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Time is right for a South Atlantic climate alliance

With their leading roles regionally and in the G20 and COP30, a Brazil-South Africa partnership could prompt useful south-south ties.

Africa’s climate dialogue has shifted. While initially dominated by extreme weather events, there is now a growing conversation on the transition to a low-carbon economy and its implications.

The case made at the 2023 United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP28) and several other forums is that Africa’s global emission status is negligible – less than 4% of emissions. The continent also has high energy needs to provide affordable and accessible energy as per UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 and Africa’s Agenda 2063 development aspirations.

To date, international climate partnerships have been between African and developed countries. They have been dominated by energy transitions away from fossil fuels, particularly the Just Energy Transition Partnerships, such as those of South Africa and Senegal. This has been replicated in Asian countries. Key features of these agreements are loan packages at lower-than-market interest rates to fund renewable energy infrastructure development.

While Just Energy Transition Partnerships are catalytic, it’s time to give meaning to south-south climate partnerships. Several developing countries are making rapid progress with their climate-resilient development initiatives. China already has over 80% of the manufacturing capacity for the solar panel value chain globally, and could become the leading producer of electric vehicles.

India is putting up a strong challenge in both domains. Brazil is a leading renewable energy country, with 40% of its power already coming from renewables. It is a global leader in biofuels, with ethanol available at most garages in its major urban centres. The Gulf states are also making major investments in renewable energy-driven development.

Brazil and SA could be a bridge between Africa and Latin America for growth and low-carbon development

The idea of a BRICS Climate Club is becoming more attractive, with many members making substantive investments in a just transition. More importantly, this demonstrates the capacity of the global south.

The south-south climate partnership idea enjoyed favour at April’s climate change and G20 workshops co-convened by the South African Institute of International Affairs and Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research. This was part of the Think20 series in support of Brazil’s G20 presidency this year.

The time is right for the global south to unite around climate issues. In 2022, the G20 agreed on global south leadership for four successive years. Indonesia in 2022 was followed by India in 2023, with Brazil at the helm in 2024 and South Africa scheduled for next year.

Brazil’s presidency has made climate change a focus of the G20 this year. The plan is for South Africa to continue this emphasis in 2025. Climate finance and resourcing a just energy transition are priorities for the G20 Summit and its finance ministerial meeting. This year’s summit will be held just before Brazil hosts COP30 in 2025.

Just Energy Transition Partnerships are catalytic, but it’s time to give meaning to south-south climate partnerships

In a divided world on a rocky road to multipolarity, the traditional institutions of multilateralism have not enjoyed global support. Israel’s war in Gaza and the war in Ukraine have been divisive. In the 2024 Körber Stiftung Emerging Middle Powers Report, 38% of respondents from India, Brazil and South Africa saw the G20 as being equipped to solve global challenges, while 18% said the same of the UN.

For these significant emerging economies, the G20 matters. The African Union will participate as a full G20 member for the first time this year. Africa already expressed its climate ambition at the inaugural African Climate Summit 2023 and is the first region to complete a continental climate security risk assessment report.

South Africa and Brazil are ideal partners in climate and sustainable development. They are the only two countries that have convened summits of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development – in 1992 and 2012 in Rio and 2002 in Johannesburg. They’re two of only 17 mega-diverse countries with biodiversity, conservation and sustainable development as priorities. Both are climate change leaders in their regions and are deeply invested in a just energy transition to underpin their development pathways.

Closer relations will also be mutually beneficial. President Lula da Silva has expressed a desire to build a stronger Brazil-Africa partnership. This is based on Brazil’s historical connection to Africa, its willingness to be an active player in the continent’s growth and development, and a beneficiary of Africa’s projected increase in production and consumption.

In current energy partnerships, developing countries have limited ability to set a reasonable pace of transition

In addition to a valuable country-to-country partnership, Brazil and South Africa could be an important bridge between Africa and Latin America for mutual growth and low-carbon development.

The novelty of Just Energy Transition Partnerships is being overshadowed by developing world realities – transition speed issues, the possibility of stranding fossil fuel assets and the need for simultaneous high investment in climate adaptation. Developing countries also have to deal with climate-related disasters, both acute (like extreme weather) and longer-term (increasing temperatures and sea level rise).

In current energy partnerships, developing countries have limited ability to set a reasonable pace of transition as they grapple with the pressure of new carbon-based barriers to trade and global markets. A need to decolonise the transition is gaining momentum.

Developing countries should invest in deeper south-south alliances beyond sharing their Just Energy Transition Partnerships experiences. New agreements must extend across the climate change response value chain, with the joint objectives of reducing climate damage and accelerated development of global south countries.

A Brazil-South Africa climate partnership – powered partly by their successive G20 presidencies – would be a good point of inflection.

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