A blueprint for environmental action in Africa exists. It’s time we used it to transform the continent
Africa is on the move. Six of the world’s fastest growing economies are African. The continent is urbanising rapidly, and governments are working to provide the infrastructure, skills and policy to drive growth and development. But unless we protect the life-support system that is our environment, we risk leaving the younger generation an unsustainable, inequitable and unhealthy future.
Africa has never needed its environmental riches — its wealth of natural resources, biodiversity and ecosystems — more than it does today. The continent’s population is set to double by 2050; by then, almost one in four people on the planet will live in Africa. But it’s clear that we are already struggling to feed and water our people. And climate change, which is already bringing erratic weather, drought and flooding, will make it even harder to reverse these disturbing trends.
Our very survival depends on the fertility of our soil, but the continent is being stripped of millions of tonnes of nutrients every year. The toll is clear: our farmers are finding it increasingly hard to grow food. Once a net exporter of food, Africa now spends $35-billion every year on food imports.
To finance our climate and sustainability targets, Africa needs to raise an amount equal to the continent’s entire gross domestic product. The continent’s abundant natural endowments provide an answer to these problems. And yet many of its finest riches remain untapped: about 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land lies in Africa, and its fisheries alone are worth an estimated $24-billion. Managed sustainably, these environmental assets could end hunger and lift millions of people out of poverty — key aims of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Massive savings await if we can rise to meet our environmental challenges. Eradicating post-harvest losses, for example, would save the continent more than $4-billion every year. Further savings are possible if we cut off the flow of money from illegal logging, the illegal trade in wildlife, illegal fishing and illegal mining practices. It is clear that environmental action is urgently needed if we want to boost prosperity and meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Africa’s Agenda 2063.
The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (Amcen), which sets Africa’s environmental agenda, has sounded the alarm for years. Thanks to decades of hard work identifying problems and developing solutions, the continent now has an excellent blueprint for environmental action. The path to sustainable economic growth in Africa is well lit.
Whenever Amcen’s decisions are enacted we see success. Its call for investments in innovative environmental solutions has led to the creation of biowaste facilities in Uganda, a Geothermal Centre of Excellence in Kenya, solar driers in Cameroon and a biodigester in Abidjan’s biggest slaughterhouse that provides thousands of farmers with organic fertiliser. Amcen’s ministers should also be proud of the tumbling cost of solar energy in Africa — the lowest of any region on earth. It is their hard work that has made this possible.
Too often, however, Africa’s environmental success stories take place in isolation. As an old African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Most environmental challenges are multisectoral. Their solutions, therefore, require collective and collaborative action by governments.
As environment ministers gathered in Durban this week for the 17th session of Amcen, they came ready to work together to achieve real impact, and armed with solutions to the significant environmental challenges the continent faces; solutions that will have real effects for Africa’s people, Africa’s economies and Africa’s environment.
Next year, with countries expected to amp up their carbon-cutting pledges under the Paris Agreement, and with the convention on biological diversity seeking to chart the course for the coming decade, Amcen will be an important voice and advocate for climate action on the African continent.
As UN secretary general António Guterres told the security council recently: “We must urgently reduce emissions to prevent catastrophic consequences for sustainable development and security across Africa, and step up support for the countries most affected.”
Like so many ecosystems on the continent, the soil on which Africa’s civilisations are built is in trouble. But there is hope. Amcen has already done much of the hard work, sowing the seeds of a more prosperous future for our continent. The time has now come for us to implement the policy decisions we have made, and for our continent to reap the bounty of this harvest.
Joyce Msuya is the deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme