Last November, the annual climate conference COP 27 came to a close in Sharm el-Sheikh with a tentative agreement, reached at the last moment, to set up a “loss and damage” climate fund for Africa and other developing countries. For Africans, this was cause for muted celebration, because for generations the continent has built its climate change agenda almost exclusively around the pursuit of climate justice, a desire to enforce liability on the industrialized nations responsible for the bulk of global carbon emissions. All of this has unfolded, in a sort of willful blindness, while a majority of Africans struggled with the most prosaic challenges: inefficient urban sanitation; poor stormwater management; a paucity of water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities; willful and unabated deforestation; and environmental degradation.
Even as Africa basks in the fleeting joy occasioned by the latest climate financing agreement, it’s not yet Uhuru, but most likely déjà vu all over again, considering how poorly past financing agreements have been implemented. According to OXFAM, there is considerable uncertainty about the true size of global climate financing provided in the last few years, owing to rich countries’ use of “dishonest and misleading accounting to inflate their climate finance contributions.” For instance, in 2020, the actual global climate finance raised was between $21 and $24.5 billion, compared to the $68.3 billion falsely reported. Both figures fell well short of the planned yearly target of $100 billion.
It’s around this murky accounting that African nations have chosen to hinge their overarching climate agenda, one that has reduced their role at COP to that of an obstinate pressure group, perpetually groveling for reparations.
Sadly, and ill-advisedly, it’s around this murky, dishonest accounting that African nations have chosen to hinge their overarching climate agenda, one that has reduced their role at COP to that of an obstinate pressure group, perpetually groveling for reparations. Still, the absence of climate financing from the developed countries does not absolve Africa’s ruling class of their obligations to the more than 1.4 billion on the continent who bear the brunt of climate change. The pervasive issue of social injustice here, the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots, has significantly aggravated the impacts of climate change, disproportionately impacting the poorest and most vulnerable.
It’s clear that Africa’s current climate change agenda is a failure, and equally clear that its perennial presence at COP hasn’t done anything to ameliorate the sufferings of its larger population. Instead, the conference has itself become an added financial burden, an empty jamboree for public officials and their cortege of aides, putting undue pressure on the continent’s limited resources, while offering no real value in return. Beyond the insincerity and unwillingness of developing countries to pay up, the continued wait for reparations is a waste of valuable time, given the current size of the fund isn’t nearly enough to significantly move the needle on the enormous climate issues facing us. Agitating for climate change financing, alone, isn’t a productive agenda, not even as a means to an elusive end.
This is an emergency for Africa. Though it accounts for only 3.8% of the world’s carbon emissions (half of which is emitted by South Africa, the region’s biggest GHG emitter), it is the continent most susceptible to the impacts of climate change. Currently, droughts and floods are becoming more intense and frequent, contributing significantly to the spread of waterborne diseases. The volume of water in the Lake Chad Basin has dropped to less than 1,500 square kilometers, down from 26,000 square kilometres in 1963. The same scenario is being repeated around the Senegal and Niger basins. These water crises have given rise to violent armed conflicts across the region, between farmers and pastoralists, as a struggle ensues between for food and water. These conflicts, as well as other environmental issues caused by climate change, are already contributing to a significant decrease in food production and a steady reduction in the mean yield of staple crops like rice and wheat, which are expected to drop by as much as 21% by 2050. These alarming trends pose grave consequences for human security across the continent, potentially leading to increased poverty and starvation, and the displacement of millions of people.
Africa’s largest economies, such as Nigeria, South Africa, and Egypt, have enough resources to demonstrate climate leadership for the rest of the continent to follow. It is well within their means to spend at least $500 million annually (in the interim) to support climate change adaptation and mitigation programs, if they make this a priority. They could find the money within their national budgets, if they cut down on the frivolous government spending often associated with the mismanagement of public funds on the continent.
For Africa, the only way forward is to independently chart its climate change agenda, away from COP and the half-hearted pantomimes on offer, from industrialized nations. Each country must develop a bioregional climate agenda that acknowledges the peculiar social, and socioeconomic realities of each subset of its local population, and then muster the requisite resources to pursue its climate change agenda, on its own terms. Consequently, it must tear up all prior climate agreements that interfere with its economic lifelines, and unyoke itself of any pledge that inhibits its ability to speedily pursue adaptation and mitigation strategies that guarantee a sustainable future for its population.
Africa must be wary of hinging its climate future on any agenda dictated by industrialized countries, most of which have neither demonstrated leadership in environmental stewardship nor exhibited the requisite commitment to the goals of COP. Some of these countries are still expanding old coal mine or opening new ones, like the UK, which recently opened a new coal mine in Cumbria, one its government claimed was permissible under UK climate legislation, which allows it to emit as much carbon as needed, until the eve of 2050, when it aims to magically achieve net zero emissions. Yet another empty promise, another empty can kicked further down the road.