COP21: the good and the bad for Africa
AP Photo/Jane Hahn
Just before global leaders gathered in December 2015 for the COP21, the world was inundated with news on the changes our climate has undergone in recent decades. The scientific and non-scientific communities released proofs demonstrating that the world is nearing the biggest man-made disaster in the history of mankind. Although the world has the capacity to respond to the challenge, there has been little to no political will when it comes to tackling the challenge. Can we pull the trigger before the greatest market failure and inequality in the history of mankind leads us to social catastrophe?
Alas, COP21 has come and gone; the world leaders gathered and finalized a new global climate agreement. After almost four years of dialogues, meetings, conferences, complex texts and negotiations at the local, national and international levels, the process ended with an agreement that tackles climate change. In Paris, 197 parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to act and rescue the world from a potential disaster. The agreement articulates various countries’ plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and as well as recognising a bottom-up actions as the platform to build global climate engagement.
But a vital question on the lips of Africans remains; did Africa get a deal sufficient to mitigate its vulnerability to climate change? Is the Paris Agreement a good or bad deal for Africa?
Africa and COP21
Sub-Saharan African countries are the lowest emitters of CO2 in the world (see figure 1), its emission is estimated at less than 7% of the world’s total emission. And with the exclusion of South Africa, the region contributes approximately 2% of the worlds CO2 emissions. It is then ironic that Africa is the most vulnerable to climate change – it suffers the most from the harm caused by others.
According to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – climate change is a significant threat to economic, social and environmental development for Africa. The World Meteorological Organisation report clearly shows the disaster Africa suffered from climate change. Africa recorded more than 1,300 climate-related natural disasters between 1970 and 2012, claiming 700,000 lives and economic damage in the region of $27 billion.
No wonder COP21 was a priority for both state and non-state actors on the continent. Unlike past conferences, Africa did not play the victim; it was part of the solution. Africa attended the conference with a common voice as articulated by the Conference of African Heads of State on Climate Change. The body clearly outlined Africa’s position on the negotiations including a well-articulated collective work programme to support low-carbon and climate-resilient development on the continent.
By the October 1st deadline set for states to submit their national plan, Africa stunned the world, 47 out of 53 countries in Africa completed their “intended nationally determined contributions”. For the first time, African countries demonstrated greater ambition in cutting their emissions irrespective of the size and economy. For instance, Comoros committed to cutting emissions by 85% and Ethiopia committed to cut theirs by 64% within the next 15 years.
The bedrock of Africa’s approach is based on its six pillars which addresses the African countries’ position for the effective response to climate change. In exchange for this, Africa is looking toward a binding agreement that will save the most vulnerable continent with little or no capacity to respond to the challenges it faces. It looks forward towards technology transfer and funding to address it climate challenges.
The good and the bad
The Paris agreement is not perfect – it is clear that the existing commitments are not sufficient to address the many problems Africa faces as a result of climate change. Nevertheless, Africa achieved a few things in Paris – it was remarkable that there was an agreement despite its flaws. Had the meeting ended without an agreement, Africa would be in an even worse position. Some of the benefits include:
First, Africa’s interest is to see the world commit itself to ending the harmful CO2 emissions. This agreement takes a step towards achieving this objective. It requires every country that ratifies it to curtail its greenhouse gas emissions in the coming century. Such countries are also committed to not only peaking greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible but also to reduce emissions within the century.
Second, the agreement provides for ‘ratchet-up’ efforts in a successive five-year period. This is aimed at reviewing the national implementation of activities over that time period. One of the most important advantages of this provision is that the ‘ratchet-up’ period will allow future decisions to be science-driven on important updates from organisations like IPCC who releases periodic updates on climate change.
Third, it is widely accepted that Africa needs help (funds and technology) in mitigating the effects of climate change. The agreement encourages developing countries to advance robust adaptation policies that would be fully supported by the economically developed countries with technology transfers, and capacity building. If this is properly applied, it can help to further the temperature objectives.
Finally, another important positive development for African countries is the rallying of adaptation finance. African countries and other developing countries have complained about the slow build-up and inadequacy of the adaptation finance commitments. Developing countries have accepted to continue the existing finance of $100bn USD per year until 2025 and have proposed a new funding plan that will commence at the 2025 COP. More importantly, it addresses the concerns of African countries regarding the distribution of the adaptation funding, by promising transparent distribution based on the needs and policies of individual country.
Nevertheless, there are three pitfalls which could make the African’s gains at this conference worthless in the long-term.
First, the agreement lacks any form of enforcement mechanisms. In the face of the failure of the Kyoto agreement, scepticisms have been raised at the lack of structure to enforce the agreement. It has been largely criticised as lame and relatively toothless since it provides no pathways to enforce actions. This is one of the greatest impediments of the agreement which could make it simply another academic exercise or an agreement with little impact.
However, as Navroz Dubash argues these criticisms may be misplaced because the Paris Agreement is built on a different logic. The change in the energy systems will come from domestic politics in various countries but the international process can amplify and provide leverage for domestic actors. By this logic, the key elements of the Paris Agreement are the national pledges made before Paris, and the mechanism to encourage those pledges to be ratcheted up over time.
Second, there are concerns in regards to the national emissions reporting from signatory countries – how transparent and accurate will they be? In case of distortion African countries will continue to be the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Third and final pitfall is that individual state targets are not binding. The agreement does not force countries to stick to their actual emission limits. This may translate to missing key targets and result in more woes for the continent that is in need of respite.
Developing Africa’s Capacity
Is this the best climate deal Africa can get? Absolutely not, but the historic agreement sets the direction for future – it is the beginning of a process for where the world needs to be. Although the agreement in Paris is short of what the world needs, it does aim to reduce the worst effects of climate change and sets out a framework from which parties can build their action plans in the coming years.
Beyond the signed agreement, its proper implementation is vital to Africa. To deepen the gains and maximise the benefits of the agreement, African countries should consider articulating a common position as it did on its way to the COP21. These are some points to consider:
First, there are concerns that a few countries buckled under international pressure when signing the accord and now the overall implementation of the agreement is subject to their local politics. Therefore, Africa needs to be proactive by setting up a mechanism within the African Union to ensure the ratchet mechanism maintains the pressure on developed countries to ramp up their efforts in tackling this major issue.
Africa’s strategy must also include the capacity to analyse other countries’ contributions as agreed in Paris. If this is carefully planned and executed, Africa will continue to have a strong voice in shaping the implementation of the Paris and subsequent Agreements as the world moves forward.
Since non-state actors are increasingly taking a role in achieving the goals, Africa’s NGO’s, institutions and private organisations should be encouraged to take an active part in the monitoring mechanisms. With the involvement of non-state actors, the emissions gap could be further closed.
The third point to consider is that individual African states will need to build a robust national process to examine their energy and climate future in the context of their planning and policy. Most African states have a governance system which is inadequate to meet their obligations as required by the Paris agreement. Hence, African countries must build a system which enhance energy information gathering and analysis.
Finally, African countries must maintain their collaboration across development and climate actors. Pan-African cooperation enables information, knowledge and capacity sharing which is essential when meeting their targets.
The greatest take home for Africa remains that world leaders have recognised that climate change is a unique problem that requires both individual and collective incentives to be defeated. In Paris, if there was any surprise, it came from Africa. The continent did not come to ask for aid; it offered solutions and became a member of an important group which is pushing for change.
Any challenge that invites international cooperation for the good of mankind, such as climate change and global warming as studied in the context of global weather cycles through the ages, must be embraced. Yet, can Africa determine its own priorities and establish pan-African responsibility and responses that firstly saves Africa, and then, simultaneously manages its role in the inter-continental framework of sustainable development. Thirty years of exposure on the ground shows that most often the bottom billion in Africa remains disenfranchised while the elite “saves the world”, – at maximum and increasingly unsustainable profit.
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