Why Africa and partners must go up a gear on climate

The pandemic took the spotlight off climate change in Africa, despite 2020 seeing warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and extreme, erratic weather events.

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2020 saw time lost and meetings postponed. But the lead-up to the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November (COP26) brings the spotlight back to climate issues, and a packed international agenda offers an opportunity for Africa to reach Glasgow better prepared and better understood than ever before.

Despite the heavy focus on COVID-19, climate issues in Africa certainly did not go away in 2020 – they continued to exacerbate security challenges, population displacement, and heighten the vulnerability of agriculture and food supply. Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, chair of the African Group of Negotiators for COP26, says ‘efforts should not be to stop development because we must cut our emissions. It is more about maintaining low levels of emissions and providing more policy details’.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change yet is only responsible for four per cent of global emissions and needs real help to pay for adaptation and green development. Negotiators seek progress on finance including new debt-swap and other financial instruments – plus the oft trumpeted $100 billion per year agreed at previous COPs to support developing countries with mitigation and adaptation, and help for access to and payment for the transfer of new, clean technology.

Progress but piecemeal

There has been some progress, with the importance of nature-based solutions and ecosystem restoration being widely acknowledged, which offers new opportunities to help communities safeguard the natural ecosystems underpinning many rural livelihoods.

But market and regulatory constraints often hinder the flow of climate finance to those local communities most in need of adaptation support. In some jurisdictions, legal complexity and uncertainty around mangrove forest tenure, and government controls on the sale of carbon credits on the voluntary market, prevent significant funding reaching communities on the frontline of conservation efforts.

But adaptation has jumped up the agenda, encouraged by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has called for 50 per cent of climate finance to be devoted to the building resilience and adaptation agenda.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) aims to trial its innovative Adaptation Benefits Mechanism model in a dozen countries, including help for Ivorian smallholder cocoa farmers’ communities grappling with the declining yields caused by climate change.

Larger and better designed disaster financing strategies are emerging. Led by the World Bank, UN, and others there has also been more focus on transition to sustainable clean power such as solar, an area of great potential. According to the UN, 565 million people in Africa currently have no access to electricity.

In parallel to this, the volume is being turned up on the need to get support to vulnerable communities at the grass roots and for disbursement of a much greater percentage of climate financing at the local level. The Least Developed Countries (LDC) call for 70 per cent of financial flows to support local action by 2030, while the UK’s COP26 team say they support climate finance which is country-owned, locally-led, and benefits both people and communities.

However, integrating community-based projects into global climate decisions is not straightforward, and so significant development money, complementary to climate change funds, should also aim to boost resilience of those most at risk. Will donor countries be sufficiently ‘ambitious’ on this finance agenda? The UK’s plan to bring donors and climate-vulnerable countries together in March to address these connected climate change and development challenges may give some of the answers.

Away from ‘business as usual’

The agenda is moving forward, but moving from scattergun policies to strategic coherence calls for top-level leadership, notably from African heads of state. Pressing political and security challenges, as well as the current economic downturn, could push an integrated vision down the priority list.

Fleshing out these policy details beyond the often-empty rhetoric of summits demands developing a vision for positive development outcomes which avoids replicating carbon-intensive models, while also implementing effective adaptation to already severe climate impacts. It will not be easy, as the transition to ‘net zero’ may take longer for Africa than other continents, and most developed nations are currently focusing on their own recovery from COVID-19 first.

But the interconnectedness of the global climate threat is self-evident and there is potential to argue for a green transition – in essence doing a deal with international partners who think that way too, and private sector and African populations alike. Policy priorities could include reframing the argument around clean energy to emphasize the advantages of lower costs, more industrialization, more jobs and better health.

This would also be a more palatable message for voters – especially Africa’s growing youth population – than simply demanding change and reinforcing the perception that rich countries are forcing Africa to share their pain by controlling emissions the continent was not responsible for in the first place.

It also needs to go hand-in-hand with increased pressure and incentives from global and African financial institutions to go low-carbon. The AfDB has stressed it will no longer finance coal projects and that the share of renewables in their power generation investments has risen to 80 per cent.

And climate-focused decision-makers and institutions should emphasize African innovation and leadership. Continental and regional policy frameworks can help, as can reflecting on and magnifying the achievements of African peers. There are examples of good policy and climate-linked projects at national, provincial, and local level in South Africa, Gabon, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Ghana, Morocco, and many others. These need to be emphasized, celebrated, and built on.

Climate science and daily realities underline the fact that mere policy evolution is not enough, and that radical changes in the strategic long-term direction need to happen sooner than later. The expectation that Africa will host COP27 may push African leaders to inject more urgency when looking beyond Glasgow, ideally putting climate change at the centre of their national plans and mainstreaming its considerations. It seems highly likely there will be increased pressure from African civil society on this, adding to the need for action, not words.