24 November 2015
There is a win-win agenda waiting for African leadership to seize – which must start from the realization that acting on climate change is firmly in national as well as collective interests.
Bob Dewar

Bob Dewar

Associate Fellow, Africa Programme


The main entrance of the COP21 in Le Bourget, France. Photo by Getty Images.
The main entrance of the COP21 in Le Bourget, France. Photo by Getty Images.


The timing of the Paris Climate Change Conference, only weeks after the approval of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), highlights a vital truth for Africa - if climate change is not addressed ambitiously and immediately the SDGs will simply not be achieved.

Africa has already been at the receiving end of climate change impacts. These can only get worse, especially if the outcome of Paris, as seems likely, will not be far-reaching enough to keep global warming to under 2 degrees.

Climate change is already very real to many vulnerable Africans, played out in the shape of drought and storm damage, changing weather patterns, declining habitats, the impact on infrastructure, food and water resources, farming and nomadic traditions and livelihoods. It is increasingly recognized as a security issue, thought to be a contributing factor to migration and conflict.

Some African countries are leading by example, with impressive integrated national strategies and coherent planning and action on climate change. But many others still lack top-level political commitment for urgent action.

Perhaps this is a matter of capacity, perhaps one of prioritization, or of decision-making structures more adapted to traditional threats. Perhaps it’s because of perceived injustice. The African continent has not caused the problem. And, as Africa may see it, plans to stimulate greater ‘ownership’ of the problem on the part of all states has moved the onus of responsibility away from industrialized countries that have produced the vast majority of historical emissions.

So the demand from Africa is for a legally binding outcome to Paris which meets their developmental needs, brings significant finance from the developed world and has a strong focus on adaptation.

Complaining is not enough

But there is a danger in allowing legitimate grievances towards industrialised countries to lead to a conclusion that it is not necessary for Africa to act.

Instead there is an opportunity for an exciting new narrative that converts climate threat to opportunity, provides a comprehensive vision for inclusive growth, rolls out ambitious bankable projects and helps the poor. Ministers of finance must realize that the cost of doing nothing on climate change is greater than the cost of acting – when that happens, the case for joined-up government and proactive leadership becomes clear. Working in silos is costly for countries, only benefiting patronage networks.

Integrating climate change into national agendas can also help to resolve some other dilemmas. Aid money alone will not be sufficient. Additional financial flows from the private sector are badly needed. In turn this would necessitate sound domestic policy with clear rules for business, which would bring countless other benefits. A low carbon vision could also provide the system within which countries can avoid infrastructure and resource-use decisions that lock them permanently into high carbon pathways.

This is an opportunity for better governance, reducing subsidies in fossil fuels and electricity industries in favour of modern, clean and cheaper energy that could help create the jobs that Africa’s future generations will demand. That would be supporting the continent’s youth dividend with a vengeance.

Such a narrative should be framed by African policy and African design, in partnership with the developed world. The latter could provide finance and investment, the technology and the capacity, against the counter-offer of sound African business and governance frameworks. Bad policy should be regarded as policy that does not take account of climate. Such partnership should help show what actually works and help replicate it. It should help build capacity and institutions, including meteorological ones, which aspire to be world class.

Naturally all regions of the world need to step up. But this is an excellent opportunity for the African Union and the regional economic communities to lead the way after Paris by setting ambitious policy and standards. The African Development Bank and UN Economic Commission for Africa can insist on climate audits and risk analyses, while a more energetic bottom-up approach can inspire African cities, communities and citizens.

Africa’s voice is not heard enough – but it can begin to speak louder in Paris. And Paris is only the beginning.  Action is needed and the clock is ticking.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback