Disproportionate suffering: A girl climbs a baobab tree in Malamawa village, in Niger. The climate has long been inhospitable, but now rising temperatures have caused prolonged drought, exacerbating food shortages, prompting migration and contributing to instability. Photo: Luis Tato/FAO/AFP
This week, as about 100 world leaders gather to attend the 76th session of the UN general assembly, a call for rich countries to urgently scale up assistance to help Africa address the twin challenges of climate catastrophe and the effects of Covid-19 pandemic is required.
With the largely successful vaccination campaign in most rich countries and the recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the need to help Africa to address the effects of Covid-19 and get on the path of green and climate-resilient economic recovery could be relegated to the back of the global leadership agenda.
Recently, because of the unprecedented floods in Western countries, including Spain, Germany and the US, rich countries are beginning to awake to the devastating effects of climate change and the need for emergency measures to deal with climate change-induced loss and damage in their territories.
However, Africa, the Small Island States, and many poor countries around the world have long been living with the debilitating effects of climate change. Ironically, much of these effects have not been fully appreciated by rich countries, which themselves are mostly responsible for climate change.
Dangerously epic proportions
The climate change in Africa has passed dangerously epic proportions. Nigeria, for example, has witnessed an intense and unprecedented scale of flooding over the past five years. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Crescent Societies reports that in September last year alone, torrential rainfall, river floods, and flash floods affected 192 594 people across 22 states in Nigeria (including 826 injuries, 155 fatalities, and 24 134 displacements). Little, if any of this information, was reported by international news agencies.
An estimated 27-million to 53-million people in Nigeria might have to relocate with a 50cm increase in sea level. Rising sea levels are also threatening other low-lying countries in Africa, with research suggesting that cities like Abidjan, Cape Town, and Dar es Salaam will be totally submerged with 1m global sea level rise. At the same time, oil and diamond-mine infrastructure in coastal African countries worth trillions of dollars is very susceptible to sea-level rise and coastal erosion.
Climate change is also causing a decrease in productivity of many staple food crops in Africa. About 86% of the continent’s agriculture is rain-fed, implying that even moderate variations in rainfall, temperature and precipitation patterns could have an immediate effect on agricultural production. Analysts determine that climate change will reduce crop productivity by between 20% and 50% over the next two or three decades. Again, the anticipated loss runs into several billions of dollars and the situation is bound to worsen food and other dimensions of insecurity in Africa.
According to recent preliminary estimates, the total economic effects of climate change, which has been worsened by Covid-19 pandemic, could cost Africa $200-billion a year by 2070. The real number may well be far beyond that. For example, a study by the UK Department for International Development indicated that climate change could cost Nigeria alone $460-billion by 2050.
Climate change and Covid-19
The effects of climate change in Africa have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although case fatality rates for Covid-19 have not been as high as originally feared, the social and economic impact of the pandemic in Africa has been devastating and potentially long-lasting. Economies in Africa were growing at about 3% of GDP before Covid-19, but are now projected to fall by between 2% and 8% as a result of the pandemic.
The African Development Bank (AfDB) indicates that the continent’s economy will contract between $173.1-billion and $236.7-billion in 2020/2021. The region is also expected to witness inflation of up to 5%, alongside a dramatic fall in remittance and foreign direct investment in 2021 and beyond. The same AfDB sources indicate up to 30-million jobs could be lost and between 28-million and 49-million people could be pushed into extreme poverty.
Climate and Covid-19 have indeed put Africa at the centre of a storm and many of the governments have no idea how to recover from the worst recession that has befallen them in more than half a century. Many African countries have been stretched to their limits in terms of financial and socioeconomic resilience. The debt profile of many countries on the continent has risen dramatically and, in some cases, to levels that are widely considered as unsustainable. Viewed in this way, one can see that climate change and Covid-19 have put the future generations of Africa in debt to rich countries.
Rich countries must bear responsibility
African citizens and governments are aggrieved by the fact that they are being forced to bear the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 and climate change, neither of which they have caused. In fewer than three days, an average US citizen emits as much carbon as an average person from Chad or Niger does in one year. Such is the huge asymmetry in the culpability for climate change. Yet the West has grown accustomed to offering warm words and promises, while our continent is being strangled by climate change.
At the same time, the global transition to the green economy may also leave Africa worse off, with several millions of jobs lost and trillions worth of oil and gas reserves that will have to be left in the ground to meet global carbon emission cuts.
Given the role of rich countries in imposing the risk of climate change and Covid-19 on Africa, there is an argument to be made that 50% of the projected $200-billion cost of climate change to Africa should be borne by rich countries. This would imply that rich countries owe Africa at least $100-billion for climate-related loss and damage and several billions to help to boost recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
At a UN general assembly meeting in 1967, Maltese and Swedish diplomat Arvid Pardo helped to lay the foundation for the present-day international co-operation and management of the world’s seas; in his historic speech he urged delegates to consider the resources of the oceans beyond national jurisdiction as “the common heritage of mankind”.
This week, Africa needs another “Arvid Pardo moment” at the UN general assembly. The delegates of the assembly should rise to reaffirm that climate change is a common concern for mankind and that Africa deserves, not handouts, but generous compensation and meaningful investment to help it address the effects of climate change imposed on it by the rich countries.
At the same time, the UN should provide a commitment that the voices of those who are disproportionately suffering from the effects of climate change will not be marginalised at the forthcoming UN COP26 climate talks in November. There are already strong indications that unequal vaccine access, rising travel and accommodation costs, as well as high rates of Covid-19 infection might limit the participation of African countries, among others, in global climate talks.
Africa is already showing climate ambition
To be sure, Africa is not folding its arms and waiting for the rest of the world to bail it out. Across the continent, there are many signs that African governments are willing to take strong action on climate change. Nigeria has recently submitted its revised nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which promises a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Several other countries, including The Gambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Namibia and Liberia have also submitted revised NDCs.
Nigeria has raised more than $60-million in green bonds; the country has also strengthened its 2030 emission targets, with a focus on addressing emissions reductions from the waste sectors and increasing conditional contributions. Malawi and South Africa have developed a fund to finance green growth projects, and Rwanda has created a $11-billion, 10-year climate plan, among others.
However, Africa has received very limited financial support for its climate-recovery efforts beyond warm words; this is particularly galling when African countries are being asked to sacrifice their development aspirations to help to meet global carbon targets.
A new green deal for Africa worth billions is needed to encourage its countries to leave their oil in the ground and embrace green agriculture, renewable energy and green transportation, all of which can provide strong economic advantages to the continent. There have been far too many warm words: the UN general assembly should mark a key moment for action, with substantial pledges made by the rich countries to offer investments that will promote a green and climate resilient recovery for Africa.