these negotiations. (2) In this article, we review the positions of the BASIC countries on governance issues requiring costly contributions to the provision of a global public good, climate stability. Rational interest calculations stress the incentives for national shirking in the global commons of the atmosphere. (3) Yet the challenges go beyond that. A number of different burden-sharing arrangements could meet the material requirements of reducing GHG emissions sufficiently to reduce the rate of global warming. Behind rationalist debates on free riding and burden sharing thus lies another set of debates about how any burdens should be equitably distributed: what kinds of actors have what kinds of burdens and obligations to provide this global public good? What, if any, obligations do emerging powers have?

After exploring the features and implications of a burden-sharing problem context, we trace the climate positions of the BASIC members between 2009 and 2013 regarding the equitable division of responsibility for climate action. We consider how two distinct drivers appear to account both for their collective BASIC stances and for times when their national negotiation positions diverge: (1) rational-material considerations; and (2) identity-based expectations for different actors in global politics. These two drivers ground BASIC's contributions to debates about whether they are "developed enough" to take on international commitments that they rejected a few years ago as growth limiting. This ongoing redefinition of the role and responsibilities of emerging powers in the climate regime shapes notions of fairness and equity, merging questions of capability to act (power) and responsibility to act.

We observe that cooperation and coordination among BASIC members peaked shortly after the group's formation in 2009 and has been in decline since 2012. Having formed a new actor that has become the target of demands and expectations by other negotiation parties--both developed and developing countries--the BASIC members have been working hard to emphasize their character as developing countries rather than emerging powers. This dynamic indicates that, as a group, the BASIC countries are not yet prepared to take on the role of global public goods providers in the climate regime, although their economic power might enable them to do so. We also observe significant differences in the attitudes of individual BASIC members toward the idea of adopting a greater share of the global burden of climate action as well as changes in these attitudes over a relatively short period of time.

We argue that the observable changes in negotiation positions have important implications not only for the global climate regime, but also for the future of global governance more generally. The international system is currently in a period of structural change, driven not only by a shift of material power from North to South but also by the new expectations for some emerging powers. Focusing on the role of emerging powers in the climate context, we discern movement away from a dichotomous global system with a basic distinction between North and South toward a system with at least three categories of states: the developed North, the developing South, and the emerging powers somewhere in between. Eroding power in the North and the potential for shirking responsibility among both declining and emerging powers in a time of increasingly challenging global problems raises an important question: who will pick up the tab for global governance in the future?

Burden Sharing in Global Climate Governance

The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) details the principles that should guide global climate governance. Principle 3.1 sets out a dual expectation of an effective and equitable resolution: "The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof." (4) Climate change is thus associated with burden-sharing arrangements in two related ways.

On the one hand, climate change is to be effectively addressed. Mitigating global warming is commonly considered to be a global public good that cannot be achieved by any single country and cannot be denied to countries once achieved. Rational choice theorists argue that this creates a typical set of challenges for effective climate governance and requires a formal and monitored division of labor among states, which is tailored to prevent shirking. On the other hand, political theorists have extensively discussed norms and principles of burden sharing, many of which seek a just rather than simply effective governance resolution. In this section, we present the academic literature on the two approaches to burden-sharing arrangements, along with citing some of the real-world negotiation blocs that have embodied them.

Conceiving of global climate politics as a collective action problem places the question of burden sharing in a "consequentialist" logic where foreign policy and political order are seen "as arising from negotiations among rational actors pursuing personal preferences or interests in circumstances in which there may be gains to coordinated action." (5) Rationality analyses point to a particularly difficult constellation of interests invoked by the burden-sharing features of climate change. (6) Classifying climate change as an aggregate efforts problem (i.e., the more countries participate, the more of the public good can be supplied), Scott Barrett argues that "global climate change ... is almost certainly the hardest [problem] for the world to address." (7) What makes aggregate efforts problems exceptionally difficult is the free-rider problem, a rational tendency to avoid obligations in burden-sharing agreements in the hope that others will take them on. (8) In this view, institutionalized regimes that create credible commitments for others to act encourage international cooperation. (9)

The rationalist approach to burden sharing, with its emphasis on calculating costs and benefits and distributing burdens with enough precision and oversight that free riding can be monitored, is not matched exactly by any part of the global climate regime. The closest match is in the European Union (EU), which steadily defends such an approach in international climate negotiations and has put it into practice at home. After the EU agreed to reduce the bloc's emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, the Europeans then negotiated the 1997 Burden Sharing Agreement among themselves to...

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