Elisabetta Basile, Claudio Cecchi, EURISPES - BRICS-LAB, Rome, Italy

This paper explores the strategy for sustainable development of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The aim is to assess BRICS domestic and international strategies within the new institutional framework established by Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement (PA) on Climate Change, which, since 2015, have defined the guidelines for individual and collective action.

The BRICS show a strong potential in leading the way to sustainable development. They play a major role in world economy in terms of trade and finance and have been able to involve an increasing number of less developed and emerging countries in a complex web of economic and political relations. Our argument is that, despite their potential, the effectiveness of BRICS action is reduced by the inconsistencies between the engagements envisaged by SDGs and PA and the practices for sustainable development implemented on the basis of economic and political interests. To show our argument we focus first on BRICS commitments at domestic and international level, and then we explore BRICS present actions and future strategies. The attention is mainly on China and India, taking their relations with Africa as a major case for international cooperation.

The paper is organized as follows. Section 1 introduces the regulatory framework produced by SDGs and PA and describes the commitments for the transition to sustainable development. Section 2 points out BRICS economic and political role in world economy and reviews BRICS strategy and action, addressing first domestic policies and then South-South cooperation and international initiatives with a specific reference to China and India in Africa. Section 3 points out the major inconsistencies and ambiguities between official commitments and actual practices.

1. The BRICS and the new scenario for sustainable development

When the first BRICS Summit was held in China (2011), the international community was already aware that the UN Millennium Campaign (2000-2015) was about to reach limited achievements. While being the most successful anti-poverty effort in the history of humankind, the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the 21 Targets were not fully reached and the job was left unfinished for millions of people in the most disadvantageous countries. In the UN Summit in New York (2015), it was established that this partial success was to be addressed by means of the 2030 Agenda which included the SDGs: a new set of 17 Goals and 169 Targets to be reached in 15 years to enhance the transition to sustainable development and to end poverty in all forms, everywhere and forever.

Indeed, also the SDGs have been criticized and a major failure of Agenda 2030 has been anticipated. While the huge number of Goals and Targets has been pointed out as a key weakness, an influential critique has been raised arguing that a “narrative of change” is missing and no explanation is provided of the “ultimate end” and of the way in which goals and targets contribute to achieving it (ICSU and ISSC 2015: 10). This lack of theoretical foundations adds to internal inconsistency due to the very focus on sustainable development. Building on the idea that a sustainable development is an oxymoron, it has been argued that there is an inherent (and inescapable) contradiction between socio-economic goals and environmental goals (Spaiser et al., 2017). Finally, the effectiveness of SDGs has been questioned, pointing out that, while the political responsibility of the outcomes is collective, no individual responsibility for actions is identifiable, goals and targets are not binding, and each country is free to follow its own strategy to meet them (Easterly 2015; Swain 2018).

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 the Conferences of Parties (CoPs) to define common actions for keeping under control climate change. 

With the Kyoto Protocol (CoP 3, 1997) more than 150 nations agreed on the reduction of Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. The Protocol placed a heavier burden on developed nations, while China (15.5% of emissions in 1997) and other LDCs and emerging countries were exempted from specific actions. With CoP 21 (Paris, 2015) the situation drastically changes. When signing the agreement, all countries explicitly engage in keeping the increase of temperature 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with an effort to limit the increase to 1.5°C (United Nations 2016a). Moreover, signatory countries are required to define their own engagement in terms of specific actions, and are free to choose their own strategies to be communicated to, and approved by, the Secretariat of UNFCCC.

This change impacts on collective and individual action against climate change. The indicator of climate change is the increase in average temperature and each participant is required a specific engagement to keep the indicator at the agreed level. Moreover, the engagement is not enforced, being the result of individual decision. The LDCs exerted a major pressure for this change. In particular, the BRICS took a strong position against EU proposal, which, in continuity with the Kyoto Protocol, suggested a decrease of emissions to 40%. Against the EU proposal, USA supported LDCs, rejecting external control on environmental issues (Viola and Basso 2016).

The SDGs and the agenda on climate change are intertwined. Climate change makes the pursuing of sustainable development more difficult as it generates uncertainties, increasing the cost of mitigation and adaptation. Then, the actions to keep under control climate change are a major component of the agenda for sustainable development.

2. BRICS potential contribution to sustainable development

Tables 1 and 2 provide basic information to contextualize BRICS contribution to sustainable development. Both the notable participation to world economy of the BRICS as a whole and the significant differences among members clearly emerge.

With 42% of world population and 22% of GDP, the BRICS contribute 42% of CO2 emissions. Since 2000, their share of population has been slightly decreasing, while the shares of GDP and CO2 emissions have shown a marked increase. The countries markedly differ in terms of size: while both China and India are above 1.3 billion people, South African population is only 56 million, with Brazil and Russia well below 300 million. This difference is mirrored on per capita CO2 emissions, which vary from 1.7 mt in India, to 7.5 mt for China, to 11.9 mt in Russia (Table 1).

Huge are also the differences of GDP growth. The coalition includes: two growing economies, China and India, with GDP growth rate of 7.1% and 6.7% in 2016, respectively; two stagnant economies, Russia and South Africa, respectively with 0.2% and 0.6%; and one declining  economy,  Brazil with -3.5%.  This difference is matched  by  the difference in per

capita GNI, which varies from 7,060 $PPP for India to 24,890 $PPP for Russia. Also the Gini coefficient shows impressive variation, from 35.1 for India to 63.0 for South Africa. Finally, BRICS are heterogeneous in relation to living standard. The coalition includes developing countries like India, in which over 86% of the population live with less than 5.50$ per capita per day, and South Africa (57.1%); a major economic power, such as China (2.7%); and two countries with higher per capita income, such as Russia (27.2%) and Brazil (19.4%) (Table 2).

The heterogeneity is confirmed also for trade. Russia and South Africa are net exporters of primary energy goods, while China, India and Brazil are net importers. It is the opposite for trade in other goods and services, being China a strong exporter together with Russia, and Brazil, India and South Africa net importers (National Statistics Bureau of the People’s Republic of China 2017).

As the coalition started in 2009/10, BRICS role was marginal in the first Millennium Campaign, when the Kyoto Protocol was in action, and became a major player in the negotiations for the 2030 Agenda and PA (BRICS Information Portal 2017).

Since 2015, BRICS potential contribution to sustainable development has been expanding relying on two complementary groups of tools (Basile and Cecchi 2018). First, for their large dimension in terms of population and economy, the BRICS exert a major impact on world production and consumption. Therefore, they might contribute to sustainable development through their national practices. Second, the BRICS have an active and increasing involvement in South-South cooperation and with BRICS Plus strategy might induce emerging and developing partners to adopt policies and practices for environmental protection. Besides, China has promoted international initiatives involving several DCs and LDCs in building physical and financial infrastructures worldwide and mobilizing large amounts of resources.

In the remaining of this section, we review and discuss BRICS potential contribution in the two areas as they emerge from official statements and documents. We focus on the engagements of each BRICS country and on international cooperation.

2.1. National commitments for sustainable development

China, India and Brazil provide detailed information on their commitments for SDGs with their “Voluntary National Reports”, while Russia and South Africa only provided information for MDGs.

In China’s Report the importance of SDGs is highlighted and results and commitments are listed for each Goal. In relation to Goal 7, the Report emphasizes the commitment to provide energy to the whole population, to diversify energy sources, and to develop international cooperation in the energy sector. For Goal 8, the increase in employment is emphasized, together with the enhancement and upgrading of economic transformation, the promotion of new drivers for economic growth, and the support of workers’ rights. For Goal 9, the Report summarises the results and introduces future commitments to strengthen infrastructure development; to implement the Made in China 2025 programme; to foster a more enabling environment for entrepreneurship and innovation; to accelerate the development of demonstration zones for implementation of 2030 Agenda and green technology banks; to continue implementing the Belt and Road Initiative, listing the projects already undertaken. For Goal 10, the Report points out the improvement of urban and rural living standards to reduce income gaps and ensure equal access to goods and services, and the commitment to international cooperation for the development of other LDCs. Finally for Goal 13, the Report mentions the “Work Plan for Greenhouse Gas Emissions Control during the 13th Five-Year Plan Period and the Action Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change in Cities”, emphasizing the engagement to curb carbon emissions in key industries, such as power, steel, construction materials and chemicals, and to promote low-carbon development in priority areas, including industry, energy, construction and transportation (SDG Knowledge Platform 2016; see also Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China 2017).

While being detailed, India’s Voluntary Report only takes into account few SDGs, on which the commitment of the country has been significant, i.e. Goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 14, 17. No specific commitments on environmental issues (Goals 7 and 13) and working conditions (Goals 8 and 10) are found, while strong emphasis is on poverty reduction and on production improvement. Goal 9 is given a major attention with the aim of enhancing the building of transport and energy infrastructures for peripheral areas and the building of digital infrastructures with the Digital India Programme; providing increasing credit to small enterprises; and implementing several initiatives such as the Start-up India Programme (SDG Knowledge Platform 2017).

In its Report, Brazil underlines the necessity to coordinate the action for SDGs with the Multi-Year Plan 2016-2019. It also informs that the National Commission for SDGs has been established with the participation of representatives of Federal, State, District and Municipal Governments and civil society. Moreover, the Report stresses the importance of Goals 1, 2, 3, 5, 9 and 17 (Brazilian Government 2017).

The BRICS are also committed to deal with climate change. According to the PA, the countries have to submit their “Intended National Determined Contribution” (INDC), which should contain a description of aims, tools and resources. The INDC is submitted every 5 years, but may be integrated and amended according to the needs (United Nations 2016b).

The engagements described in current INDCs are the following:

  • Brazil: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 43% below 2005 levels in 2030 (UNFCC 2015 a).
  • Russia: to limit anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the country to 70-75% of 1990 levels by the year 2030 (UNFCC, 2015b).
  • India: to reduce emissions intensity by 33-35 % by 2030 from 2005 level (UNFCC, 2015c).
  • China: to lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60-65% from the 2005 level (UNFCC, 2015d).
  • South Africa: to lead emissions by 2025-2030 to a range between 398 and 614 Mt CO2–eq. (UNFCC, 2015e).

As in the case of SDGs, Russia INDC provides little information, while China INDC is very detailed, including descriptions of national and international strategies for “Building Low-Carbon Energy System”, “Controlling Emissions from Building and Transportation Sectors”, “Promoting the Low-Carbon Way of Life”. Moreover, the commitment to “develop nuclear power in a safe and efficient manner” and “newly built coal-fired power plants” is pointed out. India INDC is very detailed too, containing also information on commitments and strategies. The energy section introduces actions to reduce CO2 emissions by means of wind energy, solar power, biomass energy, hydropower, nuclear power and clean coal power. Also India points out that investments are planned for new nuclear power plants.

2.2. Promoting sustainable development in international cooperation

The PA acknowledges the joint involvement of DCs and LDCs in coordinated action under the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities”. Moreover, SDGs are extended to DCs and LDCs, while SDG 17 points to “partnership for the goals”. Cooperation of countries at different income levels is then necessary to enhance the transition to sustainable development (UNOSSC 2017). North-South cooperation needs to be complemented with South-South cooperation: a form of win-win cooperation in which developing and emerging countries voluntary assist other LDCs with mutual advantages.


The BRICS have strengthened South-South cooperation stimulating business among Southern countries, keeping under control the impact of Bretton Woods institutions and North-South trade relations. They all are involved in partnerships with LDCs in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Yet, China and India are the major players and African countries are their major partners.

China-Africa cooperation started in 2000 with the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that defined the principles of Sino-African relations: 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 (Bodomo 2017).[1] Also India has institutionalized her partnership with Africa with the first India-Africa Forum in 2008.

China and India’s model of cooperation includes a mix of investment, trade, and aid (without conditionality) and money transactions are channelled through banking institutions, such as the Exim Bank of China and the Exim Bank of India, implementing a pattern of cooperation outside the rules of the Developed Assistance Committee of the OECD.

Three important financial institutions provide the major tools for BRICS international cooperation. With no less than 55% of the total voting power in the hands of BRICS, the New Development Bank (NDB) has been established in 2015 to support “infrastructure and sustainable development efforts” in members and their partner countries (NDB website). Also the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA) has been established in 2015 to provide liquidity to member countries in case of balance of payment pressures. The BRICS have full control on CRA with a dominance of China with 40% of voting power. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) addresses Asia’s infrastructure funding gap. The AIIB is not a proper BRICS institution but a multilateral development bank promoted by China and involving a large number of Asian and Western countries, including few BRICS (India and Russia). It supports interventions on sustainable and green infrastructure to help Asian countries to meet their environmental and development goals. China has a strict control on AIIB with 31% of the total capital.

By means of NDB and CRA – and with the support of AIIB – the BRICS are undergoing a process of institutionalization still difficult to assess. While these institutions will provide the BRICS with tools for the collective agency necessary to play an international role (Abdenur and Folly 2015), it is not yet clear whether they are intended as a counterpart to Bretton Woods Institutions or as an alternative to them. Yet, there are major signals that they will enhance the international role of BRICS. The AIIB has already signed co-financing framework agreements and memorandum with the World Bank and other development banks, such as African Development Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and Inter-American Development Bank and others. Moreover,  NDB has signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a framework of collaboration with FAO to support design, monitoring and evaluation of sustainable development and infrastructure projects (NDB website).

A major policy with a potential to enhance international cooperation for sustainable development is the BRICS Plus strategy that was first implemented in the 9th Summit (China 2017), when China invited Mexico, Thailand, Egypt, Guinea Conakry and Tajikistan, and then in the 10th Summit (South Africa 2018), when South Africa invited Argentina, Turkey and Jamaica. The reasons for this “openness” are controversial. The official account is that BRICS Plus pattern will enhance the vitality of BRICS cooperation, injecting “positive energy” into world economic growth, improving global governance and promoting democracy in international relations. By contrast, it has been suggested that BRICS Plus strategy will lead the way to new economic and political alliances worldwide, providing also an “aggregating platform” for regional trade agreements. This would allow BRICS to support integration against the contemporary declining trend of globalization (Lissovolik 2017).

Another important contribution to economic growth that will impact on BRICS international cooperation is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a Chinese development strategy, which was launched in 2013 by China’s President Xi Jinping and became operational in 2015 (National Development and Reform Commission 2015). Funded by the Silk Road Fund and AIIB, BRI involves a large number of countries in the East and in the West in the construction of transport infrastructure linking Asia, Europe and Africa along five routes.[2] It is composed of two major parts: the Silk Road Economic Belt links China with Russia and Middle East through Central Asia and connects China with South East Asia and South Asia; the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road links China with South Pacific Ocean and Europe through the South China Sea and Indian Ocean.

The BRI has a strong focus on sustainable development emphasized in several official documents. Yet, concern has been raised on economic, social and environmental impact of BRI projects (Ascensão et al. 2018; Horvath 2017). The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) have been working to define state-level and strategic partnership to foster BRI sustainability. The UNDP has achieved China’s commitment on the 2030 agenda for BRI projects and was the first international organization to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (2016) and a concrete Action Plan (2017) as a framework for cooperation and the UNDP-China Joint Working Group on BRI was established in 2018 (UNDP-China 2018). The collaboration between UNEP and China has promoted the “International Coalition for Green Development on the Belt and Road” involving more than 80 institutions (UNEP 2017a). Moreover, UNEP signed an agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2016, providing China with a platform to pursue SDGs, both at national and international level (UNEP 2017b).

3. Ambiguities and contradictions in sustainable development practices

In this section we assess whether BRICS commitments and official declarations for sustainable development are consistent with actual practices. We explore first the consistency of domestic practices and then the consistency of the practices adopted in international cooperation.

3.1. Domestic practices

All BRICS have adopted strategies against climate change. However, the heterogeneity is huge. Brazil, India and China have adopted effective actions on environmental issues for the management of natural resources and mitigation of climate change. Moreover, they have addressed sustainability issues in the use of renewable energy sources and pollution, developing innovative legislation for alternative energy sources. By contrast, Russia has been slowly moving towards a change, confirming the use of traditional energy sources (Gladun and Ahsan 2016; Dudin et al. 2016), while, due to its priorities to address poverty and inequality, South Africa faces significant rigidities for the transition to a low-carbon and climate resilient society (UNFCC 2015e).

The difficulty of turning SDG commitments into action is shown in Table 3. The best outcomes are for SDG 9, with all BRICS moving to SDG achievement or above, suggesting substantial investments on information technologies, infrastructures and education. SDGs 7 and 13, which refer to the influence of energy production and GHG emissions on climate change, require careful attention in relation to the energy sector, which is the link between SDGs and PA.

China – the third country responsible for GHG emissions after USA and EU – is strongly engaged in mitigation of production and consumption impact and, recently, has strengthened domestic actions, taking a leading international role (Pan 2018: 540). While been involved in energy production with coal-fired power plants, the country is strongly engaged in efficiency increase and has already set emission and efficiency standards for coal-fired power plants higher than either USA and EU (Wenyuan 2017). Moreover, also ultra-supercritical coal power plant technology is expected to help plants to meet stricter standards. Yet, owing to the large number of coal power plants, China will certainly have major difficulties in meeting the commitments for the PA.

Owing to air pollution from coal-fired plants, China has started investing deeply in nuclear power reactors. According to World Nuclear Association, 45 nuclear power reactors are in operation, 15 under construction, and more to be built. Thanks to investments in research and the construction of nuclear plants, the country has become a major exporter of nuclear technology (, being also a leader in renewable energy. According to the International Energy Agency (2018), the Asian giant will continue to lead the world, being “responsible for a large share of global investment in … clean energy technologies and applications, including electric vehicles, batteries, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, and solar and wind power”. Even if renewable energy has not increased much so far, the International Energy Agency estimates that in 2040 China’s share of renewable energy will be higher than the energy from fossil and nuclear sources (57% against 43%).

While being the country that in the next years will show the highest demand for primary energy, India presents a stagnant performance for all Targets of SDGs 7 and 13 (International Energy Agency 2018). The situation of energy production in 2017 shows the following distribution of power sources: 79.3% fossil fuel, 2.9% nuclear, 10.0% hydro, and 7.8% renewable (Central Electricity Authority 2018: 29 and 123). To meet increasing (domestic) demand, India should install 320 GW of non-fossil fuel capacity and 63 GW for nuclear energy by 2032. It would be almost a three-fold jump from the current levels (Singh 2017). 

3.2. International practices

In addition to the basic ingredients of South-South cooperation, the BRICS are involved in several forms of development finance through their banks. Aid, investment and development finance are intertwined as capital flows create business opportunities for donor and recipient countries. China and India’s cooperation with Africa provides a major example of this intertwining.

China’s engagement with Africa is a complex issue. While being present in Africa throughout XX century and even before, China has undergone a paradigm shift since 2000 that has changed its pattern of cooperation. With the establishment of FOCAC and the launch of BRI, the country has become a major player, acquiring the role of important investor and aid provider, together with USA (Bodomo 2017). Moreover, since 2009, China has become the major trading partner for the African continent, overcoming USA (Dollar 2016).

To Africa, China provides several types of aid – goods and materials, technical cooperation, human resource development cooperation, medical assistance, and humanitarian aid – covering a wide range of sectors, from agriculture, to education, transportation, energy, communications, and health (CARI 2018a). A major component is FDI, and Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria are top destinations, while mining, construction and manufacturing are the top sectors (CARI 2017: 3-5). Also the loans from Government and banks (in particular from China Exim Bank) to African Governments and state-owned enterprises are a major component. Ethiopia, Angola, Sudan and Kenya are the top destinations, while transportation, energy and mining are the top financed sectors. Moreover, Chinese loans provide funding to BRI, to build infrastructure – for instance the ports and railways in Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya – and to create free trade zone complexes, such as the ones in Djibouti, Egypt and Morocco (CARI 2018b).

With a steady increase over the past two decades, trade is a major component of China-Africa cooperation. From Africa, China imports commodities – mineral fuels, lubricants, iron ore, metals, and also food and agricultural products – and exports to Africa machinery, transportation and communication equipment, together with a vast range of manufactured goods. Angola, South Africa and Congo are the largest exporters to China, while South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria are the largest importers (Dollar 2016: 19 et seq.).

India’s cooperation with Africa is still little researched. Yet, available evidence suggests that, while the ingredients are the same, India-Africa cooperation works differently and has a different scope than China’s. While having an African Policy since the 1960s, India has established the Development Cooperation Agency only in 2012 and, for lack of adequate resources, cannot compete with China for investments and loans (Testoni 2018). As a consequence, India’s cooperation with Africa takes mainly the form of non-monetary aid, such as technical assistance and scholarships, while the country relies on soft power, i.e. the political power to persuade, convince, attract and co-opt partners by means of intangible resources, such as culture and values. India presents herself as a country that, while not yet been able to overcome poverty, nevertheless is experiencing a pattern of development based on democracy and participation that can be exported to African countries. A major support to India’s bottom-up strategy of socio-economic-cultural penetration comes from Indian Diaspora (Testoni 2018).

China and India’s cooperation with Africa is presented as a form of win-win-cooperation that ensures advantages to both parties. Jointly, cooperation and investment should produce employment in recipient countries, while creating business opportunities for enterprises in donor countries. This would occur without conditionality and ensuring mutual benefits and equality of rights.

Evidence and argument suggest that China and India get several advantages from their cooperation with Africa. They concentrate trade, aid, and investment in partners, such as Nigeria and Algeria, that are rich of commodities, in particular oil and other mineral fuels, and metals, while energy and mining are the main sectors of intervention. They also keep close relations with countries that are sensible from a political and economic point of view, as Ethiopia, which has supported the establishment of FOCAC, and Djibouti, which will have a strategic role in the African development of BRI. Finally, they extensively use African land (at a low cost) to grow agricultural goods. By contrast, the impact on Africa is controversial. It is uncertain whether China and India’s cooperation is positive for African countries; whether it has a positive impact in terms of technological transfer and economic growth; and whether it can be considered less exploitative than OECD cooperation.

In literature two opposite views are found. On one side, it has been suggested (Cheru and Obi 2010; Taylor 2014) that China and India’s cooperation with Africa is a form of neo-colonial relation, within which African partners are exploited to appropriate their commodities and to use their consensus as a support in political arena. So, this form of cooperation would be for African LDCs a sort of “diversification” of their dependency from old colonial powers that does not produce employment and business opportunities for local enterprises. On the other side, it has been argued that, while there are no doubts on China and India’s advantages, also African LDCs gain from cooperation. China and India’s investment and aid are creating jobs for local workers and building the infrastructure that is necessary for Africa’s development (Bräutigam 2015; Okolo and Akwu, 2016; Pham et al. 2018).

A similar situation is observed for the impact on Africa’s sustainable development. As China and India are in structural deficit of energy, their investments in Africa are mainly finalized to increase access to energy sources, such as oil and coal. The investment in the mining sector has an undeniable impact on environment; similarly, massive land leasing has a major impact on food security and living standards. However, the evidence is often contradictory and recent research has shown that China and partly also India are increasingly keeping under control the impact of their investments in Africa, enhancing sustainable development and promoting green growth (Gu et al. 2018; OECD/IEA 2016; Shinn 2016). 

3.2.1. The case of the Belt and Road Initiative

Although being a Chinese project, BRI already involves a large number of Asian, European, and African countries in financial investments in several sectors, and includes different types of contracts for building infrastructure  and buying inputs, work, and knowledge. While the official aim is the building of transport infrastructures, the Initiative has the ambitious aim of strengthening economic and political relations among partner countries by means South-South and North-South cooperation in order to “eradicating poverty, creating jobs, addressing the consequences of international financial crises, promoting sustainable development, and advancing market-based industrial transformation and economic diversification” (Belt and Road Portal 2017).

Also BRI intends to be a form of win-win cooperation. However, there are few doubts that the main advantages are for China that, according to an estimate of the National Bureau of Statistics of China (2018), is getting very positive outcomes in terms of imports and exports in BRI area, with an increase in 2017 of 12.1% and 26.8%, respectively. The same source also confirms that the business revenue from countries along the BRI was 85.5 billion US$ in 2017, with an increase of 12.6%, so accounting for 50.7% of China business revenue through contracted overseas engineering projects. Altogether 520 thousand workers have been sent abroad through overseas labour contracts. Moreover, BRI has improved China’s position in the Global Value Chain (GVC), facilitating the shift from an exporting structure based on assembly and intensive in foreign inputs to one of the most important GVC hubs, with a large and increasing trade with BRI countries. In GVC, China has been occupying a central position with Germany and USA, and BRI countries are among its major trade partners (Buffa 2018: 38).

BRI requires a huge amount of financial resources both from China and from partners. Investments come from China Development Bank, China Exim Bank and the Silk Road Fund, together with Syndacated Loans by six Chinese banks[3]. Moreover, Chinese state-owned and Chinese privately owned enterprises are involved. In 2014-2017 the flow of funding for energy sector has been of $250 billion for projects on oil, gas, and petrochemical transfer, nuclear energy plants, fossil fuel energy generation and also renewable energy generation (Zhou et al. 2018).

China’s financial institutions also provide loans to partners with the consequence that often BRI-funded projects are at risk of debt distress.[4] Moreover there is strong concern about project delays with deficits and sovereignty losses (Yamada 2018).

The UNEP (2017c) argues that BRI might have a positive environmental impact as generates public-private institutional engagement, building climate resilient infrastructure and promoting biodiversity conservation projects. However, this opinion is not widely shared. The World Wide Fund for Nature lists a wide number of environmental issues raised by the projects for the overlapping of BRI corridors with bird areas and key biodiversity areas, including the threat to 265 animal species (WWF 2017). These environmental issues go together with major social impacts. According to Zhou et al. (2018: 26) “most Chinese deals in energy and transportation are still tied to traditional sectors and do not show a strong alignment with the low-carbon priorities”, while according to Yamada (2018: 6) the projects often show a lack of participation by local workers.

Literature also points out that China exports to BRI countries its fossil fuel-based economy (Teese 2018) and that high environmental value projects in BRI area may have significant impacts on biodiversity (Ascensão et al. 2018: 206). Finally, relying on an analysis of official data and by means of estimates, Xiaoyang Chen and Lin (2018: 15) argue that the positive impact of investments in BRI area is limited, as the overall investment does not show a significantly different performance than the one in other areas. The reason is that the leading component of China’s outward direct investment is given by investment towards developed and non-BRI countries, while the majority of China’s construction contracts are in developing and BRI countries. Moreover, again Xiaoyang Chen and Lin (2018: 38) argue that China’s infrastructure investments in BRI countries are catalyst for Chinese investments in manufacturing and services. However, they also argue that, as an initiative to improve physical infrastructure, BRI stimulates FDI and then GDP and trade growth, but the “effects of FDI on aggregate productivity and innovation are insignificant”.

3.3. An uncertain picture

In this paper we have explored ambiguities and contradictions in BRICS sustainable development practices. We have shown the limited domestic achievements for SDGs due to China, India and Russia’s dependency on fossil energy sources and nuclear energy. Despite the major progress toward sustainability by China, and at a lesser extent also by India, this dependency will last, leading to a slow transition to renewable sources. Among the reasons for this inadequate performance, there are population size and the limited availability of mineral fuel energy that oblige China and India to use imported fossil fuels and increase nuclear plants, moving on a non-sustainable trajectory.

Exploring development cooperation with Africa, we have shown that China and India act on the basis of different models. Both Asian giants use cooperation as a means to find support for their political role in international fora. However, while China cooperation is based on huge projects for building infrastructure and FDI, India mainly employs her soft power and non-monetary aid to strengthen her political and economic role. Yet, with cooperation with Africa, both countries aim at ensuring the provision of energy sources, so exporting sustainability problems to African partners. China and India’s cooperation with Africa certainly is a form of win-win cooperation. However, the major advantages seem to be with the donors.

Our analysis points out several inconsistencies in BRICS practices of sustainable development. First, at domestic level, the engagement for SDGs and PA is limited to China and, partially, to India, while is substantially negligible for other BRICS. China is the most involved country also in South-South cooperation with Africa, and the international impact of BRI is large and increasing. Also India is involved in a form of soft cooperation with Africa with strong potentialities

As far as sustainability is concerned, BRI shows several contradictory aspects. BRI projects exert a major impact on environment and economy. On the one side, they change territories and landscapes; on the other, they increase the risk in economic transaction and create indebtedness. Moreover, the degree of involvement of local unskilled workforce is rather low. Finally, economic choices are China-led and partner countries operate in subordination. In this sense, BRI is a major support to China’s strategy to ensure the provision of natural resources and to enlarge the market for Chinese goods. So, while BRI is pursuing sustainable development for partners by means of the Green BRI, several aspects of the project – such as the international transfer of mineral resources and polluting technologies, together with the limited involvement of local human resources in the management of the projects – cannot not be seen as sustainable from an environmental and socio-economic point of view. By contrast, while her role cannot be compared to China’s in terms of size and scope, India seems to be employing a more sustainable approach, involving human local resources (also thanks to her Diaspora) and exporting a democratic and participated pattern of growth.

The picture emerging from our analysis describes the BRICS as a rather unbalanced group of countries. The partners differ for their economic, demographic, and political role. While the coalition revolves around China, which is the major player with large economic and political power, India is progressively increasing her influence on Africa. Also BRICS engagement on SDGs and PA is substantially unbalanced with a modest involvement of Brazil, Russia and South Africa. Internally, China and India show encouraging results, but they are still trapped in past-dependent development trajectories that require fossil fuels and nuclear energy sources. Internationally, they are strong advocates of globalization. Yet, while declaring a strong commitment to sustainable development, they still carry on a pattern of cooperation with Africa focused on the provision of commodities, indeed challenging the very idea of sustainability. 


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[1] FOCAC includes 53 African states with diplomatic relations with China and the Commission of the African Union (FOCAC website).

[2] Up to mid-2018, for the BRI China has signed 103 cooperation agreements with 88 countries and international organizations (Xin 2018; see also Belt and Road Portal).

[3] The six Chinese banks are: China Development Bank, Export-Import Bank of China,

Agricultural Bank of China, Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Industrial and Commercial Bank.

[4] Hurley et al. (2018) identify 23 countries, of which 10-15 could suffer from debt distress due to future BRI-related financing and eight are considered to be highly vulnerable.

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