Climate Geopolitics: an Opportunity for Africa to Become a Trailblazer?

Photo © Shever
Dry riverbed in Kenya during 2006 drought. Africa as a continent is highly vulnerable to climate change, and has hosted multiple climate-focused initiatives in the last decade

Ahead of the UN Conference of Parties (COP 21) meeting in December 2015, which it is hoped will deliver a universal, legally binding climate agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol by 2020, Paris is hosting an International Scientific Conference (ISC) from 7–10 July.

This four-day, science-based forum focuses on a ‘Common Future under Climate Change’ and gives the international scientific community an opportunity to provide input on the political and policy agenda on climate change. Drawing on a thematic approach and consistent with an overarching goal of analysing ‘the complex and inter-related science–human aspects of climate change’, four objectives have been articulated, namely to disseminate and share relevant knowledge and cutting-edge research; consider future scenarios and climate-related impacts; leverage positive action and upscale best-practice responses to climate change challenges; and explore transformative solutions.

This emphasis on the interaction between science, human activity and policy highlights potential responses to climate change that are neither purely technocratic nor overshadowed by the irrevocable loss of nature. Recent international initiatives, such as the New Climate Economy, reflect upon a shift in the political discourse on climate change, from a focus on the security threat to one that considers the opportunities encompassed by the green economy and climate-resilient solutions. For example, countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia have launched national low-carbon strategies to promote their green development pathways. This illustrates that in the face of human-driven environmental transformation, a rethinking of politics becomes necessary.

It is difficult to predict whether the growing challenges related to climate change could act as drivers to unlock the willingness of states to share experiences, strengthen interaction and ultimately construct a different geopolitical discourse. Nonetheless, this knowledge-based conference provides an opportunity to intensify the debate on rethinking politics and policies in the face of the current and anticipated paradigm shift regarding the earth’s climate.

All of the key pillars of COP 21 – mitigation, adaptation, capacity building, technology transfer and finance – rely heavily not only upon the intended nationally determined contributions of states but also upon tailor-made responses. Integrated approaches targeting food, water and vulnerable coastal areas, to respond to the failure of sector-based approaches in managing resources, have been implemented worldwide with mixed success. This underscores the necessity of multi-level and innovative actions to respond to global change. It is an opportunity for developing country negotiating groups such as the small island developing states, the least developed countries and Africa’s Group of Negotiators (AGN) to lead the way towards transformative solutions.

Far from being sidelined during the last decade of negotiations, the African continent has prompted multi-scaled climate-focused initiatives, ranging from national policies to regional initiatives. Energy has also been invested in developing transboundary initiatives, such as the 8 000km-long African Clean Energy Corridor, which includes commitments from 19 countries and partners, ranging from governments, regional organisations and development institutions to private investors. Beyond establishing specific entities, such as the Climate Change and Desertification Unit and several regional meteorological and hydrology centres, the AU has consistently supported climate-focused continental institutions and action.

In 2007, the Climate Information for Development initiative (CLIMDEV) was launched to address African countries’ request to include climate change into planning and management at national level, notably with the support of the African Development Bank. Ahead of the COP 14 climate negotiations that took place in 2008, the AU adopted the Algiers Declaration on Climate Change to help foster a common African position. In 2009, the AU established a Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change. A year later, the African Climate Policy Centre, which provides policy support to the AGN, was established under the umbrella of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and CLIMDEV. Subsequently, in 2014, the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, a permanent forum for African environmental ministers since 1985, assisted the AU to draft the African Strategy on Climate Change. The strategy elaborated the projected climate vulnerabilities for the continent and highlighted its major objectives during the course of the climate negotiations.

The AGN faces the challenge of aligning the positions and concerns of 54 countries in the climate change negotiations, while respecting and integrating their diverse contexts and varying levels of socio-economic development. If we assume that the universally desirable outcome is an effective response to global climate change, the way that countries perceive the chosen pathways, levels of growth and socio-environmental achievements of others, is also instrumental in how alliances will be formed, compromises made and agendas set. However, these perceptions could also be at the heart of the unravelling of a global agreement.

The AGN is instrumental in how African countries leverage their weight internationally. It is a careful balancing act between the domestic priorities of individual countries, on the one hand, and a demonstration of African consistency as a negotiating group, on the other. Supporting a Global Goal for Adaptation and strengthening a climate-focused financial architecture are crucial components in complementing not only actions towards integrative and sustainable development but also the AGN. This group has the potential to be that force for positive global change that COP 21 yearns to unlock.

A deeper reflection on socio-economic systems and their interaction worldwide with the environment needs to be included into the responses of societies to climate challenges.

The focus of the ISC’s coming meeting in Paris on exploring transformative solutions to climate challenges opens up an under-investigated scope for Africa to prompt innovative, integrated and transboundary strategies. It also creates an opportunity to ensure that the adaptation priority is well understood and positioned on the global agenda, during both COP 21 and subsequent negotiation rounds.