Opinion: How BRICS can boost cooperation in renewable energy

As their annual summit begins against a tense global backdrop, energy could be one area for advances, write Plataforma CIPÓ analysts


Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers a virtual address to the BRICS Business Forum in Beijing, 22 June. The BRICS Summit can offer a forum for meaningful dialogue on energy cooperation, commentators say (Image: Yin Bogu / Xinhua / Alamy)

This Thursday, 23 June, China’s President Xi Jinping opens the 2022 BRICS Summit, with leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa gathering in a virtual meeting to “foster a high-quality BRICS partnership” and “usher in a new era for global development”.

Against the otherwise unavoidable backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, war is, unsurprisingly, off the summit agenda, to the disappointment of many Western observers. Nonetheless, the BRICS summit can still provide a forum for meaningful dialogue in other areas, particularly on energy cooperation and infrastructure.

As the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) attest, the “triple planetary crisis” – of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution – is intensifying. Energy is a key aspect of this crisis: globally, the energy sector accounts for two-thirds of total greenhouse gas emissions, which drive global warming and environmental changes.

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The BRICS countries comprise nearly 3.2 billion people, and account for approximately 40% of the world’s energy consumption

Yet, energy is not just a problem, it is also a central part of the solution to tackling this crisis. More and more countries are adopting policies to encourage the transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable sources, helping to mitigate climate change and harness new opportunities for sustainable development. But greater coordination and cooperation are needed across key actors – particularly the BRICS.

The emerging economies of the BRICS bloc are uniquely positioned to boost cooperation in green energy and related policies. As key players in the coal, oil, gas and nuclear sectors, their decisions and trajectories will be critical to meeting global targets, as will their efforts to support more efficient, just use of energy in the developing world. The BRICS countries comprise nearly 3.2 billion people, and account for approximately 40% of the world’s energy consumption. Without these nations onboard, there is no energy transition.

As providers of international mutual support, especially South–South cooperation through efforts such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative, they help shape practices and norms across the developing world. But renewable energy development in some of these countries has decelerated in recent years. Joint efforts are now needed to expand, innovate and promote best practices.

The BRICS should anticipate negative or unintended consequences of energy transitions in developing countries, and incorporate prevention approaches

During international climate negotiations, the BRICS countries have often emphasised that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. In this context, the BRICS have established frameworks to cooperate in energy development, for instance through the memorandum of understanding in energy saving and efficiency, signed in 2015. They have also promoted gatherings of their energy ministers and other high-level energy officials. Additionally, the BRICS Energy Research Platform, set up in 2018, brings together experts, companies and research institutes to coordinate common interests of the bloc’s nations in research and development of innovative technology and policies.

The topic of energy, and the energy transition, is receiving increasing attention in declarations released at the end of annual summits. The Moscow Declaration, which followed the 12th BRICS Summit in 2020, came with a roadmap for energy cooperation until 2025. The roadmap established the publication of the annual BRICS Energy Report and the institutionalisation of the BRICS Energy Research Cooperation Platform, which had its first meeting in 2021. Furthermore, actors from business and finance sectors and civil society from across the nations are increasingly engaged in renewable energy efforts.

Brics combustiveis fosseis energias renovaveis cooperacao
A virtual meeting of the BRICS Leaders Summit in November 2020. After this edition, the Moscow Declaration was issued with guidelines for energy cooperation between member countries (Image: Marcos Corrêa / Palácio do Planalto / CC BY 2.0)

However, the deepening of the ecological crisis requires the strengthening of these ties, which offer a unique opportunity to implement broader positive change, both within the group and in other partnering states. At Plataforma CIPÓ, we have identified four key areas in which the BRICS should look to nourish cooperation:

  • First, BRICS nations should expand scientific, technological and technical cooperation in the development of renewable energies, including emerging alternatives, such as green hydrogen. It should also focus on improving the efficiency of the BRICS states’ energy systems. There is also room to invest in the digital transformation of the energy utility sector in ways that would enable a just transition. This should be accompanied by its related capacity-building.
  • Second, the BRICS are historically relevant proponents of industrial policies and, therefore, key players in the burgeoning discussions of “green industrial policy” – accelerating the growth of green industries towards a low-carbon economy. Through greater exchange on how to design and implement structural sustainable transformation, the coalition can boost a green economy and bring benefits to their populations.
  • Third, the BRICS should seize the opportunity to cooperate in green energy infrastructure, for instance in its generation, transmission, storage and distribution. The BRICS-linked New Development Bank (NDB) is well poised to take a lead in this, but clearer criteria and funding streams are necessary. Energy efficiency in agriculture should also be improved, with “climate-smart agriculture” a particularly promising route for enhancing food security.
  • And fourth, while the responsibility for energy transition funding is often said to lie with developed countries – which have already fallen behind in their commitments – the BRICS could cooperate more in financing energy transitions in the developing world, especially through regional and South–South cooperation. This can be achieved not only through their domestic institutions, such as national development banks and agencies, but also jointly, through the NDB and the BRICS Contingency Reserve Agreement, by incorporating financial mechanisms that could boost the energy transition.

As in other areas of cooperation, BRICS cooperation initiatives in green energy should be demand-driven, win-win and evidence-based. Yet, this cooperation should be implemented in ways to avoid or minimise negative outcomes, such as displacement of peoples in areas affected by energy developments. The BRICS should seek to anticipate the negative or unintended consequences of energy transitions in developing countries, and incorporate prevention approaches for that.

By enhancing BRICS cooperation in energy, it would be possible to lay the foundation for a just transition and, more broadly, to strengthen the role of these countries in the global energy agenda. A shift towards renewable energy while promoting social justice within and across countries, and the creation of green jobs through more sustainable energy production and consumption, will boost, rather than detract from, the core development goals spelled out in BRICS declarations.