Towards a BRICS Climate Club

BRICS could be the catalyst for a new global alliance to power solutions to the world’s climate crisis.

As the world reels from climate disasters, with little progress on climate change multilateral negotiations, it’s time for new alliances to accelerate responses and investments, reduce our climate risk and increase human security.

There are several potential candidates for membership in such a global ‘Climate Club’. This includes current BRICS members (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and countries interested in joining an expanded BRICS or positioning themselves closer to the bloc.

This week, an unprecedented 70 country delegations were invited to the BRICS Summit in Johannesburg. The meeting promised to be a gathering of substantive geopolitical significance with possible positive implications for climate change responses.

The current and potential new BRICS partners present a unique combination. Many are high carbon emitters who depend on fossil fuels to power their short-term development ambitions, while simultaneously being leading global investors in renewable energy.

The United Nations Environment Programme State of the Climate report pegs BRICS partners China, India and Russia, together with the United States (US), as the top four carbon emitters. Statista puts BRICS partners China, India and Brazil in the top five investors in renewable energy in 2015. And South Africa’s five-year Just Energy Transition Investment Plan has been adopted by the government.

Several BRICS members are both high carbon emitters and leading global investors in renewable energy

Last year saw real progress when the US passed the bipartisan Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which dedicates new funds to accelerating the US energy transition towards renewables and the transport transition away from fossil fuels. So much so that it promised a race to net zero between the US and China.

Recent political developments ahead of next year’s US elections may hamper this, though. Plans by a right coalition led by The Heritage Foundation with Project 2025 to obstruct the achievement of the IRA’s goals, and slow or reverse the US’ trajectory to a low-carbon economy, are high risk. This could hinder global low-carbon transition momentum, which is already too slow. Meanwhile, the Earth is steadily heating up, with new records being broken regularly and more predicted for the next five years.

At the same time, global energy demand is growing rapidly. The quest to reach universal access to clean energy by 2030 is governed by Sustainable Development Goal 7. Reaching and maintaining that target is a daunting task. In addition to a rising population, there is a need for rapid industrialisation in Africa and most of the developing world.

Devastating climate change impacts also create the added burden of new construction of climate-resilient infrastructure to prevent further losses and damage from extreme weather and wildfire events and rising sea levels.

China will have over 3.3 trillion kWh of renewable energy generation by 2025

When combined with the information economy's energy demands, the short- to medium-term energy equation looks overwhelming. It’s hoped that research and innovation could provide low-energy solutions in the medium to long term.

The Shell Energy Security Scenarios make the critical observation that countries with similar vulnerabilities will react to climate change in similar ways. The world is currently dominated by a security-first mindset, where national and group interests trump global cooperation. The Shell scenarios’ energy trajectories characterise the world into four archetypes.

The Green Dream archetype describes the likes of the European Union (EU), which is driving its energy security through higher efficiencies, with renewable energy more dominant in the mix. The EU can make the investment on the back of its wealth, diminishing oil and gas reserves, and the opportunity for an early advantage in a future low-carbon world.

The second archetype, Innovation Wins, is represented by countries like the US, Canada, Australia and Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These have high fossil fuel reserves and potential self-sufficiency, but choose to invest in innovation that moves them into the category of major renewable energy players.

China has its own archetype – the Great Wall of Change. China is expanding its fossil fuel use while being the world’s largest country investor in renewable energy. With the completion of the current (14th) Basic Plan, China will have over 3.3 trillion kWh of renewable energy generation by 2025.

A Climate Club could recognise the need for global south development, while committing to net zero targets

The fourth archetype is the Surfers, sub-divided into Emergent Surfers (emerging economies) that rapidly adopt new renewable technologies like India and South Africa; and Rising Surfers, which are most of the developing world.

Current BRICS members span two of the archetypes, and if one includes the Gulf countries that have expressed interested in the BRICS bloc, we have the inclusion of a third archetype.

BRICS+ represents an important opportunity to create a powerful global Climate Club that can catalyse a global sustainable transition to a low-carbon economy. This was a resounding theme in both the BRICS Urbanisation Forum and the BRICS Energy Cooperation Forum.

A BRICS Climate Club could simultaneously recognise the need for the rapid development of the global south, while having already committed to net zero targets to accelerate the movement to low-carbon-competitive economies.

This is especially important as the chances for ambitious global intergovernmental agreements diminish. The addition of a vibrant BRICS Business Council adds further impetus to increased possibilities for cooperation at multiple levels in the quest for a worldwide low-carbon future and climate justice.

Dhesigen Naidoo, Senior Research Associate, ISS Pretoria

Image: © 15th BRICS SUMMIT/Flickr

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