African activists demanding climate finance and compensation payments from rich countries to poor countries disproportionately affected by climate change and fossil fuel exploitation protest at the UNFCCC COP27 climate conference on November 09, 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Africa is the most vulnerable continent in the face of climate change, according to the team leader of the African Group of Negotiators Expert Support (Agnes Africa), Dr George Wamukoya, who stresses the importance of formulating a strong position for Africa to present at COP27, currently taking place in Egypt.
An important step in this process was the 56th session of the subsidiary bodies (SB56) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which took place in the German city of Bonn from 6 to 16 June 2022. The Bonn Climate Change Conference marked the first time negotiators had met since November 2021 at COP26 in Glasgow, where the Glasgow Climate Pact was agreed on.
Shedding light on the outcomes of the meeting, Wamukoya summarised the African position in four key points: developed countries should raise their climate ambition, adaptation is a priority for Africa, the continent’s climate vulnerability must be recognised and there is a need to focus on Africa’s agricultural sector.
Getting to grips with Africa’s priorities
If countries can cut global emissions to “net zero” by 2050, we may still have a chance to bring global warming below 1.5⁰C in the second half of this century and avert global disaster in the form of heat waves, flooding, wildfires, widespread crop failure, coral bleaching and rising sea levels.
The Conference of the Parties (COP) refers to the gathering of the 196 countries, plus the European Union, that ratified the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty. The event sees country delegations engage in days of negotiations and exchanges to adopt positions, make new pledges and join new initiatives to tackle climate change by achieving net zero.
The African Group of Negotiators has been representing the common interests of African nations as a bloc since 1995’s first COP in Berlin, Germany, ensuring that Africa’s voice on climate issues is heard over competing interests.
Since 2015, the group has been supported by Agnes Africa, which provides scientific evidence to inform the African position by facilitating the exchange of ideas between experts and negotiators. The group has been working with Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation as well as researchers from their partner programme, Future Ecosystems for Africa (Fefa), to incorporate the latest science on African environments into Africa’s COP27 position.
The Bonn Climate Change Conference brought together a multitude of stakeholders from around the world to prepare for the COP27.
Shouldering responsibility for climate change
Prior to the last COP, the UNFCCC secretariat’s assessment of all updated nationally-determined contributions (NDCs) — each nation’s promised actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — put the trajectory of global temperature increase at 2.7⁰C by the end of the century, far overshooting the Paris Agreement’s 1.5⁰C target.
Raising the “ambition” to cut emissions remains critical to success. But at SB56 a familiar question arose, “Who is that ambition for; developing countries or developed countries who have historical responsibility?” said Wamukoya.
Countries can raise their ambition by committing to improved NDCs and climate finance. Although developed countries promised in 2009 to jointly contribute $100-billion a year by 2020 to support climate action in developing nations, that goal has not been reached.
In fact, vulnerable nations including least developed countries and small island developing states appear to be leading in climate ambition, ahead of their dawdling developed counterparts.
Looking at COP27, Africa’s position is that developed countries should raise their ambition. Currently, Africa is contributing very low greenhouse gas emissions compared to other continents — just less than 4% of total global emissions.
African negotiators at COP27 will maintain that the responsibility lies with developed nations — which are responsible for 79% of historical carbon emissions — to rectify their substantial role in causing climate change.
Adaptation remains a priority for Africa
Climate action can fall into one of two categories, “adaptation”, referring to actions taken to prepare for and adjust to the effects of climate change as well as those predicted in the future; or “mitigation”, which are efforts to reduce or prevent the emission of greenhouse gases.
Adaptation is a priority for Africa and other developing countries, whose vulnerabilities mean they will carry the costs of climate change despite having contributed the least to cause it. For these nations, financing for climate adaptation is critical. Currently, less than 20% of climate finance is going to adaptation compared to mitigation actions.
“[Africa and other developing countries] are having to use national resources which would have been used for other pressing issues (job creation, sanitation and housing), to deal with climate change. I think our countries will have a big challenge in meeting normal development activities at the same time as addressing climate change — we need adequate climate adaptation financing,” Wamukoya emphasises.
Although it was agreed in Glasgow that the Adaptation Fund would double, the source of financing, and how funds can be accessed, remain in question.
However, assessing climate adaption is a far more nebulous task than monitoring progress towards preventing a 1.5⁰C temperature rise. Determining indicators to track progress on the three goals — enhancing adaptive capacity, building resilience, and reducing vulnerability — remains a challenge due to their qualitative nature.
Africa is vulnerable
“All the best science available is showing that Africa is the most vulnerable continent” and therefore requires a high level of investment in adaptation to cushion itself from the adverse impacts of climate change, says Wamukoya. The continent faces high levels of adverse climate change effects but has inadequate financial capacity to respond.
A key element of the African position is to gain recognition that Africa is highly vulnerable and needs financial support to deal with the effects of climate change. “We can only do this by showcasing African stories and narratives” to provide evidence to convince international negotiators of Africa’s needs, says Wamukoya.
These stories include case studies of natural disasters wreaking havoc across the continent. After tearing through Madagascar, Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique on 14 March 2019, before moving inland across Zimbabwe. Severe flooding and high winds peaking at 280 km/h flattened homes and destroyed crops. More than 1 000 lives were lost, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, 2.6 million were left in need of humanitarian services and an estimated $2.2 billion in damage was caused.
Cyclone Idai may be one of the worst disasters recorded in the southern hemisphere. Not six weeks later, a second tropical cyclone, “Kenneth”, devastated the region yet again, marking the first time in recorded history that two strong tropical cyclones had hit Mozambique in one season. One year later, more than 100 000 Mozambiquans were still living in temporary shelters.
Further north, below the Sahara in the arid Sahel region, temperatures are rising 1.5 times faster than in the rest of the world. Farmers and pastoralists here have seen their crops wither away in intense droughts that bake the earth until it is unable to absorb the heavy rainfall and causes flooding. Climate change has created conditions ripe for the eruption of social conflict over land and water.
Securing future farming
Despite having 60% of the planet’s arable land, Africa remains a net importer of food. According to reports by Agnes Africa, agriculture is the biggest land-based economic sector for most countries in Africa, accounting for at least 20% of their GDP. The sector employs more than 50% of the continent’s workforce and contributes about 30% of the value of exports.
Africa’s agriculture is rain-fed, which means that success for this important sector is dependent on climate. In the wake of extreme weather events, like those playing out in the Sahel, farmers and pastoralists are left helpless.
Agriculture has been on the agenda for UNFCCC discussions since 2011. “Since then, we’ve been having technical discussions to understand how agriculture plays out in the climate system”, says Wamukoya, who is a lead negotiator on agriculture.
“That roadmap we’ve given ourselves came to an end last year, so this year at COP27 we must get a new position to see how we move agriculture forward”.
African agricultural investment has largely been received from official development assistance, which has been decreasing. “The only way we can transform our agricultural systems is by attracting climate finance from public and private sectors,” says Wamukoya.
According to him, the aim is to develop guidance and leadership on how African agriculture should be dealt with, given the need to safeguard this vulnerable sector for food security.
The world is looking to COP27 to negotiate our future against a ticking clock. With the event taking place on African soil, this is a valuable opportunity to gain climate wins for the continent.
Tatjana Baleta, a South African biologist and conservationist, is a specialist science writer at Jive Media for Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation, which commissioned this article.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.