Race to climate action:Is Africa being left behind?

EARLIER in September – when leaders from states and regions, cities, business, investors and civil society around the world gathered at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco – a plethora of commitments were made by the leaders to accelerate climate action. From renewable energy targets to zero carbon emission targets, hundreds of commitments were announced at the Summit. Conspicuously, Africa was almost absent in the roll call of ambitious and bold climate actions.

Although, there were about eleven African cities among the 73 cities around the world committed to achieving emission peak by 2020, only Cape Town joined 25 other cities to sign the Green and Healthy Streets (Fossil Fuel Free Streets) Declaration at the Summit. These cities will be buying only zero emission buses from 2025. They will make a major area of their city zero emission by 2030 and encourage a shift to walking, cycling, and public transport.

Cities pledging to remove as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they emit – new plans to work together to reduce global emissions – are  crucial to meeting the 2020 target when global greenhouse gases need to peak and begin to fall to avoid the worst impact of climate change. However, carbon neutrality targets of these cities seem to be a luxury of developed countries which African cities cannot afford. The continent has contributed the least in global greenhouse gas emissions; the sentiment is that it needs to develop its economy before contemplating of zero or low carbon emissions.

“Africa needs to change the thinking,” said Erik Solheim, Executive Director of United Nations Environment, when he answered a question from The ICIR at a side event with a group of journalists at the San Francisco Summit. “The old thinking was that first you need to develop and then you take care of the environment,” Solheim said. “There is no need for that any longer because you can all develop, bring people out of poverty and take care of the environment with the same policies.”

He said solar energy has become competitive to coal, not just in being environmental friendly but also in price.  He added that solar can be cheaper than establishing new coal plant.

“There’s no choice to be made between development and environment,” Solheim said.

Based on the commitments announced at the Summit, it is obvious that if Africa will catch up to climate action, the continent needs the help of developed countries which have contributed largely to climate change since the industrial revolution.  The need for assistance is an essential element of the Paris Agreement which recognises the role that developed countries have to play to help developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

An all-woman panel of leaders convened on the sidelines of GCAS to promote a zero-carbon online summit of world leaders. Photo Credit: Climate Nexus

The failure of developed countries to fully redeem their pledge will slow down climate action in Africa.  The Green Climate Fund which was established in 2010 to help developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change has only committed about $3.5 billion to 74 projects in 79 countries.

Speaking at the plenary session on Climate Leadership at the Summit, Winnie Byanyim, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said climate change is not a technical challenge but a political challenge which has to do with the issue of justice and fairness.

“If I think of my uncle who lives in a village in Uganda and he is a farmer, it will take him 129 years to emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as an average American citizen emits in one year. So the climate crisis was caused by the emissions of rich people but it is the poor people who are hit the hardest,” Byanyim said.

Africa is already facing climate change in its dangerous dimension. Persistent drought is threatening the livelihood of millions of people in the continent.

Shukri Haji Ismail Bandare, Minister of Environment and Rural Development, Somaliland Region shared at the Summit how drought has wiped out livestock in her country and displaced overwhelming number of people. She said, in the past, the country used to experience drought once in 15 years but it has now become more extreme and frequent due to climate change.

    As much as Africa needs assistance in tackling climate change, it also needs to step up climate action to create opportunities for its rapidly growing population. New analysis shows that taking climate action will yield more economic gains than the usual carbon-driven investments. A report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate Change points out that bold climate action could result in $26 trillion in economic benefits worldwide through 2030 and generate over 65 million new low-carbon jobs by 2030.

    Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate and former Finance Minister of Nigeria – who gave example of how reform in Nigeria’s petrol subsidy in 2012 freed up funds for investments in critical areas – said the most urgent priorities in climate action over the next two to three years are implementing carbon pricing and removing fossil fuels subsidies.

    Even though investments in high-tech climate change solutions, like electric vehicles, have not taken shape in the continent, removing fossil fuel subsidies and adopting more sustainable forms of agriculture as well as strong forest protection could make a huge difference in meeting the targets of Paris Agreement.

    Regardless of the politics around global climate leadership – like Donald Trump announcing the withdrawal of United States from the Paris Agreement – taking climate action may be the key to unlocking the economic potential of Africa faster than the business as usual.


    Chikezie can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @KezieOmeje

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