/ 25 August 2023

The elephant in the room at Brics is the climate crisis

Brics Climate (1)
Another Brics in the wall: High-rise buildings in Beijing’s central business district show the city shrouded in air pollution. All five Brics countries fall among the world’s top 20 carbon polluters. Photo: Sheldon Cooper/Getty Images

Climate change is as crucial as any other topic at Brics, if not more so. As heads from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa gather for the 15th summit, it has never been more crucial for these countries to talk about climate change, its impacts and what the countries can collectively do about it. 

Speaking on Thursday at Brics, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “As nations of the world confront the effects of climate change, we must ensure that the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient future is just, fair and takes into account differing national circumstances. In line with this objective, Brics nations need to advance the interests of the global south and call for industrialised countries to honour their commitments to support climate actions by developing economy countries.”

While a united stance on climate change is helpful, there is a huge irony in that all the Brics countries are massive carbon emitters. 

With trade set to dominate the talks, some leaders are murmuring about climate change. Aside from Ramaphosa, India’s business chapter chairperson Onkar Kanwar highlighted how crucial it is to reduce emissions. He spoke about the importance of water, agriculture and climate change.

On Tuesday at the Brics business forum members from respective countries all noted how important a just transition is, why we need green jobs and the importance of sustainability. 

But what these countries need to acknowledge, firstly, is how much carbon they emit and secondly, the achievable plans and how they can help each other to fix the problem. 

Brics countries are terrible polluters. This is something that needs acknowledgement. According to Worldometer the Brics countries are all in the world’s top 20 carbon polluters. China and India are first and third on the list. Russia is fourth. The list has Brazil and South Africa at 12th and 15th, respectively. 

The fact that all five countries are in the top twenty needs addressing. 

In the interest of balance, we must note that some strides are being made to curb carbon emissions. China has abundant renewables and electric vehicle initiatives. India, Brazil and South Africa are all undergoing some sort of just transition. Russia is not generally known for its climate initiatives. 

While India, Brazil and South Africa are some key countries undergoing a just transition, they have all three called for the extension of coal in the last few years. Coal is the major energy source in all three countries. They all face the challenge of balancing energy needs with the need to lower emissions urgently. 

China is heavily coal-dependent and projections are that this will only ease after 2030. The World Bank reported that the country emits 27% of global carbon dioxide and a third of the world’s greenhouse gases. Despite major renewable ventures and a massive uptake in electric vehicles, the country is still a heavy carbon emitter. 

These countries need to acknowledge that they are heavy polluters, they need to acknowledge that they are a major problem of the climate crisis we currently face. If Brics wants added credibility, these countries must work on actionable steps they can take to reduce emissions. They need achievable collaboration on better technologies, energy systems and electric vehicles. 

The world cannot afford more carbon emissions.

Let’s take a gander at what sort of climate change some of the Brics countries face. This year alone, China received record-breaking temperatures. In July, temperatures hit 52.2°C, a record high, which is exacerbated by climate change and set to happen more frequently if carbon emissions don’t ease. 

China is also susceptible to droughts and floods, depending on the region. Safe to say a changing climate where emissions are polluted unchecked does not suit China at all. 

Brazil is a country with high inequality, so any disasters will impact the poor the hardest. The country faces multiple climate threats, in the form of droughts, storms, food security issues and coastal erosion. Unabated climate change and carbon emissions will be devastating for Brazil. 

India also recently experienced temperatures in the 50°C region. India’s monsoon seasons are well known, and with a changing climate, these could be impacted. This could mean drought in some regions or flood in other regions. There is already water stress in some parts of the country. 

South Africa is a water-scarce country. There’s serious possibility of drought in some parts. But some parts are also a serious flood concern. Drought could affect agriculture and food security. South Africa must be conscious of these impacts climate change will have on the country. 

In a book on Russia’s climate impact, the researcher Thane Gustafson said: “Melting permafrost will degrade infrastructure across 70 percent of Russia’s landmass. Droughts, floods, and extreme weather events will make parts of Russia less habitable and economically productive. This will drive economic migration, pushing rural populations into already crowded cities.” 

Authors Heather Conley and Cyrus Newlin comment in the Centre for Strategic and International Studies that Russia is warming 2.5 times faster than the rest of the world. If this is not an indication that Russia must get it’s act together on climate change ASAP, I’m not sure what is. Yet the country seems blasé about curbing emissions. 

A unified voice on climate change will certainly help. These countries must acknowledge how climate change will impact them. They need to work together on adaptation and mitigation. Initiatives and resources must be shared so the worst impacts of climate change are felt with less force. 

At the same time, they must acknowledge the harm they’re doing by emitting so much carbon. The countries need to own up to it, be involved in loss and damage funds, climate reparations and account for the damage they’ve done. 

More importantly, they must be serious about tackling climate change. A unified Brics on the matter has potential to make other countries stand up and take notice.

Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but I’m a glass-half-full person, especially when we’re not in a drought. If that happens with the coming El Niño, I guess I’ll be a glass-empty person, only not by choice.  

Perhaps these crucial climate discussions are already taking place behind closed doors at the Brics summit. I wouldn’t know. But the cynic in me says it is unlikely.