Despite having contributed just 5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1850, Africa is ground zero for many of climate change’s harshest impacts to date. This year, more than 50 million people are predicted to face acute food insecurity in East Africa due to drought, while in the west and center of the continent, more than 3.4 million people have been displaced by flooding.
“The climate crisis is happening now – destroying livelihoods, disrupting food security, aggravating conflicts over scarce resources, and driving displacement,” said Olga Sarrado, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in a statement on 28 October. “Countries and communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis need urgent support and financing to build defenses, to adapt, and to minimize the most harmful consequences.”
This year’s UN climate change conference, COP27 – which is being held on African soil in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, from 6 to 18 November – has been nicknamed “Africa’s COP,” a phrase that embodies the collective hope for some semblance of climate justice for the continent.
But what will it take to make that moniker meaningful?
For Rwandan youth activist and researcher Ineza Grace, the co-director of the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition (LDYC), “We need to see undeniable progress in taking action to address loss and damage at this COP, and this means the establishment of a finance mechanism that is new, additional, transparent and grant-based, to support the forefront countries. It’s unfair that the countries who did so little [to contribute to climate change] are using their small GDPs to build back better after human-induced impact, while the world is watching in silence.”
Cristina Duarte, who hails from Cape Verde and serves as the special advisor on Africa to the UN Secretary-General, takes this economic linkage in a different direction, stressing how critical it is that Africa’s resources and development opportunities are leveraged to benefit the continent – an aim that current financial flows don’t facilitate. While Africa is rich in minerals that are currently critical to a green energy transition, including 40 percent of global cobalt, “the financing is largely available to export them away from the continent,” she said, “not to add value to them on the continent.”
In addition to sustainable energy, Africa also offers a multitude of adaptation and development opportunities – like climate-smart agriculture, carbon credits for forest preservation and large-scale restoration initiatives like the Great Green Wall. Within the COP itself, addressing these requires making sure that sufficient space is given to African speakers and concerns, though it’s as of yet unclear whether that will occur. A month ago, for instance, a coalition of African youth climate leaders said they and their contemporaries were struggling to gain accreditation – not to mention funding for travel, accommodation and visas – to attend the talks.
In regard to energy access, Duarte cites research showing that energy consumption across the entire continent in 2019 was equal to that of Germany and France, and that 600 million people – almost half Africa’s population – have no electricity at all. “Because it has not been addressed properly in the past 30 to 40 years, it’s no longer just an issue of equity and economic development. It’s an issue of peace and security,” she says – particularly given the continent’s population, which is currently expanding by about 35 million people every year. To address this, African governments will need to mobilize domestic resources, boost their ownership of energy generation, and define their own energy mix, she says. “The solutions are not outside [the continent].”
Susan Chomba, a forest and agriculture expert and director for Vital Landscapes at the World Resources Institute (WRI) Africa, said in a webinar on 18 October that meeting Africa’s food needs as its population expands – without further compromising the climate or biodiversity – is a central challenge that needs to be present at COP27. “If we need to feed a growing population on the continent while producing food on existing land, instead of encroaching on natural ecosystems, what kind of food systems transformations are needed?” she asks. “What African governments and African negotiators will be looking for is investments that can help African countries leapfrog and avoid food production systems or models that are going to be devastating for climate and for nature.”
Despite the primacy of local solutions, says Grace, global solidarity with African aspirations are also extremely welcome. To that end, she urges would-be supporters to sign the LDYC’s COP27 demands to ensure that concerted actions are taken to address the climate crisis – with a special focus on loss and damage. “I hope we will see tangible political momentum in climate politics,” she says, “in a manner that is going to allow leaders, community actors and everyone else to stand on the right side of history – and protect our planet and its people.
“Africa has her story in efforts to address climate change – and her voice needs to be respected, understood and valued.”