As the leaders of the five original members of BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, congratulate themselves on the successful expansion of the group, all of us should be deeply concerned about the potentially negative climate change implications of this development. Of the six nations invited to become permanent members, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran, three are major exporters of oil. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter in the world, the UAE is the sixth largest, while Iran is the ninth largest. In addition, Egypt exports a significant amount of natural gas, while Argentina, which has the second largest shale gas reserves in the world, recently announced it was to begin exploiting these reserves.

This reshaping of the global energy landscape is concerning because it promises to entrench the exploitation of fossil fuels within the overall ‘development’ narrative of the Global South. This narrative is exemplified by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which has seen China invest vast sums on infrastructure projects throughout the Global South, billions of dollars of which have flowed toward fossil fuel projects. It is estimated that as much as 44% of all BRI spending up to 2021 was on energy projects. While some of these have been renewable energy projects, and China has recently made public statements suggesting a turn away from fossil fuels, evidence shows that this is not happening at anything like the required speed necessary to meet global climate goals.

China is, for example, set to rescue the highly controversial East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) by providing $1.8 billion in debt funding for the TotalEnergies project which will export Uganda’s oil 1500 km to the Tanzanian port of Tanga. This investment comes despite evidence that 100 000 people will be displaced by the oil fields and the pipeline; Uganda’s sovereign debt will spiral; while emissions from burning the oil will deepen the climate crisis which has very serious implications for Uganda, the fifteenth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change.

Closer to home, China’s investment in the proposed $10 billion metallurgical complex within the Musina-Makhado Special Economic Zone (MMSEZ) in Limpopo Province, still looks like it may be powered by a major coal power plant. Despite China stating in 2021 that it would no-longer fund coal-fired power stations overseas, coal mines close to the MMSEZ stated earlier this year they were readying themselves to start supplying coal to a coal-fired power station to be built in the MMSEZ.

From a climate change and environmental justice perspective it is not just the focus on fossil fuels which the new BRICS counties bring that it alarming. Several of the new members states have appalling human rights records which has a chilling impact on the ability of environmental activists to operate safely. It is a sad reality that environmental activists have been persecuted in all of the new BRICS member countries.

Before hosting COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people whom authorities believed were intent on protesting at the summit. In September last year, Human Rights Watch stated that the Egyptian government ‘has severely curtailed environmental groups’ ability to carry out independent policy, advocacy, and field work essential to protecting the country’s natural environment’.

The UAE, which is to host COP28 in November, still detains 60 human rights defenders and civil society activists who were arrested in 2012 because of their demands for reform and democracy in the country. In May, Global Witness argued that the UAE government continues with its ‘sustained assault on human rights and freedoms, including targeting human rights activists, enacting repressive laws, and using the criminal justice system as a tool to eliminate the human rights movement’.

Ulrich Steenkamp, Programs Officer at Earthlife Africa Johannesburg

The brutal suppression of basic human rights in both Iran and Saudi Arabia is well documented. Last year, Iran Human Rights noted that ‘with the gross systematic human rights violations in Iran, there has been less room and time for environmental rights … Iranian environmental activists have continued to be targeted regardless of which part of the environment they defend’. According to Global Witness, nine environmental activists have been killed in Iran since 2012. Front Line Defenders note that in Saudi Arabia ‘activists and individuals who criticise government policies or express dissent or diverging opinion to those of the authorities are subjected to harassment, surveillance, arbitrary detention, smear campaigns, prolonged and unfair trials’.

Conditions for environmental activists in Ethiopia are also extremely worrying with evidence indicating that land and indigenous rights activists are being particularly targeted by the government. Front Line Defenders note that they ‘face threats, physical attacks, judicial harassment, criminalisation and killings’ in Ethiopia. Lastly, Global Witness states that seven environmental activists have been killed in Argentina since 2012. These activists have been opposing mining or land grabs or have been killed supporting the rights of indigenous peoples.

Given the extremely poor human rights record of the new states, and the ongoing intimidation and murder of environmental activities within existing BRICS members (including in South Africa where at least two environmental activists have been murdered in recent years – Sikhosiphi ‘Bazooka’ Radebe and Fikile Ntshangase) it is high time that BRICS member states acknowledge that protecting the environment is not a crime. This is especially so, given that the regressive energy focus of new members states is likely to trigger urgent and legitimate protests against the continued use of climate change inducing fossil fuels.


Dr Overy is a freelance environmental researcher, and Steenkamp programmes officer at Earthlife Africa.