The first issue of Africa in Fact this year takes a hard look at how the decisions, agreements – and disagreements – not to say disappointments that characterised the 26th annual United Nations (UN) global climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland last November, will impact on Africa’s efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change, and what the implications are for its people.
It is widely agreed that while Africa is responsible for less than 4% of the global emissions that are heating up our planet to intolerable levels, the continent is the region most at risk in the world from the dire consequences of climate change.
For example, experts have identified West Africa as a “climate-change hotspot”, where rising sea levels are already causing coastal degradation that is having a disastrous effect on the livelihoods of people who rely on fish, both for food and for an income.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Africa’s vulnerability to climate change is driven by a range of factors that include “weak adaptive capacity (including large financing gaps), a high dependence on ecosystem goods for livelihoods, and less developed agricultural production systems”.
Thus, African leaders went to COP26 seeking firm commitments from the developed world for an international financing plan that would help enable the continent to play its part in transitioning to a green economy without sacrificing other pressing developmental imperatives.
But the African negotiators also went to COP26 on the horns of a dilemma; exchanging fossil fuels for alternative, cleaner energy is fundamental to climate change mitigation. Yet fossil fuels also offer Africa the cheapest and most accessible sources of energy, as well as accounting for the largest slice of export revenue for many countries on the continent.
Sad to say, but perhaps unsurprisingly given the reluctance of industrialised countries to take sufficient responsibility for the world’s climate crisis, COP26 concluded with Africa’s negotiators failing to get the financial support they require – although South Africa did strike a $8.5 billion deal with the US, UK, France and Germany to help with the country’s transition to renewable energy,and the COP26 Global Forest Pledge does include $1.5 billion to restore the Congo Basin.
So what to do? Regular AIF contributor Ronak Gopaldas writes that Africa needs to achieve a strategic mix of both old and new energy sources. With neither the money, infrastructure or technology to do otherwise, he says this hybrid approach needs to be recognised as a core feature of a workable solution for Africa. The continent should also prioritise climate adaptation rather than mitigation given its developmental imperatives, he concludes.
Leleti Maluleke, a researcher in Good Governance Africa’s Human Security and Climate Change project, writes that even though Africa contributes less than 4% of global emissions, temperatures on the continent are seemingly increasing at twice the global rate. This, she emphasises, is why it is important that Africa begins unlocking green financing to transition beyond carbon-heavy industries to a low carbon economy. It is in the continent’s best interest to actively pursue different financing sources that will foster a sustainable green economy.
Raphael Obonyo says that while governments are uniquely positioned to catalyse and orchestrate the type of multidimensional response required to tackle climate change, they cannot do it alone. He proposes that partnerships, both intragovernmental and public and private, are important, with the private sector a critical partner to government in delivering development cooperation on environmental issues.
Climate researcher Romy Chevallier writes that transitions towards low carbon economies cost large amounts of money, affect workers and communities, and do not happen overnight, but they can also be a catalyst for socio-economic transformation. A move to a low carbon economy must ensure that the gains and losses from the transition are shared equitably and do not exacerbate existing inequalities. A “just transition” requires capacity building, training, and upskilling.
The article contributed by Britta Rennkamp and co-writers Anda David and Murray Leibbrandt expounds further on the concept of a just transition. The focus on reducing the role of coal as a central component of a just transition, they write, has triggered resistance to renewable energy, for example in South Africa, for example, which overshadows the multiple benefits of these technologies. They point out that the international “just transition” framework agreement is currently as vague as the concept itself, and the envisioned transitions will require detailed engagements with all stakeholders – beneficiaries and potential losers.
While the effect of climate change on peace and security was not on the COP26 agenda, head of GGA’s Human Security and Climate Change programme Stephen Buchanan-Clarke’s article in this issue argues why peace and security should be prioritised during global climate talks. He examines the multiple ways in which the consequences of climate change interact with political, social and environmental stressors to exacerbate instability and cause conflict.
One item that was very much on the COP26 agenda was the issue of reforestation as a means of reversing desertification and environmental degradation. Joe Walsh’s article reminds us that the scale of deforestation in Africa is both unprecedented and increasing; the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) says Africa lost 3.94 million hectares of forest each year between 2010 and 2020, compared with 3.4 million each year in the previous decade. On an optimistic note, however, Walsh says there are signs that reforestation is being taken seriously by African leaders. Democratic Republic of Congo President Félix Tshisekedi, for example, used COP26 to pledge to fight deforestation in the world’s second–largest rainforest, the Congo Basin. The president also announced a programme aimed at planting one billion trees by 2023, as well as targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Food insecurity, caused by floods, drought, and other climate-related causes is both a potential source of conflict and a consequence of desertification. Barnabas Thondhlana’s article examines the nexus between extreme weather events and food insecurity in East Africa. Countries in the region – Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and Burundi – have long been prone to extreme climatic events that have undermined food security, he writes, but there is now evidence that future climate change will make things much worse. The poorest in the region will be hardest hit because they spend 40-60% of their income on food – four to five times more than average consumers in rich countries.
Water scarcity is another flashpoint for conflict. Good Governance Africa researcher Sikhululekile Mashingaidze’s article, that looks at the growing problem of water scarcity in Zimbabwe, exacerbated by the degradation of the country’s wetlands, highlights that it’s not enough for governments to enact environmental protection laws, but must have the political will to implement them too.
Wetland systems perform a vital function in water conservation but many in Africa are under threat from the encroachment of human settlement, farming and other factors. But, as contributor Justus Wanzala reveals in his article, several programmes in East Africa are having significant success in rolling out bamboo farming to restore degraded transboundary wetlands and riparian systems. Bamboo, he writes, is a viable replacement for both hard and soft woods, and experts say no other woody plant matches its versatility in environmental conservation.
In other articles, GGA natural resources researcher Vincent Obisie-Orlu sets out why it is essential that commercial enterprises consider environment, social and governance (ESG) factors in identifying risks and opportunities when doing business as part of the transition to a green economy. This is because the shift to zero-net emissions will have numerous social and governance implications that companies ignore at their peril.
Meanwhile, GGA data specialist Monique Bennett’s article illustrates how a combination of ocean warming and other environmental factors have facilitated almost unprecedented locust swarms across East Africa recently, creating another threat to food security for millions. A locust invasion during the 2019 cyclone season, Bennett writes, demonstrated exactly why, despite an early warning by the Desert Locust Watch agency that failed to stop the plague, national governments must formalise procedures and strategies agreed upon at the regional level.
What all of these articles emphasise is that the effects of climate change on Africa in the coming decades will be brutal, as the continent bears the brunt of the crisis. African leaders therefore have no choice but to act now, with what Gopaldas describes as “skilful and nimble climate diplomacy”, to insist that the industrialised nations, who are largely to blame for this mess, provide the financial support that will help the continent make a just transition to a green economy. Each of us will have to hold our leaders to account in this respect, as well as incur the necessary sacrifices to secure a liveable planet for our children and grandchildren.
Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.