Inclusive development for a sustainable future: a key role for the BRICS nations

 BRICS Conference, London 5 September, 2012

The last quarter century has witnessed the meteoric rise of the new economies of India, China, Brazil, Russia, recently joined by South Africa.  And their rise – together with the awakening giant of Africa – will continue, stretching our planet’s finite resources to the limit.

Serious threats to the whole planet now loom through climate change, and food and water insecurity. There is a real danger of a ‘perfect storm’, with every country affected. The scale of the challenge demands unprecedented global cooperation between governments, civil society and business – cooperation in which BRICS have a key role. New global partnerships must deliver a credible programme for sustainable and inclusive development to give humankind a chance of navigating safely through this ‘perfect storm’.

The basic necessities of life are increasingly becoming luxuries even for people in the wealthiest nations. Food and water supplies are under acute pressure from a burgeoning global population, currently just below seven billion but growing by 200,000 people a day to an estimated nine billion by 2050.  

Rocketing food prices and an exponential increase in the demand for food, especially in China and India, means food security is a major problem – and not simply for the near billion people undernourished or starving. Food reserves are at a 50-year low and rising demand seems insatiable.

In China, for instance, urbanisation and a rapidly growing middle class has seen a radical change in dietary preferences, with a fall in traditional staples such as rice and corn and a massive rise in meat consumption. Consumption of more water-intensive fruits and vegetables, now the largest part of the average Chinese diet, has more than quadrupled since the early 1960s. Meat, fruit and vegetables require much more land and water to produce than cereal crops. And over twelve times the quantity of water is required to produce the equivalent amount of beef as rice and wheat.

Consequently food and water security are inextricably linked. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 40 per cent of the population, 330 million people, have no accessible decent water, a plight affecting nearly 900 million people across the world. To get water more than one billion people make a three-hour journey on foot, and over a third of the world’s population live in a water-scarce region.

As societies urbanise and industrialise, modern lifestyles require huge additional amounts of water, in turn a potential source, not only of strategic shortages, but of conflicts between communities, regions and nations: it would not be a surprise to see ‘water wars’ in future.

The world will require fully 50 per cent more food and water by 2030 and the same amount of extra energy – in part to source the extra food and water. And acute energy shortages coupled with extreme volatility in fuel costs – oil prices very high and forecast to remain very high – is another source of the ‘perfect storm’, with civil unrest and mass migration northwards from the Southern Hemisphere also likely, unless urgent action is taken.

Climate change is at the heart of this problem but we cannot achieve the global cooperation required to the tackle it with ever-increasing national competition for scarce energy resources. Indeed, the risk that countries attempt to buy their national energy security at the expense of international climate insecurity is high. Poorer countries will continue to be plundered to satisfy the appetites of foreign consumers, with the people to whom these resources belong, denied their own opportunity to develop. 

For instance, the historic inequality in the relationship between Africa and its foreign investors persists today. Despite the vast wealth sourced from Africa’s natural and human resources over the centuries, seventeen of the twenty countries with the lowest electricity access on the planet are in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 585 million people are without any electricity. Quite apart from the resulting misery and poverty, a huge number of Africans are therefore without the essential prerequisites of a stable modern society.

And yet, with carefully planned and targeted investment, Africa’s abundance of renewable energy sources could be exploited to great success; providing communities not only with light and power, but also with opportunities to generate sustainable and self-sufficient wealth and employment. Additionally green energy reduces emissions and thereby confronts global warming, in turn reducing the serious African food and water shortages.

Without energy, health and social services are non-existent to primitive; educational opportunities extremely limited; and getting on-line impossible. And without radical change, the people of Sub-Saharan Africa will be trapped in this vicious cycle, with Western aid constantly being called upon like sticking plaster on a melanoma.

 The importance of a reliable energy infrastructure in a modern economy was dramatically illustrated by India where over half a billion people were twice unexpectedly left without power last July – threatening the country’s prolific economic growth.

Africa has huge and real potential to find its own solution to energy insecurity, with stand-free renewable energy, leapfrogging costly grid-based generation as the Continent has done so effectively in telecommunications through mobile telephony (an astonishing 700 million Africans now have mobile phones). Africa could become a world leader in renewable energy, with BRICS having an historic opportunity and responsibility to help ensure this happens.

BRICS nations, particularly China, are sitting on massive saving pools. There are great opportunities for mutually beneficial investment in hydroelectricity where only seven per cent of Africa’s potential energy resource is being utilised; and also in geothermal energy where only one per cent of Africa’s resource is presently exploited.

Indeed BRICS members are already global leaders in investment in renewable energy. Over eighty-four per cent of Brazil’s domestically produced electricity is now renewable: proof that sustainable development is not about zero growth; it’s about smarter growth and greener growth.

China too is taking a big leap forward, spending an estimated US$ 1.5 trillion on clean energy projects in the next fifteen years.

Working closely with fellow BRICS, the South African government plans to deliver 10,000 billion watts of renewable energy a year by 2013, creating over 20,000 new jobs with additional government revenues. A further push is coming with the recent announcement of a two billion dollar loan from the US to South Africa to fund renewable energy projects. Given South Africa’s own energy supply problems this switch toward renewables is crucial.

The plan to link Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with a 34,000 km undersea cable, demonstrates further the soaring ambition of the BRICS nations. This project will offer four fifths of the African population without internet access the potential to join the online global community and open up countless economic opportunities.

Universal access to the internet, however, also unleashes irrepressible forces of social change. The Arab Spring showed us that the internet can be a great impetus for political, as well as economic freedom.

Globalisation means that economic modernisation and prosperity tends to produce demands for democratisation – whether governments like this or not.

Therefore if economic development is to be truly sustainable, it must be inclusive. Globalisation has brought with it great opportunities for the ‘Starbucks generation’, but not for the 1.3 billion people who live on less than a dollar a day or for the 30,000 children who die every day due to extreme poverty.

The exclusion of women from economic development is a central reason for the endurance of world poverty. Sixty per cent of the poorest people in the world are women and whilst gender inequality continues, climate change and food and water insecurity will have a disproportionate impact on women.

Where the state is weak to non-existent in developing economies, women play an even greater role because they take primary responsibility for the health and education of their children.

Women know intimately their families’ needs and the resources they have available to meet these needs. Therefore it is not just women but their families and their societies who suffer with only 10 to 20 per cent of women possessing land rights in the developing world, seriously hampering their ability to make decisions over the allocation of resources. Or, indeed, when women are denied the basic right to plan their pregnancies.

The empowerment of women has become crucial to combating climate change and creating a sustainable future for our planet, whether through sustainable agricultural practices, reducing greenhouse gas emissions or overcoming food and water insecurity.

With targeted investment in modern, safe and renewable energy production for every household, women will no longer have to spend their time collecting firewood or struggling with primitive and dangerous domestic fuels.

To realise the true potential of sustainable development, investment must be accompanied by a radical change in the place and status of women in society. The empowerment of women is a crucial cure for poverty and is now inseparable from the struggle against climate change. Both climate change and the subjection of women are manmade.

Despite India’s enormous and successful economic expansion, a quarter of girls aged 15 to 24 remain illiterate and only 1.3 per-cent of GDP is directed towards tackling gender issues.

Throughout the developing world women are disproportionately deprived of the fruits of economic growth and prosperity. Although they make up forty per cent of the global workforce, women possess a miniscule one per cent of the world’s wealth.

Girls must have the same opportunities as their brothers to learn to read and receive a formal education, providing an invaluable boost to the economies of developing nations. The World Bank estimates that in some countries, the full participation of women in the workforce could on its own lead to a twenty five per cent increase in labour productivity.

The urgent challenges we face as a planet cry out for creativity and ingenuity. To deprive future generations of the talents of a majority of the population is not simply a global outrage; it is a global tragedy as well.

The story of the BRICS nations has been of a remarkable and improbable rise in economic productivity and living standards. Yet the same ambition and vision inspiring this growth is now needed to produce solutions for the very problems that such phenomenal economic expansion has caused. Climate change and food and water insecurity has bound our fates together. Governments across the world have no choice but to work together inclusively and responsively.  The BRICS nations can help steer the way through this ‘perfect storm’.