COP26: How Should the BRICS Respond to the Burden of Environmental Action?

(Photo: Just Food)

By Sara Seth – Contributor

Historically innocent yet now core drivers of climate change, how much of the burden of environment action should be shouldered by the BRICS countries?

With Glasgow’s COP26 now in full swing, all eyes are on the swathes of world leaders, negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens to do something that will keep us on track to achieve the targets of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. The proclamation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this summer that immediate action needs to be taken if global temperatures are to be prevented from rising by 1.5 degrees Celsius by around 2030 was another dash to hopes of achieving those all-important targets. But given that the Global North’s path to success was paved with environmental degradation to the detriment of every other nation, should the ladder be kicked away from developing countries who rely on raw material extraction and other harmful practices for their development?

China owes its rapid growth to widespread industrialisation, but as a consequence is now sitting comfortably in the number one spot for CO2 emissions. Fellow BRICS members India and Russia also sit amongst the top five, and Brazil climbs right up the list too when all greenhouse gases are considered, as a result of their massive deforestation practices.  But it hasn’t always been this way – in fact, analysis from Jason Hickel (2020) shows that the Global South is only responsible for a mere 8% of climate breakdown when historical emissions are considered.

As a result of historic climate degradation practices, countries of the Global North were able to transition into predominantly service-based economies, causing a drop in their CO2 emissions. However, consumption of un-environmentally friendly products remains high in the developed world, meaning that a large portion of the carbon output of BRICS countries is generated in the production of goods which are ultimately consumed in the Global North. So, even if their historical responsibility is accepted, the fact that the Global North is the main driver of a global system reliant upon climate degradation which they uphold through their consumption patterns keeps them firmly in the hotseat for blame. The BRICS countries are not afforded this luxury of blame aversion because their comparative advantage lies in manufacturing (due to their large, often unskilled workforces), and they do not possess the money nor the resources to outsource manufacturing to other countries.

Ahead of the COP26, countries of the Global North have taken a fair amount of responsibility for their past actions and have made promises to phase out environmentally harmful practices themselves and help developing countries to do the same. The issue, however, lies in the fact that the BRICS are not historically responsible but are currently large emitters. For any action on climate change to have an effect, the BRICS must be willing to significantly cut their emissions too.

On the flipside of the BRICS’ unfortunate position is the unique opportunity for them to get ahead of the game in green growth, trailblazing as world leaders in climate positive growth. The New Development Bank (NDB), established by the BRICS countries as an alternative to the World Bank, was founded with the principle of using green bonds and giving loans to green projects. The emphasis on development in a manner which is good for the climate is much more emphasised by the NDB than the existing hegemonic institution of the World Bank, which has only committed to align its financing flows with the objectives of the Paris Agreement by July 2023.

The BRICS occupy an unusual position as both developing countries and big emitters, and whilst this puts them in the spotlight for reform since climate action would have far less effect without the cooperation of countries such as China and Brazil, it also means that they can get a head start on the Global North as drivers for change. Whilst any climate action agreed to at the COP26 must include the BRICS to be able to have any tangible effect, their growth shouldn’t be hindered as a result. Perhaps then, reframing growth in green terms may provide the BRICS with a way to sustain their current trajectory, or perhaps even get a head start on developed countries, whilst having real tangible effects on climate change.

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