Africans and people from many other poorer nations will die because of United States President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
The overall effect of his decision on global warming will be negligible but the real threat is to the funds that are helping people to adapt to a changing climate.
The Paris Agreement, thrashed out after years of argument between nearly 200 nations, was a coup. It is rare for so many countries to agree on anything, let alone a process that would fundamentally change how the world uses energy and what it releases into the atmosphere.
Its key lies in nationally determined contributions — what each country has said it will do about climate change between 2025 and 2030.
China is responsible for 26% of all carbon emissions, and the US for 16%.
Nine different peer-reviewed studies have concluded that, put together, these contributions would mean that, by 2100, the world will have warmed by 1°C less than without them. A small start.
The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says, if the world warms by more than 2°C by the end of this century, ecosystems will start to unravel and life on Earth will become difficult.
But, for Africa, and some nations elsewhere, they have less time to play with. African countries say anything more than a 1.5°C rise could be catastrophic.
That makes the Paris Agreement critical, particularly for this continent. Warming here tends to be double the global average. Countries are also much less able to respond to sudden changes, for example, in rainfall. This means more drought, crop failures and floods, all of which kill people.
Number crunching done by the University of California in Berkeley this week concludes that, in the worst-case scenario, if the US stops doing anything about reducing its emissions, it alone will warm the planet by an extra 0.3°C this century. But this scenario is improbable.
Cities, companies and states in that country are doing their own thing. Trump declared he was withdrawing because he was elected to serve “Pittsburgh, not Paris”. But Pittsburgh’s mayor responded by saying: “President Trump’s decision is disastrous for our planet, for cities such as Pittsburgh.”
Trump’s decision means subsidies and government impetus for renewable energy might shrink but, in a country where states and cities have so much power, many will go ahead regardless. Pittsburgh alone has 30 000 jobs in renewable energy industries, in a country with three million of them.
Trump will serve at most two terms. The Berkeley research, which is backed by other frantic number-crunching done since the president’s announcement last week, says, if the next US administration goes back to lowering emissions, the world will have warmed by 0.02°C because of Trump.
For Africa, the overall effect of his decision on warming will be negligible. But the real harm could be to the funds for African countries to adapt to the warming that is already locked in, as a result of two centuries of carbon emissions — and which Africa largely didn’t benefit from.
These funds go through the Green Climate Fund, set up as part of the Paris Agreement, for activities such as setting up irrigation schemes for those who rely on rainfall and who suffer every time there is a drought. This sort of development helps villages and even cities to become more resilient to climate change.
The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that becoming more resilient will cost Africa $50-billion a year by 2050.
To help, countries have agreed to put $100-billion a year into the green fund. In practice, 40 countries have pledged a total of $10-billion. The US has paid in more than $1-billion and has promised another $2-billion.
But Trump has said he will “stop all payments of US tax dollars to UN global warming programmes”. That will mean at least $2-billion will be lost to help people adapt to the changing climate, a drop in the ocean when spread among nearly 200 nations. But it is still money that could save lives.
If the US shirks its responsibility, it could reduce the pressure on other countries to act on their commitments to contribute funds.
This is a real risk although it seems unlikely at the moment. China and the European Union have renewed on their commitment to lowering carbon emissions. China’s emissions have plateaued a decade earlier than it planned. The United Kingdom’s emissions are lower than they were before that country kicked off the Industrial Revolution — a symbolic benchmark, as that was the point at which humans started warming the planet.
Many African countries are putting their own funds into dams, bridges and renewable energy projects to increase resilience to climate change.
And on Tuesday philanthropist Michael Bloomberg pledged $15-million to make up for some of the money Trump is now refusing to hand over.
A day later, China and the US state of California agreed to co-operate on lowering carbon emissions.
Ultimately, Trump’s withdrawal will make Africa warmer. But the world is moving on and the US withdrawal might end up being the last shout of an old world and its polluting industries.