From Nairobi to Copenhagen

African leaders have declared their commitment to address climate change, but they will need the help of key partners: the United States, Europe – and China, writes Godwin Nnanna.

A recent meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, represented an important attempt to forge an African continental front ahead of the December climate-change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark. Environment ministers and civil society representatives from over 30 African countries met in the Kenyan capital, with representatives of relevant United Nations agencies, the Chinese government and development partners from the west. Although this was essentially an African meeting, the presence of these non-African participants was crucial, given their economic and humanitarian engagement on the continent.

The Nairobi declaration – as the fallout of that meeting has come to be known – acknowledged that climate change is fundamentally different from the conventional environmental agenda – the typical approach to which is to react, then correct. The participants seemed unanimous about the need to enhance Africa’s capacity to adapt; and to strengthen local agricultural innovation systems, particularly in high-potential areas. Ministers agreed that adaptation is not just an option, but a policy imperative. Without such a strategy, Africa will be far worse off.

Ecosystems across the continent, many of which supply vital services for the livelihoods of the poor, are under heavy pressure. Despite an already erratic climate, a report confirms scientific research that “indicates new and dangerous extremes” for Africa. The danger is that a changing climate threatens to undo some of the gains Africa has made in reducing poverty, keeping the continent perpetually poor. For Africa, therefore, climate change is not just a worry, it is a serious crisis; one that demands planned and sustained intervention.

This report estimates that rising sea levels could potentially submerge 30% of Africa’s coastal settlements, displacing millions of people and animals, and causing the complete disappearance of many animal species. Given that agriculture is undoubtedly the most important sector in the economies of most African countries, a measure of urgency is needed in dealing with the matter. Anything that involves agriculture touches on the very survival of over 70% of Africans.

The good news for adaptation is that most African farmers – and policy-makers – already have important insights about how to adapt. However, the longer the continent procrastinates, the higher will be the human and financial costs, and the harder it will be. Therein lies the challenge, and Africa’s main case at Copenhagen: funding is critical to Africa’s ability to adapt. According to the United Nations, the continent would need at least US$1 billion annually to manage the effects of climate change. Given that many African countries are unable to entirely fund their annual budgets in areas such as education and health, the continent will definitely need the support of the developed countries.

South African environment minister Buyelwa Sonjika, who also heads the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), summed up this challenge in a statement she made after the Nairobi meeting: “African governments must commit certain amounts from their budget, but you cannot commit what you don't have.” Africa expects the bigger carbon emitters to show stronger commitment to helping adaptation efforts. “If anything, we want a stronger leadership from the developed world,” Sonjika said. Increased support to Africa, AMCEN maintains, should be based on priorities which include adaptation, capacity building, financing and technology development and transfer.

Araya Asfaw, director of the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, believes that for Africa to effectively adapt to climate change, the rules of the game must change at Copenhagen. “In theory, the Kyoto Protocol, which Copenhagen seeks to replace, offers sub-Saharan Africa a way out of the poverty trap by promoting clean development with minimum environmental impact. But its financial incentives for doing so, especially the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), have not favoured it. Only a handful of projects on the continent get funding from the CDM and almost all of these are in South Africa.”

Africa offers a lot of room for clean energy exploitation, including solar, hydropower and geothermal power. Non-edible oils such as castor, rapeseed, jatropha or moringa could be used in rural areas, instead of traditional fuels to meet household energy demands for cooking, lighting or even running water pumps. But the cost of existing technologies and appliances puts them beyond the reach of the poor, who earn under a dollar a day. Plant oils could also help displace fossil fuels in the cement industry but, again, there is no mechanism for funding this through the CDM.

In some sense, reparation is what Africa demands at Copenhagen. Its total contribution to global climate change is less than 5%, yet Africa suffers disproportionately from its effect. At Copenhagen, African leaders will be asking the big emitters – the United States, China and Europe – to lead the way, not just in rhetoric, but in helping developing nations mobilise and adapt to what has come to represent the biggest threat to the continued existence of their people.

The United States and China are the world's largest polluters, accounting for about half the world's carbon emissions. But neither country was bound to targets under the Kyoto Protocol. However, the Bush era has now ended – and an African-American is now in the White House. Africa will expect president Barack Obama to consider the impact of his country’s foot-dragging on ordinary farmers in agrarian communities like Kogelo village, where his father was born, in Nyanza province, Kenya.

Obama needs to take concrete action to reduce his country’s emissions in order to avoid failure at Copenhagen. Getting the US government and the American public to agree to a new, green future is the starting point. The United States and Europe have a responsibility to lead in reducing their emissions, since they were largely responsible for the rise in atmospheric concentrations. It is heart-warming to see that Obama’s economic rescue package contains significant levels of green investment.

China – a very strong economic player in Africa, which has become the world’s biggest greenhouse-gas polluter – must also be ready to show leadership at Copenhagen. For Africa, success at the conference would be defined by how ready the United States, China and the European Union are to agree to a cap-and-trade accord that is realistic and understands not only the level of urgency, but also how developing countries could be supported in their quest to mitigate and adapt.

African leaders will to go to Denmark in December with the hope that by the end, a new carbon trading mechanism that will make available four-to-five times what was set out in Kyoto for mitigation and adaptation projects. If well invested, this could help the continent develop rapidly, with minimum human impact on the environment. This is the crux of the Nairobi declaration. The Kyoto CDM disadvantaged Africa, and the continent hopes for change at Copenhagen. African experts should be involved in the design of the new programme.

The uneven playing field is one major reason why there are not many CDM projects in Africa, but a lack of African political will and the attitudes of the private sector have also contributed to the problem. The private sector in Africa has a low awareness about CDM, because capacity-building activities have largely focused on governments and non-governmental institutions. Many thought erroneously that CDM was more of a source of donor funding than a market-based mechanism. By contrast, China, India and Brazil saw CDM as a business opportunity, rather than development aid, and they have had far more CDM projects than Africa. While Africa will worry about the dangers that climate change poses, it must also be pro-active in seeking out varied, innovative solutions.

Godwin Nnanna is the Accra correspondent of Business Day Nigeria. He was a 2006 gold medallist in the UN Foundation Prize for humanitarian and development reporting.

Homepage image by World Bank