Paris Agreement Now Open for Signature! An opportunity for Africa’s reality-check on climate actions

Photo © ©EU/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie
Women transporting water in Ethiopia, where three failed rainy seasons have resulted in the worst drought in 50 years. Climate models suggest that most African countries will experience higher temperatures and reduced rainfall in coming years.

On 22 April, the Paris climate agreement will be officially opened for signature at a special ceremony at the UN headquarters in New York. This represents a key opportunity for Africa to do a first reality-check on climate actions.

Countries have until 21 April 2017 to sign up to the agreement. Adopted on 12 December 2015, this new climate deal is the result of a long negotiating process that was revived under the South African Conference of the Parties (COP) Presidency in 2011. Signature of the treaty will bind countries to adopt the Paris outcomes within their own legal systems through ratification, acceptance, approval or accession.

The treaty will enter into force by 2020 when at least 55 Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have signed the agreement and together represent at least 55 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In concrete terms, the Paris agreement sets a framework for the next five years until 2020 when worldwide implementation begins to replace the Kyoto Protocol. While the COP-21 negotiations have underlined the importance of capacity building, technology transfer, finance and loss and damage mechanisms, these issues are not fully addressed in the Paris text. This poses an important challenge over the next five years to the hosts and participants in the annual COPs and the meetings of the Ad Hoc Working Groups.

While the agreement has been flagged as an unprecedented achievement in terms of climate diplomacy, there is room for further improvement. First, more tangible commitments should be made to ensure that the target is met of preventing an increase in global temperatures beyond 2°C.

Second, despite a text that targets the needs of least developed and small island states, the Paris agreement misses a key step to increase climate action worldwide. It lacks clear international engagement to protect the environment and support long-term adaptation. With its focus on financial resource mobilisation, the agreement largely ignores the sustainable use of natural resources. This oversight is lamentable, while climate-driven environmental challenges are mounting up and threatening the depletion and degradation of natural resources.

Third, specific mention of adaptation and the vulnerability of least developed and small island states is not sufficient to tackle the additional challenges that these countries face. A stronger and multi-level emphasis on the impacts of climate change on developing countries combined with proposed solutions, particularly on the African continent, is essential. To be more specific, the impact of this new climate deal for African climate policy-making and implementation remains unexplored.

Climate change projections predict that climate induced extreme events will intensify in Africa over the next decades. While changes might not be felt uniformly across the continent, climate models suggest that most African countries will experience higher temperatures and a significant reduction in their average annual rainfall. This brings additional challenges for most African countries where poverty remains structural and susceptibility to climate variability is pronounced. Nonetheless, the tools and mechanisms developed by the UNFCCC and the COPs over many years provide useful engagement means for African governments towards a low carbon route.

All African countries with the exception of Libya have submitted their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to address climate change. Given that the African emissions represent 3.6 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the African INDCs emphasise adaptation rather than mitigation. This follows the call of the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) for financial support, capacity building and technology to enable adaptation.

Clear sectoral priorities have emerged in the INDCs. For example, South Africa and Egypt identify the energy sector as a critical area for intervention, whereas the DR Congo, Congo and Guinea stress actions in the forestry sector. However, the INDCS also show that several African countries have barely started to develop climate-related policies, while others have already established an arsenal. Among the latter, Morocco and Ethiopia are close to becoming climate action role models, with pledges that have been identified as ‘sufficient’ to remain below the 2°C objective by the Climate Action Tracker.

Boldly defined national contributions are opportunities for the continent to secure financial flows consistent with their national pathways towards low-carbon economies and to increase their ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change. However, a question remains about whether these contributions and national climate policies are sufficient instruments to shape action and meet the overarching ambitious goal of sustainable development on the continent. Clearly, finance holds the key to the implementation of the new climate change deal. The capacity to mobilise investments supporting of sustainable development will also be important. To meet adaptation goals interaction between citizens, scientists, the private sector and governments will also be crucial to enable a transformative agenda.

Increasing interaction and co-ordination has already been fruitful to advance data collection and analysis to inform adaptation measures. However, these measures also need to explore local knowledge. Without denying the importance of global aggregated analysis and the weight of negotiating groups, it is important to remain country-specific for a fair evaluation of climate efforts. Concretely, it means that the implementation of this new climate deal will require a transformation of the international system that produced this agreement. This will entail actions that include the co-production of knowledge, collaborative learning, and more importantly, co-ordination between all stakeholders on decision-making and implementation.

To conclude on a positive note, there is ample historical evidence of the ability of humans to survive significant climate variations. However, whether modern society will barely survive or smartly adapt to the unprecedented changes we have triggered over the last century will be determined by our choices and actions of today. African countries need to ensure that adaptation action is sufficiently underpinned by comprehensive scenario-planning that aids appropriate policy development and implementation.