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The (African) COP27: From Blame Game to Building Bridges

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By Dan Kuwali, Prince Bright Majiga

· 12 min read

COP 27 – Another Hot Air?

From 6 to 18 November 2022, world leaders and their influential decision-makers met at Sharm el-Sheikh for the 27th Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 27). This is a meeting of the group of 198 countries that have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Sharm el-Sheikh is a resort town only reachable by air or by roads studded with checkpoints. Bordered by the Red Sea on one side and a concrete and wire barrier in the Sinai desert on the other, it is emblematic of the distance relationship is not only physical but also symbolizes the plasticity of commitment and extent to which world leaders and other decision-makers are far from African realities.

To recall in 2009, developed countries committed to set aside US$100 billion per year for Climate finance, in what was described as a “common but differentiated responsibility” toward climate change. However, developed countries have repeatedly failed to meet this pledge. As an example, developed countries provided US$83.3 billion in 2020 – falling US$16.7 billion short of the target. In the final days of COP26 the deal labelled the The “Glasgow Climate Pact”, although imperfect, did set an unprecedented goal for developed countries to double the funding provided to developing countries for adaptation by 2025.

COP27 came at a time when all four quarters of the globe had been hit by effects of climate change, including flash floods in Pakistan, Europe’s hottest summer, in centuries, Hurricane Ian hammering the United States and Cyclone Idai and Kenneth , which caused substantial devastation in Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The hosts, Egypt, called COP27 as the "African COP" not because it was the largest COP summit ever but also because many Africans are at the mercy of extreme weather and other forces of nature, with the continent being vulnerable to the effects of climate change. COP27 must garner a more concerted effort to safeguard the rights of the most vulnerable on the continent. Climate change has led to multiple human rights violations across Africa, with millions of people losing access to food, water, health, and other rights essential to life. Hence the five key focus areas for action at COP27 included nature, food, water, industry decarbonization and climate adaptation.

COP27 promised lengthy discussions involving bargaining, stock-taking, and future planning. Apart from the usual optics and rhetoric, this year’s Conference carried with it some hope, albeit guarded, to make efforts to actualize broken promises in the face of growing effects of climate change. The Egyptian COP27 Presidency defined the summit’s four key goals as: mitigation where all parties, especially those in a position to “lead by example”, are urged to take “bold and immediate actions” and to reduce emissions to limit global warming well below 2°C; adaptation by enhancing climate change resilience and assisting the world’s most vulnerable communities; climate financing, including the delivery of the promised US$100 billion per year to assist developing countries; and collaboration that require “inclusive and active participation from all stakeholders.” In short, the COP27 was meant to fix broken promises and build bridges.

Climate Change Reflects Growing Inequalities

Pessimists and optimists as well as rich and poor countries agree that climate change presents the single biggest threat to sustainable development everywhere. Extreme weather events — such as more frequent and intense droughts, floods, heatwaves and other climate-induced impacts, including accelerated desertification, coastal erosion, species extinction and habitat loss—are wreaking havoc such that no country nor economy is immune from the climate crisis. Climate change is an existential threat to Africa’s communities, ecosystems, and economies. It places our developmental gains, our prosperity, and the aspirations of the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 in jeopardy. It is also not disputed that the unprecedented and indiscriminatory effects of climate change disproportionately burden the world’s poorest people. Indeed, each nation has a fair share of the challenges resulting from climate change, but the problems are not shared equally across the globe. In fact, climate change also exudes some of the growing inequalities in the world. While it does not necessarily point towards power dynamics, climate change reflects growing inequalities.

That some quarters least affected by climate change make decisions for those heavily affected by the problem reflects growing inequality, manifesting in indifference, needless suffering and existential threats to poor states. Poor countries most of which are in the global south appear resigned to accepting what they can endure while powerful countries in the global north seem to get away with whatever they can. Climate change has affected poor countries more, especially in Africa. For example, while average global temperatures are projected to rise by 3°C (5.4°F) by the year 2100, some places along the equator have already warmed twice as much, leading to increased rates of drought and extreme heat. Some of the most climate-affected communities are also the least financially capable to adapt.

Yet Africa has contributed the least to global warming, accounting for less than 4 percent of global emissions. At 0.8tCO2e/year, for example, per capita emissions in Africa are well below the global mean of 5tCO2e/year, and far lower than for other regions such as Europe and Asia. As a result, climate change is projected to dramatically increase global inequality, with a 2015 Stanford University study estimating that average incomes in the poorest countries will decline by 75 percent by 2100, while incomes in some of the richest countries will continue to grow.

Gladly, African states have not just sat on the fence in the case of this global threat. In fact, several countries on the continent have contributed to the debate on how to combat climate change since the early 1990s. These COP negotiations have produced several important accords, including the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement . However, progress has been slow because most States have been inconsistent in keeping promises and translating commitments into rapid action.

African COP: From Blame Game to Leading from the Front

The 13th United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires States and international community to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Likewise, the seventh goal of the AU Agenda 2063 is to achieve environmentally sustainable and climate resilient economies and communities. Nonetheless, previous COP debates to achieve these goals have largely been criticized for their spectacularism in commitments but impotency in delivery. The 27th edition Conference was dubbed the “implementation COP” where developing countries were united in their clarion call at COP27 to get more commitments from Western States and, more importantly, willingness to comply with those commitments. This is why the former Irish president, Mary Robinson, predicted that COP27 was time for “empty words or hollow pledges.”

Loss and Damage – Towards the Precipice of Irreparability

“Loss and Damage” emerged as one of the major themes during COP27. Under the 2015 Paris Agreement all countries agreed to address the loss and damage associated with climate change impacts. The “loss and damage” concept requires countries that have contributed the most to climate change with their emissions pay poorer countries to recover from the resulting disasters brought by climate change. While the concept seems similar to the longstanding ‘fair share’ US$100 billion climate-finance agreed at COP15 in 2009, they are distinct. The US$100 billion climate finance is to help poorer nations mitigate and adapt to climate change. Loss represents economic impacts like lost agricultural production that cannot be easily quantified, while damage captures the destruction of infrastructures that are calculable. This is seen as a matter of fairness because the emissions from developed countries are principally responsible for climate change. Yet still, rich states, who by any measure are the biggest polluters, dug in and fiercely resist providing specific finance for this as they do not want to accept liability and risk being sued by climate vulnerable nations.

Increased Climate Financing for Africa

With continued rising carbon emissions, developing countries are calling for more funds to help them adapt to the consequences of climate change. Hence COP 27 was coined African COP27 with a priority is to increase financing for low- and middle-income countries, which have contributed the least to global emissions but suffer the consequences most severely, the continent, despite bearing the blunt climate change, is not a stranger to unfulfilled promises. The fact that the Conference set out to follow up on previous commitments is a sign of how far the international community has backslidden to the extent that the much needed benchmarks cannot be achieved and we are still stuck trying to get the basic right. It is a reminder of how the COP may be perceived by critics as a forum of echoes and not action.

Climate change adaptation is probably Africa’s main challenge. It is pleasing that Africa has initiated and developed innovative ways of climate financing. For example, the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Global Centre on Adaptation implemented the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Programme, which intends to mobilize US$25 billion in climate adaptation finance for Africa. An international group of insurance and finance firms has launched the Africa Climate Risk Facility, with a commitment to underwrite US$14bn of cover to protect 1.4 billion people against climate disasters by 2030. On the sidelines of COP27, Africa and its global partners launched the Alliance for Green Infrastructure (AGIA), an initiative to help scale and accelerate financing for green infrastructure projects in Africa. It has two strategic objectives: first, to generate a robust pipeline of transformational bankable projects; and second to catalyse financing at scale and speed for Africa’s infrastructure.

Africans should lead where they can

Climate change adaptations in some countries like Nigeria and Kenya have led to tensions and confrontations. This complicates way of life in countries already saddled with debt, corruption, inequalities and at times, terrorism, and armed conflict. What is more, most countries in Africa have agro-based economies, which have been impacted by the adverse effects of climate change. Since the continent is particularly vulnerable to risk and disruption from climate change, African States should shift from blame game to actively taking lead in ensuring all States implement their commitments and fulfil their pledges towards climate change mitigation, adaptation, and resilience as well as climate financing. Taking a human rights-based approach, African governments should invest in such initiatives by providing adaptation and mitigation measures and support to vulnerable local communities in Africa to protect human rights and achieve the SDGs and AU Agenda 2063, respectively.

Africa remains at the back of the queue when it comes to handling effects of climate change. For instance, Africa’s contribution to climate science and research processes, including Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports, has so far been very limited. That is so despite generally agreed position that timely and high-quality weather and climate information contribute to enhanced seasonal forecasts that can assist users such as farmers, planners and water and energy suppliers to increase productivity and therewith contribute to economic development. As a way of enhancing the resilience of infrastructure, economies, and ecosystems and thereby ensuring sustainable economic development, efficient weather forecasts systems are non-negotiable. States should also promote climate literacy to enhance population’ awareness and understanding of climate science. Such education, especially if given to vulnerable communities, will help people to better prepare to respond to adverse effect of climate change. African states should also equip their populations, especially the youth with green skills to promote innovations need to transition to a green or sustainable economy.

African States should stay the course

While not serving as an excuse for failing to meet pledged assistance, the Ukrainian conflict has come into the way of climate change interventions. Following the war, countries like Germany have returned to burning coal in place of Russian gas. On its part, China, continues to build coal-fired power plants cementing her position as the top emitter of greenhouse gases annually. Complicating the situation are some African states who feeling short-changed by broken promises regarding the green transition while simultaneously trying to improve socio-economic development of their people.

While several world leaders have described Africa’s sustainable development as a “priority” for the UN and international community, the truth that collective action has often fallen short on delivery is no longer a secret. In the face of such empty promises, African states like Uganda and Tanzania are set to begin work on a massive crude oil pipeline a year after the International Energy Agency (IEA) warned that the world risked not meeting its climate goals if new fossil fuel projects were not stopped. The two East African countries say their priority is economic development. The Ugandan and Tanzanian governments see the pipeline as vital to turbo-charge their economies. This resonates with some advocates of Africa’s economic development who argue that the continent has the right to use its fossil fuel riches to develop, just like rich nations have done for hundreds of years. The argument is that people need power in Africa to lift them out of poverty. Hence countries are turning to fossil fuels to generate incomes. Peculiar in this circumstance is that 92 percent of Uganda’s energy already comes from renewable sources. In Tanzania, it is about 84 percent, sharply contrasting with the EU’s 22 percent. Instead of retaliating, African states should use their collective voice to ensure all states implement their commitments and fulfil their pledges.

Strike a balance between development and climate change

While the AU Climate Change and Resilient Development Strategy and Action Plan (2022-2032) supports the realization of the vision that the AU’s Agenda 2063 seeks to have climate-resilient communities and economies by setting out principles, priorities, and action areas for enhanced climate cooperation and long-term, climate resilient development, it falls short of striking a balance between development and climate change.

One thing that African countries need to do is improve on governance, particularly plugging holes on leaky government purses and corruption. While western countries’ lack of commitment may be attributable to other causes, lack of accountability in most African states entail the diversion of funds meant to mitigate climate change impact. On its part, the AU needs to go beyond rhetoric and adopt an agency-centred approach. The AU needs to encourage its member states to own up the problems affecting them and not allow scapegoating by leaders who may want to abdicate their responsibilities.

The AU needs to encourage its members to dutifully stick to Agenda 2063 and improve the livelihoods of their citizenry. In the face of unemployment, inequalities, corruption, African states cannot afford to conduct themselves in a “business-as-usual approach”. In fact, evidence shows that climate change exaggerates developmental problems. It is thus important that green approaches be seen not as competitors to development that African states badly need, but as complementary efforts. The AU and development partners should help African States to strengthen community responses  and preparedness.

This article is also published by The Raoul Wallenberg Institute.​ Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

Note: the views expressed in this blog are solely the Authors and not of the institutions they are affiliated to.

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About the authors

Dan Kuwali is an Affiliated Professor specialsed in International Law and International Affairs, Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. He is also Extraordinary Professor of International Law, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria; Executive Director, Centre for Strategic Studies, Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST); and Commandant, National Defence College, Malawi.

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Prince Bright Majiga is a Malawi Defence (MDF) officer currently serving as part of The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). His research interests range from the interconnectedness of strategy and intelligence, conduct of intelligence in peacekeeping and resource poor environments, countering violent extremism in Africa and security governance.​

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