Rendezvous with Africa on Climate

PARIS – After a long series of preparatory meetings, the Copenhagen summit on climate change is finally upon us. With the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions expiring in 2012, the delegates who will gather in Copenhagen have been given the task of concluding a new international agreement. The world’s countries are engaging in one of the most complex and consequential exercises in collective action that has ever had to be managed in the history of international relations.

Although the responsibility of industrialized countries and emerging economies in the battle against carbon emissions is now well known, Africa’s place in the climate agenda has been largely neglected. Sub-Saharan emissions, estimated at only 3% to 4% of global man-made emissions, are deemed of little interest. Yet Africa is central to the global environmental crisis in two important ways.

First, Africa would be the first victim of major climate disturbance – with side-effects on the whole planet. Experts predict that the continent will experience some of the gravest changes, whereas the capacity of African societies to respond to them is among the weakest in the world.

Several African countries are already experiencing reduced rainfall, soil degradation, and the depletion of precious natural resources, which has a direct impact on the livelihoods of two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africans. The economic, social, migratory, and security consequences of such vulnerability on the rest of the world cannot be ignored, as Africa will be home to more than two billion inhabitants in 2050.

Second, Africa is one of the important actors in the global environmental crisis. Because of its vast natural heritage, the continent contains some of the most potent solutions to climate change. The Congo basin represents the second largest mass of tropical forest in the world, with 220 million hectares. At a time when carbon emissions are rapidly rising worldwide, this gigantic carbon-capture machine is, like agricultural land, one of the essential elements of global climate control. And yet Africa’s forest coverage fell by 10% between 1990 and 2005 – more than half the recorded global shrinkage.

Moreover, Africa will experience by far the largest growth in energy requirements of any world region in the next 50 years. The fight against climate change will be waged in large part over whether Africa’s energy needs are met with fossil fuels or renewable energies.

It is vital that the Copenhagen delegates recognize and promote Africa’s contribution to the world’s delicate climatic balance. Efforts to preserve Africa’s natural resources and to exploit the vast potential of the sub-continent’s renewable energies are not free. But if Africa’s carbon-storage capacity is viewed as a global public good, as it should be, then everyone should contribute to its provision by developing mechanisms that enable preservation and spark the move toward sustainable energy models.

Three promising tracks will have to materialize rapidly. The first consists in increasing the use of existing tools, such as Clean Development Mechanisms (CDMs), which enable actors from rich countries to promote projects that reduce emissions in developing countries. Up to now, Africa has missed out on the benefits of CDMs: to date, less than 2% of these projects take place in Africa, compared to 73% for Asia. Africa ought to be the global carbon market’s new frontier.

The second track is official recognition of the carbon storage of African lands and forests, as well as rewards for “avoided deforestation.” At a time when humanity is coming to measure the value of biodiversity and the importance of land and forests in climate control, Africa has much to gain by making itself the guardian of a heritage that is essential to humanity’s survival. This is worth several billion dollars annually, which could constitute one of the essential stepping-stones to sustained economic growth in Africa in a post-petroleum era.

Finally, the “climate justice” plan sponsored by France and others in Copenhagen, which aims to increase Africans’ access to clean energy, is crucial at a time when three of ten sub-Saharan Africans have no access to electricity. It is a question not only of justice, but also of climate regulation. Linking public and private efforts to provide two billion Africans with renewable energy will therefore be one of the major challenges of the coming decades.

In the past, African countries found it difficult to make their voices heard in major international negotiations. Their decision to act as a bloc in Copenhagen is an important step forward. But Africa and its partners will now have to unite to win the adoption of measures that ensure the sustainable exploitation of Africa’s vast environmental potential in the interest of us all.