Climate Diplomacy and South Asia: Is there Room for Cooperation?


The international climate change negotiations have been marked by fragmentation since the beginning, even before the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. The fragmentation in the negotiations has been attributed to varying interests, concerns, vulnerabilities, resources and other factors among the negotiating parties. It has led to formation of various groupings and blocs within the UNFCCC that negotiate based on issues of common concern. These formations, which emerged at different points of time during the course of the negotiations, are characterised by geographical proximity (regional) and common/shared interests (such as development) among others. It is also important to note that these formations are not ‘exclusive’ and are mostly overlapping, with the members of one grouping or bloc also being represented in others. The fragmentation need not necessarily be seen as either positive or negative, as differing interpretations and perspectives have brought out possibilities of both conflict and cooperation among nation states in the realm of climate change.

South Asia is considered one of the most climate-vulnerable and politically fragmented regions in the world. On the one hand, due to the similarities in geographical features and socio-economic contexts (to a lesser extent), the vulnerabilities (due to climate change impacts such as extreme weather events, sea level rise, glacial recession, health hazards, food insecurity, water stress and so on) are comparable. And on the other, due to varying interpretations of these vulnerabilities and (geo)political/(geo)economic imperatives, they tend to adopt different positions at the climate change negotiations. India, the biggest (in size and economy) country in the region, has played a major role in the negotiations since the beginning, but more so since the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. Bangladesh and the Maldives, two of the most vociferous voices at the negotiations, by framing climate change as an ‘existential threat’ to their survival, have played a pivotal role in driving the negotiations forward. Other countries, namely Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan have also been leading voices for climate action at the UNFCCC, but to a lesser extent. South Asia, as a region, cannot be treated as a monolith and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to framing or responding to climate change among its countries.

The division among the South Asian countries in terms of their positions at the UNFCCC, is also somewhat reflected in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), wherein despite the push for regional action plans on climate change targeted at specific sectors or issues, there has been little progress towards achieving climate goals or even reaching a consensus/common position on climate change, unlike other regional groupings such as the African Union (AU). At the same time, all the South Asian countries are also members of the G-77 group of developing countries, a negotiating bloc that is deeply fissured but strongly advocates for equity and climate justice in unison (mainly through the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities or CBDR-RC). In addition, India is a part of major formal and informal groupings such as the BASIC (along with Brazil, South Africa and China), and Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate among others that makes it distinct from the other South Asian countries in terms of its growing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (world’s third largest emitter) and growth-first agenda. Bangladesh, the Maldives, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan are members of the ‘Vulnerable Twenty’ (V20), constituted by the world’s 20 most affected states by the catastrophic effects of climate change. In fact, the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) was founded by the Maldivian Government before the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, in order to enhance the level of awareness about the disproportionate effects of climate change on countries that are considered most vulnerable at the international level, despite contributing least to the global GHG emissions.

In this context, this article attempts to analyse the positions of the South Asian countries, which helps provide insights into the existence of various negotiating blocs that consist of the South Asian countries (such as G-77, BASIC and CVF), as well as reflect on the rationale for the differences in their positions. It also attempts to explore opportunities for cooperation among the South Asian nations, using the cases of the International Solar Alliance (launched by India and France in 2015), and the Loss and Damage Mechanism.

Drivers of Negotiating Positions of South Asian Nations

While the South Asian nations have been and continue to be somewhat firmly anchored within the G-77 group of developing countries, they have chosen to forge alliances with “like-minded countries” on different occasions to safeguard their interests. In some cases, their interests converge, while in others they diverge significantly, which is why their negotiating positions are at times poles apart. These divergences were most explicitly displayed at the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, wherein India joined hands with the other leading emerging economies (BASIC) with the primary aim of opposing the industrialised countries’ attempts to impose a deal that dilutes ‘differentiation’ between developed and developing countries on the rest of the world, most other countries of South Asia formed the CVF to voice their demand for more urgent climate action and more importantly, limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Interestingly, while the BASIC was reportedly engineered by India, the Maldives played a pivotal role in the envisioning of the CVF.

South-South Cooperation is at the heart of the G-77, with emphasis on development cooperation that is delinked from North-South Aid, which all South Asian nations identify with in principle. Under North-South Aid, the ‘rich’ or industrialised countries began to provide financial and other forms of assistance/aid to the developing countries, their erstwhile colonies or war-torn economies in the 19th century. The foundation for South-South Cooperation was laid during the 1955 Bandung Conference (wherein most South Asian nations were present) that aimed to pursue an “international partnership for development” based on “respect for national sovereignty, equality and mutual benefit.”1 In the climate change negotiations, the G-77 has consistently demanded greater level of climate action from the developed countries, based on the historical responsibility of the latter in contributing the largest share of GHG emissions in the atmosphere as well as their historically ‘unjust’ act of accumulating ‘relative’ or ‘differentiated’ capacities to undertake climate action through colonialism, imperialism and similar other means.

The South Asian nations have used the platform of G-77 to project a united stance on issues such as CBDR, equity, adaptation as well as financial and technological support. Since poverty alleviation/reduction and economic development/growth are their primary priorities, they have reiterated repeatedly that their climate commitments would be hinged on the principle of equity (equitable allocation of the limited GHG emissions space to meet their developmental needs), and that they would be contingent on support from the industrialised countries. In addition, since their per capita emissions continue to be low, it is morally justifiable to set differentiated goals that do not deprive the developing countries of their right to develop.2 Therefore, some countries of G-77 have also advocated an agreement based on equitable per capita cumulative emission rights, “national emission quotas based on population” etc., especially in the case of an abatement regime that deals with the distribution of costs – of both reduction of GHG build-up in the atmosphere and the impacts of climate change3 – on account of their differentiated/disproportionate responsibility, vulnerability and capacity.

On the issue of adaptation, in general, the South Asian countries, as part of the G-77, have been critical of the industrialised countries’ unwillingness and slowness in funding adaptation efforts in their countries, and concentrating largely on mitigation-related projects/initiatives that are considered more profitable, especially for the private sector. As far as climate finance is concerned, the group has traditionally preferred public sources over private sources and has called for a shift from donor-dominated “assistance formula” to “rights-based resource transfers”, also underscoring the need for “new and additional funds” instead of dislodging the existing development assistance.4 The developing countries have therefore, been always in favour of the UN agencies being in control of the financial mechanisms rather than the Bretton Woods institutions, which already have a major influence on their economic policies due to the development assistance provided by them and which may not strike a balance between socio-economic advancement and environmental gains.

Despite the existence of various common interests and positions at the climate change negotiations, the G-77 is known to be an increasingly fragmented group, split into various groups such as BASIC, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), CVF, Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and among others, rendering the sub-groups more influential in agenda-setting and decision-making. Some of the G-77 countries are also members of groupings and coalitions that consist of developed countries. For instance, the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action includes industrialised countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, France and Australia as well as developing countries such as Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Nepal. This informal group was formed after the 2009 Copenhagen Summit with the aim of working towards an ambitious legally binding Post-Kyoto agreement.

The formation of the Cartagena Dialogue, when seen in the light of the failure of the Copenhagen Summit to reach an agreement of consequence, provides insight into the way in which the BASIC emerged as the most instrumental and decisive group, side-lining the developed countries as well as the G-77 to a great extent (since the Copenhagen Accord was accepted only by a select group of 26 countries).5 This was primarily driven by the ‘solidarity’ shown by the BASIC countries to thwart attempts by a few developed countries to push forth the leaked Danish text, which allegedly sought to undermine the role of the UN in climate change finance, scrap the Kyoto Protocol, and force the developing countries also to adopt binding emissions cuts.6 The decision of the BASIC countries to break ranks with G-77 to safeguard its economic interests and the continued framing of climate change as an existential issue by the most vulnerable countries within the G-77 pulled them apart.

One of the significant moments in the history of climate change negotiations was the 2007 Bali Summit, wherein for the first time, the developing countries were also called upon to undertake “nationally appropriate mitigation actions” (NAMAs). In addition, on the decision of “long-term cooperative action”7, the strict differentiation between developed and developing countries, as in the Kyoto Protocol, was also watered down. The international climate regime had moved towards an architecture that did not view the developing countries as a single, homogenous group. Hence, developing countries that are economically better off (including India) would be expected to commit to emissions reduction in a more proactive manner; and by linking all forms of support to mitigation efforts, it was made sure that the post-Kyoto regime would put emphasis on making the former contingent on the latter.

What should also be taken into consideration is the financial crisis that hit the industrialised world in 2007 that spared the emerging economies such as India to a large extent, thereby elevating the latter’s geopolitical weight in the international system considerably. In addition, the framing of climate change as a security threat or a “threat multiplier” began to gain momentum, with the introduction of the issue in the UN Security Council (UNSC) in the same year, under the United Kingdom’s presidency.8 This move has been endorsed by CVF countries, but India has largely been opposed to the idea of introducing the security implications of climate change in the UNSC on the grounds that “a security approach to a critical challenge facing humanity may in fact hinder the global collective effort” and that the UNSC is “structurally unrepresentative institution with an exclusionary approach”, as pointed out by India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Syed Akbaruddin.9

The growing proportion of developing countries’ GHG emissions in the run up to the Copenhagen Summit is considered to have influenced the discourse on the responsibility of the emerging economies towards finding solutions. China overtook the US as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide in 2007.10 India became the third largest emitter of GHGs in 2009, surpassing Russia, whose emissions reduced due to economic recession.11 In addition, the BASIC countries’ contribution to global Gross Domestic product (GDP) and collective share in global trade grew significantly in the 2000s, partially also due to the economic downturn in the developed economies. They have been among the fastest growing economies in the world, particularly China and India12, leading to the assumption/understanding that with growing emissions and economies, they have a bigger responsibility towards international climate action than before (they did not have any commitments under the Kyoto Protocol). Even the developing countries from the CVF had started to demand more climate action from them.

At the Copenhagen Summit and thereafter, the AOSIS and CVF supported an ambitious, legally binding agreement that would limit the temperature rise to below 1.5 degrees Celsius and would require both the developed and developing countries to act in terms of climate change mitigation with the precondition that the latter group would receive support from the former.13 However, the BASIC countries were in favour of a bottom-up approach that is not necessarily legally binding and ensures less intrusiveness NAMAs), thereby also insisting on a loose MRV (Measuring, Reporting and Verification) framework. The BASIC countries, primarily India and China advocated a MRV framework under which, all mitigation actions undertaken by non-Annex I parties (COP) would be subject to domestic MRV, while the ones with international support would be subject to international MRV, as stated in the Copenhagen Accord.14 In the meantime, there has been a mushrooming of bilateral engagements and agreements on climate change, particularly in energy cooperation, between the developed and emerging countries, which is considered to be undermining the G-77 further.15 At the same time, the developed world is also known to be engaged in attempts to split the G-77 by pressurising the poor countries based on their “donor-based relationships”, as alleged by Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko, the leader of G-77 for the Paris Agreement.16

Exploring Opportunities for Cooperation among the South Asian Countries

Ideas and norms coupled with power politics and geopolitical alignments have led to a situation in which India and the other South Asian countries have found themselves on the opposite sides of the climate change debate on many occasions. While on climate finance, there is still a general agreement on the way forward, on climate action, India’s neighbours demand swift action. Contrary to the development perspective that India usually clings to at the climate change negotiations, countries such as the Maldives, even while upholding the socio-economic development agenda, projects a human rights approach to climate change17, based on the question of their survival.  Unlike the AU’s officially stated “African Common Position on Climate Change”18, or a the ASEAN’s (Association of South East Asian Nations) constant attempts to engage in common positions on issues related to climate change19, the South Asian equivalent of SAARC has barely scratched the surface as far as developing a common position on climate change is concerned. The geopolitical factors in South Asia have impeded any meaningful cooperation in the region, despite the existence of a SAARC Action Plan on Climate Change (adopted in 2008).20 At the 2010 Cancun Summit, former Indian Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh made efforts to bring together the SAARC environment ministers, but such moves have been few and far between, having virtually no impact on the overall negotiations strategy as a regional bloc.21

However, despite the fact that in the run up to the Paris Agreement, the SAARC countries continued to negotiate through different groupings, there were various shifts in their positions that led to more convergences and coordination. In a regime that is ‘applicable to all’, which India was opposed to for a long time, all countries, including India, had to make compromises on various aspects of the agreement. India had already committed to decreasing emissions intensity at the Copenhagen Summit by 20-25 percent from 2005 levels by 2020; and under the new regime, India has assumed greater responsibilities by not only coming up with a target of cutting emissions intensity by 33-35 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 in its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC)22, which is a 75 percent “jump in ambition over 2020”23 but also launching the International Solar Alliance (with France) at the Paris Summit in 2015, the first treaty-based organisation to be headquartered in India.24 Evidently, the mood was more positive than before in South Asia, as also expressed by former President of The Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, “In 2009, when Maldives was rooting for urgent action on climate change, India was on opposing side. Its position has changed over the years. Now, India is our most constructive partner. It is working to combat climate change and cares about safeguarding the plant and its neighbours in South Asia.”25

The opportunities for cooperation in practical terms are now redefined. The International Solar Alliance (ISA), launched in 2015 by India and France, for instance, is regarded as a diplomatic victory for India that provides impetus to its desire to be a leader in issues of global governance, thereby further transforming its image as a responsible global power that champions the rules-based global order.26 This organization, that brings together sun-rich countries that lie fully or partially between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn under one roof, with its focus on climate justice, is geared towards both climate change mitigation and access to affordable energy. While India has set a target of achieving 100 GW of solar power by 2022, it also plans to invest in solar projects in other countries, including South Asian ones. At the inaugural summit of the ISA in 2018, it was declared that out of the 27 projects being supported by India, two each would be in Bangladesh ($180 million) and Sri Lanka ($100 million).27 The South Asian countries are sun-rich and energy-poor at the same time. The renewable energy sectors in these countries face several policy, technical, economic and other challenges, including the lack of investment due to high initial costs and delayed profits/benefits, paucity of technical and technological capacities and information etc.28 These obstacles could be overcome through cooperation at the ISA, translating into greater understanding at the UNFCCC as well, especially in developing the idea of climate justice.

The Paris Agreement came into force in 2016. However, there are several questions regarding the implementation of the treaty and ratcheting up of ambition that still need to be addressed in greater detail. One such mechanism is the Loss and Damage, which was established at the 2013 Warsaw Summit, at the initiative of world’s most vulnerable countries (including CVF). The vulnerable developing and least developed countries worked towards institutionalising such a mechanism within the UNFCCC as a third pillar (the other two being mitigation and adaptation) for a decade, on the grounds that it is different from adaptation and that they are entitled to compensation (mainly from the developed countries) due to damage(s) caused by climate change.29 The South Asian nations, having suffered losses due to several extreme weather events in recent times, stand united on this issue. By showing moral leadership on this issue, countries such as Bangladesh, the Maldives, India and Sri Lanka, succeeded in setting up such a mechanism despite stiff and persistent opposition from the rich countries. However, there is a need to push for more action on issues such as ‘resilience’ and capacity-building through financial and technological means as an integral part of the post-2020 international climate policy to avoid a form of climate injustice.


The South Asian countries, with their distinct historical experiences (including the colonial past), have been marred by regional rivalries, conflicts, political differences and so on. However, on the issue of climate change – at the UNFCCC – even India and Pakistan have usually shared similar positions on account of their socio-economic imperatives, primarily their right to develop. As the negotiations progressed, these countries forged alliances with different parties at different points of time to get what they wanted in the agreement. Through G-77, they pushed for differentiation between the developed and developing countries, equity and climate justice through principles such as CBDR-RC, in light of different national circumstances. At the same time, the region has had a fragmented response when it came to the legally binding nature of the agreement, the level of ambition and the role of the emerging economies in the new regime, which led to the division between the South Asian countries, as manifested through the BASIC and CVF.

In recent times, with India in the process of throwing weight behind its goal of being on the global high table of climate governance through various initiatives, such as the ISA, other South Asian countries expect constructive partnership with it, which is geared towards more urgent action on climate change. At the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, the BASIC and the CVF were on opposite sides, but since then, the gap has been bridged to some extent, particularly with more positive signals from the Indian side, reflecting its willingness and readiness to take on greater responsibility. Thus, the scope for cooperation among them has increased. Energy, being a common requirement in the region – with the growing population and developmental needs – is a sector in which cooperation has already been kick-started through international organisations such as the solar alliance, which could help build energy self-sufficiency and self-reliance in them. Nevertheless, whether this cooperation could facilitate common understanding and position on various issues concerning climate change at the UNFCCC is debatable. This is not only due to the inherent political differences that pervade the region, but also because of the differentiation among the developing countries themselves. However, what could be deduced is the fact that by developing a common position, the South Asian nations can have greater bargaining powers than by staying alone. India has been isolated in the negotiations a number of times, especially before the Paris Summit when even the BASIC group began to wither. By forming a strong bloc with the other South Asian countries, India could strengthen its own footing. Similarly, countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives can leverage the status and power of a country like India to achieve its goals at the UNFCCC, whether it is in the case of mechanisms like loss and damage, or in terms of securing greater technological and financial support for adaptation and mitigation from the developed world.

(Dr. Dhanasree Jayaram is Assistant Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations,
and Co-Coordinator, Centre for Climate Studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India; Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Lausanne, Switzerland; and Research Fellow, Earth System Governance Project. She can be reached at  Twitter: @dhanasreej )


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7     For more information on the Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-term Cooperative Action under the Convention (AWG-LCA), see

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17  Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. 2008. “Human Rights and Climate Change.” September 25.

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20  South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. 2008. “SAARC Environment Ministers Dhaka Declaration on Climate Change.” July 3.

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27  Sridhar Kumaraswamy. 2018. “India, France Launch Solar Alliance, Promise Funds.” The Asian Age. March 12.

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29  Elisa Calliari, Swenja Surminski and Jaroslav Mysiak. 2018. “The Politics of (and Behind) the UNFCCC’s Loss and Damage Mechanism.” In Loss and Damage from Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options, by Reinhard Mechler, Laurens M. Bouwer, Thomas Schinko, Swenja Surminski and JoAnne Linnerooth-Bayer. London: Springer.

(This article is carried in the print edition of July-August 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)


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