In Katowice, the dismissal of science as an afterthought was a chilling reminder that the IPCC 1.5oC Report, commissioned by Member States, Parties to the Convention, is not enough to disengage with ‘politics as usual’. IPCC’s stark warning that we have only 12 years to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees, and that even half a degree outside this temperature guardrail might trigger more climate crises in vulnerable regions such as Africa, seemed to have fallen on deaf ears.
As stark as this reminder is, one needs to state that 1.5 degrees is a relative metric, which still translates into a net loss for Africa, given the fact that most of its economic mainstay is predicated on cash crop earnings. In countries like Ghana, extreme temperatures and seasonal droughts are threatening the cocoa industry which employs close to 800,000 farmers and generates about $2 billion in foreign exchange annually. Many African countries are highly indebted, with Sub-Saharan Africa’s public debt averaging 57% of its GDP in 2017, which represents a huge challenge in realizing the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, and more so in fighting back against climate change.
Why is Katowice so strikingly familiar?
Is it all about equity? Well, perhaps not entirely. Even in a democratized, bottom-up process that sought to reduce the relevance of the Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) and the constant bickering over narrow interests witnessed recently at Katowice, equity remains a strong undercurrent to the global climate negotiations. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference was a triumph of the collective to pursue the fight against climate change, moving from intentions to concrete actions. Transitioning from the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) has signalled this new wave.
Many developing countries have outlined more ambitious NDCs than they can afford, evidenced in the unconditional Nationally Determined Contributions ––financing climate action without donor funding. Yet, the IPCC 1.5 report highlights the disproportionate plight of the world’s vulnerable populations, indigenous peoples, and local communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods under 1.5°C global warming. West Africa, for instance, has been identified as a climate-change hotspot highly likely to suffer from decreasing crop yields and production. Katowice has re-imposed climate justice on to the menu – not as a choice, that can be snubbed, but as a sharp warning that leaving this ‘entrée’ out of the ‘main’ course of action will send the negotiations back into the squandered years of inaction and political back pedalling.
Rich versus poor – old battles lines re-drawn
The climate negotiations have often taken a binary approach between those who created the mess and those that should assume the burden of cleaning up. Countries peripheralized before, during and after the Industrial Revolution, not only have to watch the contours of development designed and bolstered in mature economies, they also have to pay for the price of being doubly ‘annexed’ – first by their commodities and raw materials that helped to sustain the Industrial Revolution and second by a determination to keep the revolution exclusive to economies that had the buying power to buy themselves out of the underdevelopment of their working classes. The historical emissions and carbon footprint of industrialized nations have taken a human, economic, environmental and cultural toll on the people least able to reconfigure new development models, or to redesign an atmospheric space that will give them greater access to pollute as a ‘birth right’ to their own development trajectory. Countries in Africa, on the margins of economic development, even with a dozen economies rising to catch up, will still be caught in starter block mode in the face of devastating climate impacts. Many would have joined the race simply too late to make a significant difference in insulating their economies with the relevant financial muscle, infrastructure, technologies, information, and knowledge to win the race against climate change. Katowice has laid open old battle lines, exposed open wounds and requalified equity as intangibly related to any form of climate action. Countries that are signatories to the Paris Agreement are still concerned with political economy considerations. Collective responsibility and enlightened self-interest are often expressed in hollow terms. Climate finance, strongly correlated with equity, remains a critical consideration.
‘Moving forward with the same bad ideas’ or creating spaces for new voices and new agencies?
It is hard to be optimistic in the light of Katowice’s weak outcomes, which lost sight of the IPCC 1.5oC report’s call for urgency – even the agreement on the Paris rulebook had to be forceps delivered. Yet, one cause for optimism is the emerging voices of a new generation of leaders that are cutting through the noise. In Katowice, the calm voice of the young Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, is strong enough to call on our moral conscience and compel us into action, a reminder of the intergenerational dimensions of the debate.
As Thunberg passionately stated ‘you only talk about moving forward with the same bad ideas that got us into this mess, even when the only sensible thing to do is pull the emergency brake’. The emergency brake must be pulled when we see that we are heading towards a steep cliff. We must take a step back and look at the incoherent and impractical instruments of negotiations. Take NDCs for example. According to the African Development Bank latest report[4, 49 African countries out of 54 have ratified their NDCs, with an estimated cost of USD 4 trillion to meet adaptation and mitigation targets by 2030. Who will foot that bill? The contradiction between NDCs and international action is all too apparent. The Paris Agreement is not a binding treaty. There are no sanctions imposed on nations, and no imperatives to hold nations accountable, and to make NDCs realistic, achievable and measurable with a clear roadmap for implementation.
Climate leadership is not a western preserve. Africa has an opportunity to take the findings of the 1.5oC report and use it towards greater development and safer growth. To do so, the continent needs strong leaders who are not afraid to design climate action that rhymes with prosperity. Africa has everything to gain from a new climate momentum – one that takes into account current megatrends related to urbanization, demography and youth employment to better anticipate and potentially blunt climate impacts. We are witnessing greater ingenuity and innovation across the continent. An unprecedented level of internet and mobile connectivity has led to the mushrooming of tech hubs with currently 442 active hubs across the continent, and the rise of a new breed of entrepreneurs, with 7 out of 10 young Africans that are self-employed.
Indeed, Africa can build the foundation of the house for a secure climate future. But these bricks must be laid by Africans who have interests in safeguarding the house for future occupants. Our time on earth is transient. We are mere ‘caretakers’ of a planet that we must bequeath to our children and their children, in short, a new set of caretakers. Fossil-fuel powered economic prosperity is being challenged from all sides, even at a time when some African countries are ‘courting’ new discoveries of oil and gas. The burden of responsibility to act now and widen the space to ‘old’ and ‘new’ stakeholders, not least the private sector and the youth, is a current as omnipotent as climate change itself. If we ignore this call, we do so at our peril.
Fatima Denton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of UNU-INRA