Is anybody listening?

This week, as world leaders gather in Copenhagen to craft a climate-change treaty, Africans are watching keenly for concrete actions — not words, pledges or promises.

The evidence is incontrovertible: Africa contributes less than 4% of harmful greenhouse gases and is least responsible for global warming. But Africa stands to lose most in terms of stalled development, forgone incomes and blighted lives because of disease, drought and deprivation caused by a changing climate.

According to one estimate, for Africa the costs of adapting to climate change could be between 5% and 10% of gross domestic product (GDP), a prohibitively high figure especially at a time of economic downturn. A climate treaty — in any form — emanating from Copenhagen must begin with the explicit recognition that Africa faces difficult trade-offs in its efforts to secure sustainable development for its people.

For Africans climate change is a core development issue. Before the financial crisis African economies were growing at a healthy clip — between 5% and 6%, an annual growth rate that was the envy of the industrialised world. But in our own version of an annus horribilis, we barely expect to reach 2% in 2009. The World Bank has warned that the global slowdown in economic growth is pushing 8-million to 10-million people deeper into poverty.

For Africa, jump-starting economic growth is an imperative not only to counter recessionary trends but to create decent jobs and increase incomes necessary to fight poverty. Across Africa lack of access to energy is frequently cited as a major factor preventing us from keeping our factories and productive enterprises humming, classrooms lit and hospitals and clinics functioning effectively.

A recent study of Africa’s infrastructure found that 48 sub-Saharan African countries with 800-million people generate roughly the same power as Spain, which has a population of 45-million people. More starkly, power consumption, at 124 kilowatt hours per capita annually and falling, is only 10% of that found elsewhere in the developing world. The study noted that of the $93-billion needed every year for infrastructure investment, nearly half is needed for the power sector alone.

This situation is execrable.

Africa has abundant sources of energy, but little power. For example, only 8% of Africa’s hydropower potential has been tapped. The continent has 7% of the world’s proved oil reserves and 6% of recoverable coal deposits. Africa is also blessed with ample solar radiation, from the Sahel to the Kalahari. Tapping renewable resources requires technology and money.

The way forward is clear. Achieving energy security across Africa will require us to tap into all available sources, renewable and non-renewable, including fossil fuel-based options, such as coal. We need access to financing, technology – such as carbon capture and storage, which are already available or coming on stream – and the best available expertise to exploit all the energy options in the least harmful manner, even as we rapidly expand the uptake of more renewable sources of energy.

And, for the record, it is worth noting that only 3% of Africa’s energy mix is derived from coal, compared with 50% and more in some industrialised countries.

A changing climate is also presenting other development challenges to Africa, the only continent not on track to achieving the poverty and hunger targets contained in the millennium development goals, which have a due date of 2015.

Water, or the lack of access to it, is becoming a severe problem. Already, extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts, are exacting a heavy human, economic and social toll. By some estimates climate variability is costing several countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya and Mozambique, between 1% and 2% of GDP every year. Climate change also affects agriculture, the largest sector of most African economies and a principal source of livelihood and food security. Droughts, a perennial problem for African farms, are increasing in intensity and frequency, destroying incomes of poor farmers.

The message for Copenhagen is clear. Climate change threatens to undermine our hard-won development gains and is already denying us economic and social opportunity. We are looking to Copenhagen to deliver a new development compact that works with us, not for us.

African Monitor was founded on the belief that African voices are needed for Africa’s development. Is anybody listening?

Njongonkulu Ndungane is the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town and founder and president of African Monitor, a grassroots organisation working to bring strong African voices to the sustainable development agenda.


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