In the on-going COP21 summit in Paris, an occasion that has announced itself with all the resounding glory of a wet lettuce, fundamental decisions are being made about the planet’s future and, more importantly, the generations of people who will suffer by or benefit from them. But is Africa’s voice heard?
At the heart of this summit are the so-called IDNCs (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), which are supposed to keep global warming within a scientifically fickle and politically decided 2C target. The IDNCs are the voluntary mechanism which individual nations will (hopefully) subscribe to in order to achieve specific, tailored cuts in carbon emissions. However, even if all IDNCs are indeed incorporated into respective national legislature, then the idea is that global warming will be locked into a 2.7C degree rise, a quantum leap from the oft-repeated 2C mantra. Simply put, the COP21 will not deliver a 2C deal.
The one degree rise in global temperatures we are currently experiencing has already brought disaster to many nations. The island nations especially are suffering the ill effects of rising water levels, with floods, erosion and salt inundation, affecting their ability to produce food for the inhabitants. One degree more, even half a degree, could have disastrous consequences, and yet Western leaders pat themselves on the back for securing a measly 2.7C commitment. To the likes of the Marshall Islands, this figure is nothing short of a death sentence – a death sentence sanctioned by the entire northern hemisphere.
Africa, and Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, are among the most exposed and most ill-prepared regions to cope with the side-effects of global warming. Even if sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, has contributed only 2% of historic carbon emissions, it has suffered disproportionate consequences such as persistent draughts, record temperatures, soil erosion.
So much so that six African countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Tanzania) have signed up to the Vulnerable Twenty (V20) Group – a coalition of the countries most exposed to climate change. Home to close to 700 million people (or almost one in ten people alive on the planet), the group pushes for a revised target of capping global warming to 1.5C – a cool 1.2C lower than what the already ‘ambitious’ INDCs offer. They argue that collectively they already lose more than 50,000 people per year since 2010, losses of 2.5% of their GDP potential yearly and have witnessed a doubling in the number of extremely hot days and hot nights, wreaking havoc on their food supplies. The signs of what the future has in store for Africa if no action is taken are already visible. This year, the coastal city of Mombasa experienced the worst flash flood on record, while South Africa grapples with the worst draught in 30 years.
The message of the V20 is simple: we cannot idly lay down and accept the mercurial limits of a target which is inherently destined to impoverish and starve us. Climate change does not affect all countries equally. As such, they expect from the COP21 an agreement “consistent with the non-negotiable survival of our kind,” meaning a legally binding framework to keep warming under 1.5C, G20 commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and the launch of the $100-billion a year Green Climate Fund.
While the 1.5C target is, unfortunately, a quixotic pursuit that is not within the COP21’s reach, the other two objectives are. At $100 billion a year, a cost which is less than a sixth of the US defence budget, another carbon revolution can be avoided, with almost a billion people in the world’s second largest continent benefiting from both the economic and ecological advantages of the investment. Sadly, buried in technical-sounding talks of “grandfathering” or “per capita emission rights”, the world’s most powerful and richest nations continue to squabble and gripe over pennies like one of Dickens’ most woeful misers over how that fund will be financed.
Africa has the potential to be a sustainable energy paragon, with renewable energy available from a plethora of potential sources. Investment in renewables would allow Africa and other southern nations to build a successful economy from sustainable scratch, avoiding the high carbon path that others have inflicted upon future generations, as the west and east downwards convert their traditional energy sources to eventually meet on an even playing field as future partners – a tripartite global system. Unfortunately, however, although the likes of China are keen to take whatever resources they can from Africa, they are far less willing to give anything of equal value back.
The squabble over fossil fuel subsidies strikes at the heart of the debate – how much wealth are nations willing to forego in order to keep the planet’s ecosystem alive? The answer: not much. The developed world spends more than $500 billion every year to keep fossil fuels cheap: Australia supports railway capacity to export coal, Canada provides tax credits for drilling, roads and pipelines. With countries such as China whose CO2 emissions come 90% from coal or India that expects to double its coal consumption by 2030, the dirty fuel seems far from making its exit. And why should it, when coal’s low cost enabled Beijing to become the world’s manufacturing powerhouse and the world’s first producer of aluminium and steel, undercutting other producers that use renewables (such as Russia’s hydropower powered smelters). Don’t expect too much change on this front from the COP21 other than the platitude-filled rhetoric that characterizes most countries’ approach to climate change.
It is clear that COP21, in its intended state at least, is nothing more than an agreement to serve the interests of the greater nations whilst dually absolving them of any responsibility to the poorer nations of the world over the next few decades. “You signed up for this” they will remind Africans in that smugly sympathetic way they have, as the seas cover the remaining square inches of former island states, and deserts chase away the last few stubborn men and women from former prairies and plains. We are the global south. We are important and we must decide our own fates. We will, no longer, be ignored.