April 22, 2022
Reflecting on COP26 in Glasgow, November 2021, and at the 35th Africa Union Summit in Addis Ababa, February 2022, Africa has spoken with one voice. That voice is loud and clear: the continent needs a fair and just transition toward a low-carbon future. To do so, a lot of money, technology, and expertise is needed to move to a green path and deal with the social and economic risks that this would bring.
This year, Earth Day focuses on investing in our planet. Africa says it is high time for the Global North to move beyond rhetoric and make good on its pledges and commitments to avert the impending climate crisis. Africa says that the world must learn from the failed global response to the COVID-19 pandemic and take urgent, decisive, sweeping action to combat the climate threat. Anything short of that will likely spell doom for the entire planet.
UNU- INRA interviewed several African experts to bring you their perspectives on Africa’s top climate concerns, what an African Just Transition would look like, and how to prepare for stranded assets.
Africa is saying,
Isabelle Ramdoo: The lessons from COVID-19 are very relevant to the climate crisis. The virus and climate change share one thing: they know no borders. We have seen it with the Global North vaccination drive and hoarding of vaccines, where vaccination rates reached 70-75% of the population. Meanwhile, the rest of the world lags far behind because of a lack of vaccine access and supply shortages. Still, the virus has come back. We must change our ways of thinking and act in response to climate change, or the consequences will be disastrous because a virus has a cycle, whereas climate change does not.
Countries need to work together to make the fight against climate change a global commitment instead of the North-versus-South, rich-versus-poor, developed-versus-developing polarization that characterises the current climate debate. Negotiators still use geography or economic development levels as a basis for their discussions. This is a problem. Climate negotiations cannot be handled the same way that trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization (WTO) are conducted because climate change is a global challenge. That is what is wrong with the structure and nature of the climate talks, as well as the way money is transferred from the North to the South via development aid channels, which we now know have limitations.
Jean-Paul Adam: Africa’s financing “ask” recognises that the continent is starting from a much lower base; the needs are much bigger, and adaptation costs are much higher. We are seeing that, in many cases, African countries are already spending close to 10% of GDP to respond to climate-related disasters. A vast climate change cluster is coming directly from their budgets, and countries struggle to meet those costs.
Similarly, African countries’ ability to mobilise climate finance is limited, particularly concerning private climate resilience investments. Africa can access 23% of the total official climate finance available through the Green Climate Fund and other partners, but only 3% of climate finance is from private sources. So, there is a real gap in Africa’s access to global financing. The continent’s inability to access markets in the same way that developed countries do presents a huge challenge, especially in a very tight fiscal situation with countries averaging a minus 8% of GDP fiscal deficit at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The USD700 billion that African negotiators at CoP26 called for was a recognition that none of the Sustainable Development Goals are achievable unless we deal with climate resilience. It is about recognising that sustainable development and climate resilience are indivisible in Africa, even though the ‘ask’ may seem extremely high to the ordinary person. We have to put it in a context where almost USD20 trillion has been mobilised in less than two years to fight COVID-19. That translates into unequal shares per capita; in low-income countries, the amount mobilized per capita stands at only $57 per person, whereas it exceeds USD 11,000 per person in the developed world. That is a considerable gap, which is reflected in Africa’s ask-a drop in the ocean compared to the amount raised for COVID-19.
There is a lot of debate on what the figure should be—100 billion US dollars, 700 billion US dollars, or another trigger—and the plan is to set a new target for that figure in 2025. However, the actual need is in trillions of US dollars. That is not to say that we need trillions in terms of grant financing or from taxpayers, but we need to invest in a way that creates multipliers. So, the need for development partners to invest money is unavoidable because it leads to other types of financing, so it’s important to have them.
Many African governments are grappling with how to effect the transition in practice, especially in the short-to-medium term. There is a cost attached to it, and it is quite prohibitive. Even if we know a significant number is floating out there, the number, say USD10 trillion a year, has now tripled. This is still on the low side because, in reality, at the same time, it is possible to count the economic impact cost by the amount of investments required, but it is very difficult to quantify the social impact of the transition.
For countries that are not dependent on any type of fossil fuel for jobs, fiscal revenues, and exports, it is relatively easy for them to sign agreements and invest in cleaner energy sources and technologies. But how and with what will large fossil fuel producing countries replace these resources? What is the alternative? How do they retrofit the villages, the towns, and the people who live off these resources for their livelihoods?
We need to recognise that it is not a question of political will but rather the realities of the different countries that dictate the kinds of commitments they may or may not make and whether they are frontrunners or laggards in terms of climate agreements and actions. African countries are trying to rise to the challenge, but the main bottleneck is financing. Governments can only respond to what their budgetary space allows them to. Cynics would say that “it is always about the money; of course, it is. In short, you are asking countries that have not contributed to the climate crisis to be the first ones to pay and do more, especially given that their people are already among the most vulnerable and without providing the required funding. What interest do they have in driving the transition?
Rose Mwebaza: As part of the conversation on just transition, a significant achievement for African countries—to the credit of the African Group of Negotiators and the G77 and China—is the stipulation, both in the UNFCCC Convention and the Paris Agreement, that developed countries should provide technology transfers and the financing for it to developing countries. This principle of international environmental law on Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) Since the greatest contributors to global warming are the developed countries, the Global North should fund the transfer of the technologies that will build Africa’s adaptation and resilience capacity. This speaks to the principle of just transition. For that to happen, Africa must gain access to the billions of dollars that have eluded it.
Technologies are expensive because innovation, from the time of design to when the technology is on the market, is a costly process. It comes with intellectual property rights whose access is prohibitive. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how intellectual property rights are key to innovations and technologies. Even in the context of a global health threat, Africa has been unable to access the patent rights for COVID vaccines. If it is a difficult conversation to have in a worldwide pandemic, imagine how much more difficult it must be to negotiate access to technologies for climate action. There are generic technologies available, but the transformational technologies are out of the reach of many African countries, and their positions can be extremely high. Africa can make its own decisions about how to change. To do so, it must be able to accept new technologies that will help the continent adapt and build its resilience so that its people can live and thrive in the new climate reality.
Isabelle Ramdoo: You have differences within and across countries, and therefore the development path needs to be thought of differently. Just Transitions (plural: Just Transitions) is an interesting concept. Here, we can draw a lesson from the mechanisms of just transition that we are trying to manage in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) context. We are talking about the transition for private actors, the producers, the suppliers, and whoever is engaged in the economic sphere, including those working in and around polluting technologies.
For example, Europe is mulling over the Carbon Border Measure tax. That might not affect Africa today, but it might affect trade with Africa tomorrow. So, we need a transition for our industries, which I would call the “private sector transition.” There is another one for consumers. Another essential aspect to consider is the differences within countries; you can’t address the issue of just transitions for rural and urban people in the same way. A blanket ‘just transition’ measure or mechanism doesn’t apply to people. You have a “rural” transition to make since the majority of the people in rural areas are the most vulnerable, even within vulnerable countries.
The other issue is the disconnect between the global transition and the realities in developing countries. The green technology we provide them does not always meet their requirements; it is not adaptable. Deploying electric vehicles (EVs), batteries, and similar technologies in rural and remote areas will take decades. It is critical to consider how to link the adaptation needs of people living in these areas with technologies so that they do not become the first victims of the climate crisis. The global solutions discussed are relevant to their realities and needs.
One critical dimension, which has become a significant discussion point for governments worldwide, is the issue of transition for workers and people. Unfortunately, the social plans developed and implemented to address just transitions in most countries have not involved the concerned people; they are not inclusive; they are thought for but not with people. This is important, as the one thing you want to avoid is for these people to be adversely impacted because the solution you are offering is inadequate. So, we need to move away from blanket thinking about transition and take a more granular approach as there are different layers to the issue. The SDGs could provide a way of thinking differently to address the challenge of development.
Simon Anderson: The benefits of the South Africa Coal Deal should include the possibility for South Africa to partner with countries in its neighbourhood to enable just transitions to happen across borders. It is a point well made in the UNU-INRA Second Report on Stranded Assets, which recommends countries, particularly those with large degrees of fiscal inflexibility and potential hydrocarbon resources, not to undertake transitions alone without looking at the benefits and outcomes that could accrue from having cross-border, multi-country strategies.
In addition, the emergence of a continent-wide free trade agreement—the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)—provides a platform for countries to start identifying how cross-border connections will enable just transition strategies to be implemented. We can imagine a context where complementary resources for just transitions can be used on either side of the border—it could be a good hydro resource on one side of the border, and there could be another type of natural resource on the other side of the border—if you put these two things together, then you are more likely to be able to achieve a just transition strategy which would favour countries on both sides of the border. Also, African countries can now collaborate more in developing regional markets, potentially reducing transaction costs, stimulating the development of greener, less carbon-intensive sectors, and allowing greater cross-border interaction between national economies.
Rose Mwebaza: An interesting conversation relating to stranded assets is the development of carbon capture and sequestration technologies in the fossil fuel industry. At COP26, there have been calls to divest from fossil fuels. But, no decision was reached because, in reality, most countries, including the big emitters, still rely heavily on these resources. So, one of the options they are looking at is technologies that capture the carbon emissions causing global warming and convert some of these emissions into various forms of hydrogen so they can continue using these assets. That means we will still continue to produce fossil fuels. The path of Africa’s transition should provide access to carbon capture and offset technologies instead of closing down and stranding the continent’s assets. There are real possibilities, especially for Africa’s mining sector and its gas resources.
Isabelle Ramdoo: There is one key agreement on agriculture reached by CoP26. Sustainable agricultural practices are crucial because the feedstock in agriculture is closely related to mining and minerals. So, if you think of improving agricultural productivity using inputs and fertilizer feedstock, that’s phosphate. It could come from natural gas and some of the assets that are at risk of being stranded.
Another key CoP declaration relates to the reduction of methane emissions. As you know, methane is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases after coal, and the agriculture sector is responsible for 40% of all methane emissions. Agriculture is the second-largest economic activity in most African countries, and there is a link between the two. There is a global call to prevent the burning of fields after harvest. So, what strategies do African countries have to reduce methane emissions?
The exciting aspect is that the solutions for agriculture, unlike energy, are tailor-made for specific microclimates and countries. This is where the continent can develop its homegrown agro-industrial solutions using minerals. For example, coal is a purifier of water, and we know that 10% of the coal production doesn’t go into combustion. That could be something to explore for sustainable agricultural practices, especially since water is set to become a cause of war. Feedstock derived from natural gas can be used for fertilizers. This is revolutionary. There are ways of greening minerals, which on paper are dirty, for use in the transition, the industrial revolution, and employment creation.
Dr. Jean-Paul Adam – Director for Technology, Climate Change, and Natural Resources Management, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UN-ECA)
Jean-Paul Adam is the Director for Technology, Climate Change, and Natural Resources Management at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Before taking on this role, he served in the Government of the Republic of Seychelles in several Cabinet positions. He was Minister of Health from 2016 to 2019. He served as Minister of Finance, Trade, and the Blue Economy from 2015 to 2016, where he negotiated a debt for climate change adaptation swap and launched the process for Seychelles to become the first issuer of a Blue Bond. Between 2010 and 2014, he was Seychelles’ Minister of Foreign Affairs, where he advocated for countries to embrace the concept of the Blue Economy to improve sustainability for island and coastal countries.
Dr. Rose Mwebaza – Director at UN Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN)
Dr. Rose Mwebaza (Ph.D.) brings 20 years of experience providing policy advice on climate change, environment, and sustainable development issues. She has previously served as Chief Natural Resources Officer at the African Development Bank and held leadership positions within the UN Development Programme. Dr. Mwebaza was a lecturer at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, serving as the Head of the Department of Commercial Law and Deputy Dean of the Law School. Rose holds a Ph.D. in Environment and Natural Resource Governance from Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.
Isabell Ramdoo – Deputy Director, Intergovernmental Forum on Mining (IGF)
Isabelle Ramdoo is the Deputy Director of the IGF Secretariat and leads its work on local content policies and the New Tech, New Deal project. Isabelle is an economist with over 20 years of experience in trade negotiations and industrial policy. She has worked as a senior advisor to the African Minerals Development Centre/United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, as Deputy Head of Programme, Economic Transformation, at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, and as an economist and trade negotiator for the Government of Mauritius.
Simon Anderson – Senior Fellow, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)
Simon is a Senior Fellow at IIED, currently working on monitoring and evaluation learning, gender equality, and issues of sustainable development universality. His work includes ways to transform experiential learning about sustainable development into evidence for policy. Simon is co-chair of IIED’s gender equality champions network. He explores how to use realist approaches to learning at the intersections of gender equality and universality. Simon is also a Senior Fellow at UNU-INRA, contributing to the organization’s two reports on Stranded Assets.