Brics: Building a sustainable future

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Brics: Building a sustainable future

With their collective significance, Brics leaders can strike a dominant position if they pursue a cohesive agenda and chart some new paths, which could make a difference in the world

The last meeting of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) leaders took place on September 4, 2017, in the Chinese city of Xiamen. At the end of the summit, a declaration was issued on behalf of the leaders who participated, covering 71 separate paragraphs. It would be useful to trace the history of Brics, a term which was first coined by Jim O’Neill, who was the then Chief Economist of Goldman Sachs. South Africa joined this group of four countries later in 2010. However, when the term Brics was first coined in 2001, covering the four other economies, they were identified as the emerging superstars which would most likely dominate the globalised economy of the 21st century.

To a large extent that projection and promise has been fulfilled, because between 1990 and 2014, the share of the world gross domestic product of the Brics has risen from 11 per cent to almost 30 per cent. The importance of this grouping can be assessed from the fact that these five countries contain 40 per cent of the world’s population and cover 25 per cent of the earth’s land area. With their collective significance, they could, therefore, strike a dominant position if they pursued a cohesive agenda and charted some new paths, which could make a difference in the world.

That the global economy faces some serious challenges can be concluded from the fact that both, in the developed as well as developing countries, economic and wealth disparities are on the increase. The most dramatic indicator of this was provided by the Oxfam report released earlier this year, highlighting the disturbing finding that only eight men in the world owned the same wealth as half the population of the world.

This revealed a shocking change even from the report released a year earlier, which showed that the wealth of the poorest half of the world’s population had fallen by a trillion dollars since 2010, a drop of 38 per cent, even as the global population increased by around 400 million during the same period. It also found that the wealth of the richest 62 had increased by more than half a trillion dollars in that period, and that of the 62 richest persons in the world only nine were women. Inequality of such startling proportions is clearly not a sustainable condition. India, of course, is no exception to this trend, because in this year’s report, Oxfam found that the richest one per cent in this country owned 50 per cent of the country’s total wealth.

Even more serious perhaps than economic disparities and the unequal nature of well-being across the globe is the serious damage that human society is imposing on the earth’s ecosystems, leading to climate change and its growing impacts worldwide.

The Brics nations have generally grown rapidly in economic terms. In the case of China, for instance, it accounted for three per cent of the world’s manufacturing output in 1990, but by 2015, this share had gone up to 25 per cent. In the case of India, however, the growth has been dominated by an expansion of services rather than manufacturing. In both countries, economic growth has led to an increase in the actual size and proportion of the middle class. China has been particularly successful in eliminating poverty, and lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty. Russia has also been remarkably successful in this regard, because in the year 2000, 29 per cent of the Russian population was below the poverty line, and by 2012 this figure had reduced to 11 per cent.

India has lagged in this regard, and has the largest number of poor people among all the others. South Africa and Brazil have also failed in making a serious dent on poverty. Overall, however, the Brics are in a position to change the nature of the game, and redefine the pattern of economic growth and development, which has largely been set by the developed countries, led essentially by the United States.

The US model created serious problems of pollution at the local level, which fortunately through a combination of legislation, regulatory actions and citizens’ movements have been curbed substantially.  However, the plunder of the global commons inherent in the US model can be seen in the cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases that it is responsible for, and the opposition of the current US Administration to even acknowledge the problem.

If the Brics nations follow the same path, the earth’s climate would impose huge risks not only on the present generation but increasingly for generations yet to come. There is, of course, the case of Russia, which relies heavily on export of fossil fuels, but that country is clearly very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (as is the US). The raging forest fires which have occurred in Russia in recent years have clearly been exacerbated by an increase in the frequency and intensity of heat waves. This was an issue publicly acknowledged indirectly by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the World Climate Change Conference in Moscow in 2003, at which this writer spoke along with him.

If the Brics are to be a force for good, then they need to sink their individual differences and collectively forge a new pattern of economic development which is truly sustainable and for the good of all humanity.

As it happens, the declaration issued earlier this month in Xiamen highlights the role of Brics in global economic development. Paragraph seven of the declaration states “Brics countries continue to play an important role as engines of global growth”. Paragraphs 14, 15, 16 and 17 emphasise the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, identifying its three dimensions — economic, social and environmental — in a balanced and integrated manner. A commitment was also expressed to strengthen Brics cooperation on energy, including sustainable development, energy access and energy security.

Paragraph 16 deals with green development and low carbon economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication with a desire to enhance Brics cooperation on climate change and expand green financing. Finally, paragraph 17 stresses the importance of environmental cooperation to sustainable development of the Brics countries and the well-being of their people.

These provisions in the declaration should not be taken as platitudes, and must be given substance if the Brics nations are serious, and particularly if they uphold the welfare of youth by reducing future risks for them. Perhaps the Brics leadership should set up a group of knowledgeable persons to create a roadmap for a sustainable future, which would not only be relevant to the Brics nations themselves but also help to drive the world towards a widespread pattern of sustainable development.

(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-15)

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