South Africa has formally demanded that the new global agreement on climate change be in the form of a protocol with targets, commitments and actions for all parties. The move breaks the united stand the BASIC group of countries — Brazil, India, China and South Africa — had taken to keep the options open on the legal form of the new agreement, to be signed by 2015 and made operational from 2020.

At the Durban conference of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2010, with India especially insisting, it was decided that the legal form of the new agreement would not be decided until the content of the new deal is well known. To keep with this, the options on the table were left open with the countries deciding that the new agreement would be in the form of ‘a protocol, another legal instrument or an agreed outcome with a legal force’.

There were concerns that deciding the legal form of the agreement before the contents of the new deal are in place could also prejudge the nature of commitments that countries are forced to take upon under the new regime.

A source in the Indian climate change negotiating team said that while South Africa had differing views within BASIC meetings, they had on most occasions deferred to the common stand. The unity of the BASIC group was first tested when South Africa played host to the climate change talks in 2010, he said.

Another negotiator from the Indian camp explained, “The differences within the BASIC group or any set of developing and emerging economies towards the new agreement are linked to where their emission levels stand at the moment. Those countries that are nearing average emission levels of Europe or other developed countries are expected to take a differing view than those still at very low per capita emission levels. These differences are expected to surface as we get closer to 2015.”

But he also cautioned against reading too much into the differences. “The BASIC group still provides a great anchor for developing world voice. Then there is the Like Minded Group of Countries that have emerged as a key voice over the past two years at the talks.”

The Like Minded Group of Countries has China and India in it besides several other countries from the developing world that voice strong concerns on issues of equity.

The South African submission to the U.N., asking for a legally binding protocol which would also subsume the Kyoto Protocol in the post-2020 regime, does mention that the nature of commitments from different countries should be based on equity and the principle of common but different responsibilities as well as respective capabilities.

“Their proposal is a mix of what the BASIC has asked for as well as what the EU is advocating, in that it has strayed from the joint position the four countries had taken till date,” an Indian negotiator involved with the talks till last year told The Hindu.

There have been disagreements within BASIC in the past too but they have been of relatively minor nature. That the negotiators say is bound to be the case as all countries work to their national strategies at the end. But the South African submission, coming weeks before the BASIC meet in Beijing has set in motion a recalculation of how the negotiations could play out when the formal U.N. negotiations begin on November 11 in Warsaw.