The 15th annual summit of the BRICS group of emerging economies closed on 24 August with a challenge for acronym enthusiasts. From January 2024, the bloc will expand from its current membership of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa to include Argentina, Egypt, Iran, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – an eclectic mix of energy and mining giants that includes two African states. Indeed, the summit placed considerable emphasis on the energy transition, among an array of other issues, under the theme: “BRICS and Africa”.
The BRICS grouping has gained an increasingly geopolitical undertone in recent years. Despite divergent national and international interests among the members, the group itself has come to represent frustration in the global south with the current Western-driven global order. When it comes to energy and climate, the clearest divide between Europe and the BRICS is over the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels: the BRICS broadly view these fuels as too important for development and growth in low- and middle-income countries to quickly stop their use. This emerging cohesion, together with the group’s geopolitical influence in the global south – especially in energy-rich Africa – risks it steering action away from European priorities and interests.
But, as the European Union and its member states rethink their foreign energy policies in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they should focus less on divergent positions with the BRICS and African states and more on overlapping interests in realising the energy transition. The BRICS, Africa, and Europe have much in common in their pursuit of net zero, above all the rapid rollout of renewable energy. Europeans should therefore explore opportunities for trilateral cooperation by focusing on technical aspects and the incentives needed to boost common objectives such as cleaner energy generation and usage, as well as the reduction of global emissions.
The BRICS advocate a sustainable transition to a low-carbon economy based on common but differentiated responsibilities and each country’s respective capabilities. Their rejection of a more universal approach means that their priorities, at times, diverge from the EU’s climate ambitions. The latest summit’s communiqué, for example, reiterates that the BRICS jointly support the entitlement of developing countries to exploit fossil fuels to advance their economic growth and security; several members of the group likely contributed to the G20’s recent failure to agree to phase out the use of fossil fuels. This year’s communiqué also outlines the group’s opposition to “climate-related trade barriers” – hinting at the EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM), which is deeply unpopular among global south states that struggle to set up green value chains, especially in carbon-intensive industries.
African states align with many of these positions, also sharing an interest in strengthening trade and investment flows with the BRICS. This could create risks for Europe due to increased competition for access to resources and markets on a continent that is becoming ever more strategic as a provider of energy and mineral resources.
The EU needs to ensure that it does not lose out on opportunities to shore up its energy solutions and climate action, and that it remains relevant in global energy and climate governance. This has become even more important in the wake of the decision at the summit to expand the grouping. The addition of these states not only enhances the BRICS’ international legitimacy, but is also likely to strengthen the group’s trade, investment, and bargaining capacity in shaping the green transition. Sanctions and the need to isolate Russia should not prevent the EU from negotiating and collaborating with the BRICS as a group (like Europeans do with the G20, which includes Russia).
Multilateral dialogue between the EU, the BRICS group, and African states could allow them to identify a common roadmap and promote joint responses to issues of mutual interest on the African continent. Such action could then mean they share the costs and risks of investment, expand market opportunities, and better support Africa’s needs.
To encourage this cooperation, Europeans should commit to find ways to mitigate the negative impacts of EU policies, such as the CBAM. Simultaneously, the EU should acknowledge and support the leadership of individual BRICS and African countries on areas that are of interest to Europeans. This could initially comprise more active support for BRICS- and Africa-led multilateral initiatives. Europeans could, for example, get behind Brazil’s initiative to protect global rainforests, launched with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia, with the aim of jointly defining standards for carbon emissions counting. Enhanced cooperation with individual states could pave the way for more cooperation with the BRICS group as a whole.
That collective cooperation could focus on skills training, at both technical and governmental levels, for renewable energy and technologies. The trilateral dialogue could also promote the co-development and co-financing of large strategic regional projects, such as energy transmission lines and railway infrastructure, as identified by the African Union. These often require a diverse set of financial and technological commitments, which are difficult to realise if not through collective action. Moreover, the EU could aim to collaborate with the BRICS and African states on solutions that avoid, abate, and remove emissions – in fossil fuel value chains and beyond. They could also work on the development of specific value chains, such as biofuels.
Support for joint action such as this would send a message that the EU is open to collaborating with the BRICS, African states, and others in the global south to pull together the financial and technical expertise needed to roll out ambitious energy transition plans. This would permit the EU to send an important signal, acknowledging the BRICS’ and Africa’s growing relevance in global decision-making and their critical role in energy and climate dynamics. It would also demonstrate the EU’s empathy towards the concerns of the global south, possibly avoiding further reciprocal alienation.
More alignment across global south actors, such as the expansion of the BRICS (despite the many disagreements that likely lie ahead for the group), could lead them to occupy bigger shares of each other’s energy sectors. This would include both those that European policymakers strive to downplay (such as fossil fuels), and those the EU and member states aim to expand into (such as minerals value chains). Europeans need to join the conversation where possible and aim to act as a promoter of north-south multilateralism to mitigate the possible risks of greater global south cohesion, and to remain relevant in shifting global energy and climate governance dynamics. This opening is something the BRICS would need to at least consider if they want to remain faithful to their “more inclusive governance” motto.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.