During the Climate Change Conference in 2009, the Obama-BASIC meeting was a watershed, saving Copenhagen from a complete collapse and also marking the emergence of the BASIC quartet as a major force in international climate policy diplomacy

Hillary Clinton’s recent memoirs reveal how during the fortnight-long Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, on December 18, 2009, United States President Barack Obama and she barged into a room in which President Lula of Brazil, President Zuma of South Africa, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China and Dr. Manmohan Singh were meeting along with their respective delegations and started tough negotiations.

The much-touted Copenhagen Conference was heading nowhere. Presidents and Prime Ministers from across the world had been unable to agree to a global agreement to combat climate change. Finally, it was the Chinese Premier who convened a meeting of the BASIC group comprising Brazil, South Africa, India and China. The quartet’s ministers had been working closely together both in the run-up to and at Copenhagen itself.

Holding up an outcome

The two Presidents and two Prime Ministers started their confabulations at around 6p.m. All four had immediately agreed that the BASIC group should not be seen to have been responsible for the failure at Copenhagen. Just about 15 minutes into the meeting, President Obama, accompanied by Secretary Clinton and a large retinue of officials, walked into the room unannounced saying that he was actually looking for Premier Wen and then adding that he was lucky not only to have found him but also find him in the company of his BASIC colleagues. He then got down to business right away and said that according to his impressions, there were three contentious issues holding up a successful outcome at Copenhagen: (i) a global goal for reduction of emissions by 2050; (ii) measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) of each country’s actions; and (iii) the need for a legally-binding global treaty.

After he had spoken, Premier Wen, after welcoming President Obama, turned to Dr. Singh. Dr. Singh, who had been greeted effusively by President Obama earlier, spoke of the complexities in the three issues raised and underscored the determination of the BASIC quartet to contribute constructively to a solution that is effective and equitable. He then asked me to elaborate.

I then proceeded to explain why the acceptance of a global goal could foreclose development options for developing countries and that for the present the global goal should rest with the formulation agreed to in the Declaration of the Leaders at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate (MEF) held in L’Aquila, Italy on July 9, 2009 which said thus: “We recognize the scientific view that the increase in global average temperature above pre-industrial levels ought not to exceed 2 degrees Celsius.” Ambassador Shyam Saran also spoke up explaining in some detail why a quantitative target would not be in the interests of developing countries.

Transparency and language

President Obama readily conceded our point. But he went on to then say that for the U.S., the issue of international transparency of domestic commitments was paramount and he wouldn’t leave Copenhagen without arriving at a settlement on it. The transparency issue then became the topic of heated discussion. Before the heads-of-state meeting, Mike Froman of the U.S., He Yafei of China and I had been meeting to hammer out acceptable language. I tried some formulations that were not acceptable to China and some others that were unacceptable to the U.S. We went in for the summit meeting without having reached any agreement. He Yafei and I had, however, agreed that India and China would not accept any formulation that did not contain the following — “… while ensuring that national sovereignty is respected.”

I briefed the meeting about the differences that still existed. President Obama then asked the sherpas to move to the corner of the room, discuss the matter further and come back. In this impromptu conclave, I suggested “international discussion” which was vetoed by the U.S. I then tried “international consultations” which was also vetoed by the Americans who said that there must be a reference to “assessment.” I suggested “analysis” as an alternative and my Brazilian counterpart qualified it as “technical analysis.

After some 10 minutes of haggling, we moved a few steps to report back to the bosses. I told President Obama that the best we could offer is “international consultations and technical analysis which would respect national sovereignty.” I said that “scrutiny/review/assessment” is simply unacceptable to the BASIC group.

President Obama’s immediate reaction was negative. He said that “international consultations” seems like a pointless talk shop. I then told him that there is precedent for “international consultations” in the relations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) with member-countries. President Obama immediately saw the point and instantaneously said that if there is such a precedent he would buy this formulation. That settled “international consultations.” President Obama then said that “technical analysis” was unacceptable. It should be “technical review/scrutiny/assessment.” I then said that President Obama’s choice of words would be politically unacceptable but we could live with “technical analysis” since that is what the IMF and the WTO do in any case.

Then, President Obama objected to the word “technical” in “technical analysis” saying that it circumscribes the scope of the analysis. I consulted with Dr. Singh and Premier Wen and said that we should clinch the deal by dropping our insistence on the word “technical.” Both President Lula and President Zuma concurred. Dr. Singh and Premier Wen asked me to announce it.

I then said to President Obama, “Sir, we will agree to ‘international consultations and analysis’ but you must agree to the reference to ‘respect for national sovereignty’.” Again, to President Obama’s eternal credit, he did not hesitate for a moment and said “done.” That was the breakthrough moment which the entire world had been waiting for.

After the MRV issue was settled largely on account of President Obama overruling his own aides, we moved on to the legally binding global treaty issue. Dr. Singh said that much more work needed to be done before any commitment to such a treaty could be made. President Obama responded by saying that he would go along with what Dr. Singh was saying. He then ended the meeting with a flourish by saying — “Now I have to sell our agreement to my good friends the Europeans.”

Incidentally, there are two other accounts of this historic meeting that Secretary Clinton describes with the focus understandably on President Obama and herself. Strobe Talbott writes in his book Fast Forward: “Manmohan Singh engaged with Obama but let Jairam Ramesh, his energy and environment minister, do most of the arguing. Ramesh did so with relish. He was aggressive, sometimes acerbic, but not strident.” Jeffrey Bader in his Obama and China’s Rise also has more direct and detailed account of the Obama-BASIC Summit meeting and writes: “India’s environment minister Jairam Ramesh argued politely but aggressively with Obama over several points.”

Undoubtedly, the Obama-BASIC meeting was a watershed. It saved Copenhagen from a complete collapse and also marked the emergence of the BASIC quartet as a major force in international climate policy diplomacy. The meeting was also tense. My Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua was absolutely livid at the compromise arrived at on the transparency issue even though it had the support of his own Prime Minister. In an unusual outburst, he started banging the table and launched into an angry tirade which left all of us stunned. Premier Wen quietly told the interpreter not to translate. Minister Xie continued for some time prompting President Obama to ask, “What is he saying?” Prompt came Secretary Clinton’s reply which had the whole meeting exploding with laughter leading to a lowering of the tension, “Mr. President, I think he is congratulating us!!!” Alas, her memoirs do not have a reference to this master quip.

(Jairam Ramesh was India’s Minister for Environment and Forests from June 2009 to July 2011.)

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