Will the BRICS succeed in leading the way to sustainable development? / Elisabetta Basile, Claudio Cecchi

Elisabetta Basile, Full Professor of Development Economics, Sapienza University of Rome

Claudio Cecchi, Full Professor of Environmental Economics, Sapienza University of Rome

1. Introduction

The aim of this paper is to explore the role of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) in promoting and enhancing sustainable development. In the present historical period, this is a crucial issue. According to several scholars, we already are in the new era of Anthropocene and the human impact on the life on the Earth system is very near to become irreversible. The serious engagement of all countries – developed, developing, and emerging – is needed to mitigate the impact of human action on environment, enhancing the transition to sustainable development (Basile and Baud, 2018).

Several attempts to coordinate actions have failed, while others have not given the desired results.

This is the case of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. While a major agreement was reached among countries, this failure was largely due to the prevailing of vested interests over common needs. Since 2015 a new institutional framework for individual and collective action has been jointly defined by means of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, bringing about a renewed interest on environment and development. Our intention here is to understand if and how, in this new scenario, BRICS will play a role in supporting international action to address the environmental problems linked to economic and social development.

As a group, BRICS show a strong potential and a major interest in playing a leading role. In the

international arena, they are already engaged in the pursuing of shared aims and, by means of South-South cooperation, they have been able to involve an increasing number of less developed countries. However, as we argue in this paper, the effectiveness of their engagement in leading the way to sustainable development might be undermined by the differences among their economic and political interests that prevent a common strategy.

The paper is organized as follows. The second section summarises the new scenario brought about

by the launch of the SDGs and by the Paris Agreement. The focus is on the new pattern of engagement imposed on countries and societies as far as climate change and sustainability are concerned. The third section focuses on BRICS strategy to promote sustainable development by means of South- South cooperation. We show that South-South cooperation might play a key role in the pursuing of sustainable development by enlarging the scope of action to an increasing number of developing and emerging countries. The forth section points out the different interests of BRICS as far as sustainable development is concerned. The final section shows that a trade-off exists between BRICS’ aspiration of becoming a hegemonic power and the interests of each country individually taken. Yet, as we argue, it is very likely that the hegemonic aspiration will prevail over conflicting interests, as environmental issues might become a major terrain to affirm a leading role worldwide.

2. A new scenario

When the association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa was institutionalized into the BRICS association, the international community was already aware that the first UN MillenniumCampaign (2000-2015) was fated to only a limited success. By 2015 it was widely acknowledgedthat, while being the most successful anti-poverty effort in the history of humankind, the 8 MDGs

and the related 21 Targets were not fully reached and the job was left unfinished for millions of people in the most disadvantageous areas of the planet (MDGs Report, 2015). In the UN Summit in New York in September 2015, it was established that this partial success was to be addressed by means of the adoption of the 2030 Agenda which included the SDGs: a new set of 17 Goals and 169 Targets to be reached in 15 years to end poverty in all its forms, everywhere and forever.

Like the MDGs, also the SDGs are a major example of UN goal setting. As UN history shows, goal setting is a key function in any UN action agenda, and a good feasible device to link UN principles and norms to operational activities. It should rely on the analysis of evidence and be inspired bydevelopment needs, and, by defining targets and indicators, create the necessary conditions formonitoring and reporting on future achievements.

Indeed, the achievements of UN action by means of goal setting have been limited. The reason is that usually goals are not based on the assessment of socio-economic conditions nor always takedevelopment priorities into account. The goal setting for the first Millennium Campaign was strongly influenced by the tensions among interests and countries, keeping into account political priorities and interests in the UN (Browne, 2017). Such tensions clearly emerged in the MDG agenda, which was built on an agreement between Developed Countries (DCs) and Less Developed Countries (LDCs): LDCs would engage in achieving the first seven Goals, while DCs would ensure meeting the eighth Goal, i.e. Global Partnership for Development. Only the least controversial Goals – not necessarily the most important ones – were included, so accounting for the partial success of the action.

With the UN Campaign for the SDGs the operational framework is even more complicated andproblematic. The UN has conducted a huge goal setting exercise aiming at maximising inclusionwhile minimising tension. Moreover, the choice of Goals reveals a limited attention to development

needs, while respecting national policies and priorities and avoiding tensions and conflicts. Manyaspects influencing development, such as migration, terrorism, religious fundamentalism and human security at large, where conflicts of interest are strong, were not included. Finally, the Goals have been universally extended to DCs and LDCs – under a strong pressure from the BRICS – and new major areas have been included, such as climate change, economic inequality, innovation, sustainable consumption, while the very concept of sustainable development has been put at the core of the 2030 Agenda.

Environmental issues are also at the core of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which, since 1995, has collected together a wide number of country representatives in Conferences of Parties (CoPs) in order to define common actions to keep under control climate change. The CoPs are another major exercise of goal setting. As in the case of the Millennium Campaigns, the aim is to link UN principles and norms to operational activities, relying on development needs and monitoring and reporting on future achievements.

With the Kyoto Protocol (CoP 3, 1997) more than 150 nations agreed on the reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. However, despite the large number of participants, the Protocol came into force only in 2005 when it was signed by 40% of the participants. Moreover, the USA (the country responsible for the 22,4% of the emissions) never ratified the agreement and since 2001 refused to join other CoPs. Finally, the Protocol placed a heavier burden on developed nations, while China (3,2% of the emissions) and other LDCs and emerging countries were exempted from specific actions to reduce emissions.

With the CoP 21 (Paris, 2015) the situation drastically changes: i) all signatory countries (not only DCs) are required a specific engagement; ii) when signing the agreement, they explicitly accept the engagement to keep the increase of temperature 2°C above pre-industrial levels, “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” (Paris Agreement art. 2.1.a);however, iii) each signatory country individually is free to choose the way to follow in the pursuing of the aim.

These changes have major implications on the ways collective and individual action against climate change is carried out. The aim of action is defined by means of an indicator of climate change – the increase in the average temperature (while in the Kyoto Protocol the action was referred to the GHG emissions, which was supposed to be the major cause of climate change). Each participant is required a specific engagement, which is not imposed from above, being rather the outcome of individual decisions and capabilities. These major changes are largely the outcome of the requests of LDCs. The BRICS in particular took a strong position against EU proposal, which, in continuity with the Kyoto Protocol, suggested a decrease of the emissions up to 40%. Against the EU proposal, the USA supported the LDCs, rejecting any external control on environmental issues.

The SDGs and the agenda on climate change are intertwined. Climate change makes the pursuing of sustainable development more difficult as generates major uncertainties, increasing the cost of adaptation and resilience. Then, the actions to keep under control climate change are a major component of the agenda for sustainable development. Together with the strategies against poverty and inequality, these actions are global challenges that strongly require international cooperation.

3. Promoting sustainable development

In the context of international cooperation, the BRICS are candidates to play a key role, partly for their large and increasing economic importance and partly for their active involvement in the cooperation with LDCs by means of South-South cooperation.

In 2016, 42% of the world population was located in BRICS countries, while they contributed 22% of total world GDP and 42% of GHG emissions. Moreover, while the incidence of BRICS population has been almost stationary in the last decades, both the incidence of their GDP and GHG emissions has shown a marked increase since 2000 (WB Open Data Online, ww.worldbank.org). In the course of the first Millennium Campaign, when the Kyoto Protocol was in action, the role of BRICS was marginal, largely because the BRICS as an institution started only in 2009/10. As a group, the BRICS started becoming a major international player only after the 2008 financial crisis, with a major role in the negotiations for the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement.

Cooperation among countries at different income levels is widely considered a necessary condition for the pursuing of collective aims in terms of sustainable development and climate change (UNOSSC, 2017). The Paris Agreement explicitly acknowledges the joint involvement of developed and developing countries in coordinated actions on the basis of the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities’. Similarly, in the second Millennium Campaign, the SDGs have been extended to both DCs and LDCs, while, in continuity with MDG 8, SDG 17 points to “partnership for the goals”.

In this context, the traditional patterns of North-South cooperation appear to be insufficient, partly for the uncertain and controversial impact on development and partly for the growing heterogeneity of the developing world (Alonso, 2012). New patterns of cooperation, new partners and new approaches are needed. For its features and performance, South-South cooperation seems to be an interesting candidate.

Long celebrated since the Bandung Conference (1955), South-South cooperation has recently become a major means to enhance collective action for sustainable development, complementing the traditional North-South cooperation. South-South cooperation is usually proposed as a case for win-win cooperation: by means of South-South cooperation, developing and emerging countries can voluntary assist other LDCs in mutually supportive ways to reach their development aims. This process has played a crucial role for the rise of Global South (Gray and Gills, 2016).

Since their institutionalization, the BRICS have led to the “rejuvenation” of South-South cooperation (Singh, 2017), by stimulating business among Southern countries, helping them to limit the impact of Bretton Woods institutions and of the North-South trade relations.

The BRICS countries are involved in two broad patterns of South-South cooperation that, for the sake of simplicity, we may call bilateral cooperation and multilateral cooperation: in bilateral cooperation a single BRICS country enters into cooperation with a single developing/emerging country; in multilateral cooperation, all BRICS countries are involved in South-South cooperation with a country or a group of countries.

The special relations that China and India have with Africa provide major examples of the first type of South-South cooperation.

China-Africa cooperation started in 2000 with the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that defined the principles on which the Sino-African relations were to be based: equality of rights, mutual benefits in economic relations, acknowledgment of diversity of cultures, shared engagement for a common prosperity, emphasis on friendly relations in case of conflicting interests (www.focac.org). China-Africa cooperation is often proposed as a form of winwin cooperation, in which both partners get several advantages: African partners receive investments and aid, while China can get a reliable access to the resources of which Africa is rich. Yet, the relationship is structurally unbalanced, as China is a single country with a strong economy, while the African partners are weak economies with multiple (and often conflicting) interests.

Also India is developing a close partnership with Africa, but she follows a different pattern. Also in Indo-African cooperation, the relationships between partners are unbalanced in favour of the Asian partner. However, the pattern is substantially different from China cooperation. First, India relies on her diaspora in Africa, started at the end of XIX century, which, by means of the involvement of large communities of citizens of Indian origin, provides a major human support to socio-economic and political relations. Second, India employs an inclusive and bottom-up strategy that is carried out democratically by means of soft power – i.e. by means of culture and values – so showing the way to a feasible model of development (Cheru and Obi, 2010).

China and India’s model of cooperation includes a mix of investment, trade, and aid: aid is given without any form of conditionality, while the investments and money transfers are channelled through national banking institutions, such as the Exim Bank of China and the Exim Bank of India. In this way, the two Asian BRICS are implementing a pattern of cooperation which is outside the rules of the Developed Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD, the institution in charge of the registration and monitoring of official aid transfers from rich western countries to LDCs. This pattern of cooperation is largely controversial, as China and India, as all BRICS countries that operate outside the DAC in Africa and in other regions, are often seen as new colonial powers. Yet, this pattern also shows interesting aspects and, as the case of South-South cooperation with Africa shows, has helped several developing countries to reach important development results.

BRICS’ multilateral South-South cooperation is carried out by means of two financial institutions that have been acquiring an increasing importance in the international finance system. The New Development Bank (NDB), also known as the BRICS Bank, is a financial institution strictly under the control of the BRICS with no less than 55% of total voting power, equally distributed among the 5 partners. Established in 2015, the NDB has the aim of supporting “infrastructure and sustainable development efforts” in BRICS and other emerging economies (ndb.int). The second financial institution is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral financial institution “founded to bring countries together to address Asia’s daunting infrastructure funding gap”(). The AIIB is controlled by China (with 31% of total capital), India (8.7%) and Russia (6.8%), and involves also a large number of Asian and European countries (aiib.org).

The two institutions have a different nature and move in different contexts and with different aims.

So far, the NDB has founded only projects in BRICS countries, while the AIIB supports interventions on sustainable and green infrastructure in order to help Asian countries to meet their environmental and development goals. Through these two Southern-led institutions, the BRICS strongly contribute to the strengthening of South-South cooperation compensating one of its major shortcomings, that is the organizational and institutional weakness. This contribution appears to be particularly important keeping into account that both institutions are deeply engaged in the pursuing of sustainable development.

4. Differences and conflicting interests

The BRICS are a group of countries that strongly differ for their economic structure and performance, political regimes, international role. Building on these differences, several analysts argue that the association does not have a rock solid basis as the differences generate diverging interests and undermine the unity of the group, exercising a negative influence on the international role. Without a strong economic and political basis, the BRICS association is often seen as an outcome of a political strategy aimed at creating mainly a position of power. So, while Bremmer (2013: 180) maintains that the “countries are so dramatically different on virtually every metric”, for Downie and Williams (2018: 2) the “BRICS are unlikely to act as a coalition” for the lack of coordination that follows from contrasting interests.

The differences among the BRICS and the consequent diverging interests cannot be denied. As it cannot be denied that the BRICS, individually taken, exercise a differentiated influence on international financial and commodity markets.

The dimension of population gives a rough idea of the different weight of the BRICS countries: while both India and China are well above 1.2 billions of people in 2016, South African population is only 56 millions, with South Africa and Russia in between. Moving to economic performance, the differences of GDP growth are likewise huge: two growing economies, India and China, respectively, 7.1% and 6.7% in 2016, two stagnant economies, Russia and South Africa, respectively -0.2% and 0.3%, and one declining, Brazil, -3.6%. This difference is matched by the difference in per capita GDP, which varies from 1.750 US$ (2016) for India to 8.768 for Russia. Very significant is also the difference on the public expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP, an indicator of the living standard that ranges from 1.2% for India to 6.0% for China. Also the Gini coefficient, a measure of the inequality of income distribution, shows an impressive variation, from 0.28 for rural India to 0.64 for South Africa. A similar degree of variation is observed for carbon dioxide emissions, which vary from 1.6 tonnes per capita per year in India, to more than 14.6 tonnes in Russia, while no official BRICS information is available for China(1). Finally, turning to trade, while Russia and South Africa are primary energy net exporters, India, China and Brazil are net importers. It is the opposite for the trade in goods and services, where China is a strong exporter together with Russia, while Brazil, India and South Africa are net importers.(2)

1 According to the WB estimate, China’s per capita emissions are 7.6 tonnes per year (databank.worldbank.org).

2 The data is from BRICS. Joint Statistical Publication 2017, National Statistics Bureau of the People’s Republic of China.

As the data suggests, the degree of homogeneity among the BRICS is rather low. A developing country like India, in which over 90% of the population live with less than 4$ per capita per day is included together with a major economic power, such as China, and with other countries with higher per capita income, such as Russia, in which only 5% of the population live below 4$ per capita per day. China, a country that is a major polluter and at the same time is actively engaged in sustainable development, is included together with other polluters, such as Russia and India, which show a weak engagement on environmental issues. Energy exporters – like Russia, a country with very rich reserves of oil and gasses – are included together with energy importers – like China, which much depends on imported oil and coal.

Another aspect, which adds to the lack of homogeneity of the BRICS, is the asymmetric distribution of power, with China in a dominant position over the other countries. This is largely accounted for by the very large dimension of China in terms of population and income growth and by a very aggressive policy in international financial markets.

There are strong differences among the BRICS also as far as the engagement for the Paris Agreement and the SDGs is concerned. While the BRICS have a common position, each country has adopted a different strategy defined on the basis of the expected timing of climate change. So, while China and South Africa assume that a peak will occur in the next decade, which would require a deep and rapid change in energy production and consumption, India builds on the hypothesis of a steady increase and Russia forecasts a slow pace of reduction of her emissions (Rinaldi and Martuscelli, 2016).

The strong differences and the contrasting aims and interests generate tensions and often also conflicts among the BRICS. A very important example of the tensions within the group is provided by the case of the flagship Chinese project known as “One Belt, One Road Initiative” (BRI), which takes its name from the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Road. For its focus on environmental issues, the case of BRI is particularly interesting to explore BRICS strategy for sustainable development. In the words of the “Action plan on the Belt and Road Initiative” (The State Council. The People's Republic of China, 2017b), the BRI “aims to promote the connectivity of Asian, European and African continents and their adjacent seas, establish and strengthen partnerships among the countries along the Belt and Road, set up all-dimensional, multitiered and composite connectivity networks, and realize diversified, independent, balanced and sustainable development in these countries ... “(p. 2), while “... efforts should be made to promote green and low-carbon infrastructure construction and operation management, taking into full account the impact of climate change on the construction (p. 4)”. It has been estimated that the project will involve more than 68 countries in a vast part of Asia, Europe and Africa (The State Council. The People’s Republic of China, 2017a).

The first idea of BRI was launched by China’s President at the end of 2013, while the Plan of Action was fully defined by 2015. The BRI will be funded by a mix of private funds and funds coming from state-owned institutions. According to the Deloitte website, at the end of 2016, 51% of the total investment was supplied by big state-owned commercial banks, 38% by China Development Bank, and the rest by several other sources, including the AIIB and the NDB. Moreover, the BRI is supported by the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (Beeson, Zeng, 2018: p. 8).

So far India has refused to be a partner in the initiative for two major reasons, which clearly show the worrying intertwining of economic, political and military issues. The first reason is found in a part of the project, i.e. the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which directly interferes with India’s political interests. The corridor crosses Kashmir, an area that India claims as hers, and India takes it as a threat to her sovereignty and territorial integrity. The second reason refers to the Maritime Silk Road, which India fears might be used for military purposes by the China’s Army Navy (Jaishankar, 2017). The Belt and Road Initiative is a gigantic project, a Chinese initiative that will deeply change power relations worldwide. The major tensions between the two major BRICS countries are a symptom of serious interest conflicts in the association.

The differences in the patterns of socio-economic development, jointly with the differentiated interests and the asymmetric distribution of power within the group, are often seen as factors that might limit the economic and political impact of BRICS (Movchan, 2015). Due to the asymmetry of power, the BRICS do not appear to be a group of equal partners, but rather a China-led group, made of countries that are China’s satellites, with India – a country as big as China but still suffering from major development problems – in an uncomfortable position. In this context, it seems very hard for the BRICS to speak with a unified voice, while the lack of mutual interests might very likely discourage joint initiatives and cultural differences might prevent the common understanding about priorities, so leading to different positions in international negotiations.

5. Will the BRICS succeed in leading the way to sustainable development?

The BRICS association was established only in 2009, but, in a very short period, its imprint on international relations has become already strong, and there are no doubts that the member countries are global players in the international scene.

So far we have described the nature and role of BRICS in contradictory terms. On the one side, we have pointed out the main results of the BRICS since they have been established as a formal association. On the other side, we have analysed their diversities in economic, social and political terms, speculating about the likely implications.

We have seen that the BRICS have marked their international presence in several ways reachingmajor results. Most probably the most important result, one that will certainly have a significant influence on future activities, has been the establishment of the BRICS institutions, in particular the NDB. We have shown that the NDB is playing a key role in the funding of economic initiatives in BRICS countries and, together with the AIIB, a China-led bank which involves also partners from all over the world, is contributing to major projects in infrastructures. BRICS financial institutions and the financial institutions that are expression of BRICS members, such as the AIIB, are strongly involved in the BRI, the flagship China project which will change the connectivity in a large part of Asia, Africa and Europe and will deeply impact of power relations among countries worldwide.

We have also seen that the potentialities of the BRICS are strongly linked to their increasing relations with LDCs that are carried on by means of South-South cooperation. In summarising the features of China and India’s cooperation with Africa, we have shown how the two Asian giants are building strong political and economic linkages with African LDCs, which will enlarge BRICS sphere of influence ensuring the BRICS members the access to important resources.

The BRICS, both individually and as a group, have also played a very active role in UN negotiations for the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, in some case also in explicit opposition to EU and USA. In these contexts, their support to sustainable development has been strong and widely shared. However, as we have pointed out, the translation of principles into action has been largely differentiated. We have argued that this differential depends on the major differences of the BRICS in terms of economic and social development.

As shown, there are multiple differences among the BRICS, which range from the size of population and the economy, to economic results – measured in terms of per capita income and income growth rate – to investments in human development, to market integration. These differences give birth to significant imbalances that give birth to contrasting interests. So, the BRICS include large countries and small countries, growing countries and declining countries, countries with serious poverty problems and countries with Western poverty levels, countries that give priority to policies for sustainable development and countries that do not.

There are few doubts that BRICS association is built on differences and imbalances. There are also few doubts that, owing to China’s economic and political power, the BRICS seem more a China-led association than an association among equal partners. Yet, BRICS association has a major internal strength that needs to be stressed. The BRI provides an interesting example of how this strength works.

As we have seen, while not being a BRICS project, the BRI involves, directly or indirectly, the majority of BRICS members, it is collecting huge investments worldwide, and will have a majorsocio-economic and political impact. Moreover, it is a project which is fated to change not only the connectivity but also the way in which green and low-carbon emission infrastructures are built topromote sustainable development. If India will confirm her opposition, her position will not be easy. Not now, and even worse in the future as the project will progress. Yet, despite her conflicting interests with China, India continues to be part of the BRICS, ensuring her presence to the BRICS Summits. Why it is so? Why the huge differences and the strong interest conflicts do not undermine the future of BRICS?

Our answer to these questions is that the strength of BRICS lies on the weakness of their competitors in terms of leadership in international relations. The BRICS are filling the space left open by the decline of former hegemonic powers, and they are filling it by investing their human, financial and political resources into the areas that appear to be most relevant in the future and involving countries that so far have been marginalized in international relations.


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