November 29, 2012 | by JUSTINE DOODY
While the leaders of the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – demand leeway on environmental protection for economic development, their people favour conservation. Environmental diplomacy remains a key tool for the emerging economies to impact global governance.
In June 2012, two decades after hosting the first Earth Summit, Brazil welcomed delegates from all over the world to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The biggest UN event ever held, Rio+20 was intended to further the goals of sustainability and build a foundation for a new global green economy. But some key world leaders stayed home, to deal with domestic issues such as the Eurozone crisis and the US elections.
In the absence of the heads of state of the USA, Germany, Britain and other G20 countries, the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – took the lead. Brazil managed to shepherd through an outcome document, avoiding the disappointing end to the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009. By providing evidence of their commitment to sustainability when others seemed less interested, the BRICS staked their claim to leadership on the environment on the global stage.
The history of the BRICS as a bloc is bound up with environmental diplomacy. At Copenhagen in December 2009, the BASIC countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – united around China to force the developed economies to take account of their concerns. The Copenhagen summit was widely panned as a failure, since it could not reach agreement on a treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol. But the final agreement on the non-binding Copenhagen Accord was reached in a meeting between the USA and the BASIC countries, underlining a new drive from the emerging economies to have their say in the rules for global governance.
In the following year, South Africa was added to the grouping, and joined its first BRICS summit in China in 2011. Going forward, the BRICS will continue to make their mark on environmental summitry.
"Common But Differentiated Responsibilities"
Disagreements remain between the emerging economies and the developed countries on the place of environmental protection in sustainable development. The emerging economies believe they deserve some leeway under the framework of "common but differentiated responsibilities". While they accept the need for action, they want the requirements of their economic development respected in any plan to reduce emissions and build a green economy.
In the Delhi Declaration after the BRICS 2012 Summit, the BRICS argued that the green economy "must be understood in the larger framework of sustainable development and poverty eradication and is a means to achieve these fundamental and overriding priorities, not an end in itself. National authorities must be given the flexibility and policy space to … define their paths towards sustainable development based on the country’s stage of development, national strategies, circumstances and priorities."
The SGI study on BRICS
The BRICS’ emphasis on sustainable development rather than environmental protection is not surprising, since economic growth has increased the challenges each country faces in implementing environmental policies. The SGI study on the BRICS lays out the situation on environmental policy in the BRICS. It says that Brazil, India, China and South Africa are having average success in dealing with environmental problems, but still have work to do. Russia, on the other hand, is making less effort.
According to the SGI study, Brazil derives 85 per cent of its electricity from hydropower and half of its fuel needs are supplied by biofuels. But its energy consumption has increased by 33 per cent in the last decade, and biofuel production causes pollution and soil degradation. Deforestation is a major problem, and although Brazil has committed to reducing forest losses by 80 per cent by 2020, the relaxation of the forestry code has the potential to damage anti-deforestation efforts.
India has plenty of laws on environmental protection, but few funds to implement them. Lack of safe water, air pollution and soil degradation particularly affect the poor. Indiscriminate mining has damaged natural resources, as well as the living spaces of indigenous minority groups.
China is much concerned with reducing energy consumption and has taken steps to create plans for environmental protection. But the SGI study finds that implementation lags behind; regulations are often violated and the Ministry for Environmental Protection has taken a back seat since the financial crisis.
South Africa’s ample coal resources have fuelled economic development, but also damaged its environment. It generates 77 per cent of its electricity from fossil fuels, making it one of the world’s top 20 emitters of greenhouse gases. Although it has had success in preserving biodiversity, it suffers water shortages and needs to improve infrastructure and water management.
Russia, for its part, is the least progressive of the BRICS on environmental issues. It has laws dealing with environmental protection. But the state seems uninterested in implementing them, except where some immediate advantage can be found, such as achieving WTO accession in exchange for ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.
People Demand Environmental Protection
The challenges are many, but within the BRICS, many people feel strongly about the need to address them. In National Geographic’s 2012 Greendex survey of consumer sentiment, BRIC countries were at the top of the list in concern for the environment. 79 per cent of Brazilians, 72 per cent of Indians, and 70 per cent of Chinese said they were concerned about climate change, as compared to 45 per cent of Americans and 40 per cent of British. Only 45 per cent of Russians were concerned, and South Africa was not surveyed.
Public sentiment in many of the BRICS favours action on the environment. And the area represents an opportunity for the BRICS to take a leading role on the world stage, bolstering the bloc’s clout in matters of global governance. The BRICS accuse the developed economies of calling for changes from others while failing to take sufficient action themselves. If they are not to fall into the same trap, they must themselves find ways to reconcile their economic development needs with improvements in performance on environmental sustainability.