/ 3 October 2022

Africa is the recipient of collateral damage in the politics of climate change wrangling

Johnkerry Bloomberg (1)
Displaced blame: John Kerry Called on Africa to reduce emissions, even though the US and China re the biggest polluters. Photo: Bloomberg

The US is the biggest carbon polluter, so when its special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, spoke at the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment in Dakar, Senegal, last week,  we were keen to hear how the superpower proposed to start limiting its emissions. 

The audience also wanted to hear how the US would honour its commitment to pay for the damage already done by its emissions.

Together, African countries emit less than 4% of all carbon emissions. The African Development Bank predicts that African economies are already between 5% and 15% smaller because of climate change. But Kerry called on African countries to cut their emissions, before asking others to cut emissions.

He then sought to lecture Africa’s biggest gathering of environment ministers: “Well guess what, folks? Mother Nature does not measure where the emissions come from.”

Earlier this month, the EU’s climate chief, Frans Timmermans, told a meeting of the Global Centre for Adaptation in Rotterdam that Europeans “will not buy the argument” that “those suffering the most consequences are not responsible for creating the crisis”. Five African presidents were in that meeting.

The UN climate agency’s latest report on climate change said Africa had “already experienced widespread losses and damages”. Its modelling also showed climate change had reduced the continent’s economic growth, increasing the inequality between African and industrialised nations.

Kerry’s comments show how little Africa means in calculations in the northern hemisphere. While his words in Dakar were condescending, they were also aimed at China. The same holds for Timmermans.

China is this year’s biggest carbon polluter, although the US, over the course of years, is the biggest cumulative polluter and has a much smaller population than China.

The US and EU do not want to pay for the damage done by their pollution — already being seen in the devastating floods in Pakistan, the drought in East Africa and countless other events around the world. They want China to pay, too.

And while this fight drags on, wrapped up in the wider competition between these blocks, Africa is being trampled.

Climate negotiations, culminating in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, are based on the idea of “common but differentiated responsibility” — each country agrees to do something about climate change, but countries will do as much as they are able to do, keeping in mind how much they pollute.

Kerry and Timmermans both questioned this principle, and that is a red flag that African countries should pay attention to.

That questioning is also borne out in the failure of rich countries to meet their commitment to pay other countries $100-billion a year for the damage done by their pollution. This target has never been met. 

Africa needs up to $2.5-trillion to adapt to the changing climate through initiatives like better irrigation so crops can survive drought. Between 2016 and 2019, the continent received $18-billion in climate finance. Only a third went to adaptation, the rest went to reducing Africa’s negligible carbon emissions. 

Africa cannot afford to sit back and wait for aid yet again, which could be reassigned at the drop of a hat (or a bomb). These aid dependencies leave African economies in peril every time western politicians change their mind or play political games.

African countries need to build their own resilience to the challenging times that lie ahead and limit their dependence on foreign aid.  

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with Mail & Guardian. It is designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at mg.co.za/thecontinent.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.