Cop21: Africa lays cards on table

With more at stake than ever, the continent is mounting a united front to ensure any commitments made in Paris are in line with its development priorities. 


Tucked away in Paris’s northern suburbs, the commune of Le Bourget is not usually associated with events of historical significance.

Aside from hosting one of the world’s first aviation museums, this jumble of business hotels and conference centres has largely taken a back seat in the city’s otherwise dramatic history.

But as the world’s chief climate negotiators assemble here for the 21st United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21), the future of billions may be shaped by a breakthrough agreement between developed and developing nations that could stem a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. At stake is the future security and economic prosperity of much of the world, particularly Africa.

Study after study has shown that the continent’s environment and economy will be disproportionately affected by climate change, despite its limited responsibility for pollution. It is estimated that Africa’s annual GDP loss as a result of a global rise in temperatures will range from 1.5% to 3% by 2030.

But after years of piecemeal progress and thwarted hopes at UN conferences from Kyoto to Copenhagen, Africa’s negotiators, activists and politicians hope that COP21 in Paris could be the site of a serious and wide-ranging global agreement. With discussions planned on environmental targets, financial support and the role of developed countries, there is a feeling that everything is left to play for – but with only limited time before irreversible changes kick in. 

Nowhere is that urgency more pressing than in Africa’s ambition to significantly reduce global emissions targets. The need for immediate action was highlighted in November by a series of images from Climate Central, which show the potential impact of a rise in emissions on the world’s coastal cities.

With a spike of just 2°C by 2100 – the current target – water will surge through the streets of central Durban in South Africa, partly submerging pine trees and pavements. If that target is missed by a further 2°C, the lower floors of the city’s neo-Baroque town hall will be lost beneath the waves. The dramatic scenes could be repeated across Africa’s coastal cities.

The African Group of Negotiators (AGN) – chaired by Sudan’s Nagmeldin Elhassan– are leading the efforts to prevent this. The continent also has a strong voice in the G77 + China, the developing nations group chaired by South Africa’s Joyce Mxakato-Diseko. The AGN have led calls for a revised global emissions target of no more than 1.5°C by 2100. That call is echoed by Anthony Nyong, coordinator of the African Development Bank’s delegation to COP21, who maintains that the current target is insufficient. 

“2°C is already harmful – with that you are looking at an increase of about 3.5°C for the continent because of Africa’s location. 1.5°C would be reasonable…we want to see better ambition by people, not submitting what is convenient for them, but what is right”.

Yet that ambition remains a long shot while the world struggles to keep to the existing target. According to a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme, which assessed the reduction plans of 119 countries, the planet is currently on track for a temperature rise of around 3 degrees by 2100.

Nevertheless, for Africa’s negotiating team, pushing for a deal on emissions is an essential plank in a wider negotiating strategy at COP21, says Seyni Nafo, spokesman for the African Group of Negotiators, and incoming chair following the talks. “For us, the agreement should be drafted in such a way as to have a link between the temperature goal, adequacy of mitigation and adaptation, and finance,” he explains.

Financing change

Financial assistance for developing countries has long been one of the most politically charged and contentious areas of discussion in climate talks. Hostage to domestic politics, national self-interest and the peaks and troughs of the global economy, pledges from developed countries have typically been hard to extract and even harder to enforce. Yet politicians and activist climate groups see financial support as rightful restitution for the profligacy of developed nations. 

“We need a massive transfer of resources from industrialised countries. We in the developing countries agree to a lot and what we ask from our partners is that they match that with more support”, says Mithika Mwenda, secretary-general of the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance. Although widely regarded as a failure, 2009’s Copenhagen Summit produced a pledge on behalf of developed nations to provide $100bn a year until 2020 to help developing nations combat climate change. Yet even this initial ambition has gone largely unrealised. According to a recent report from the OECD, actual climate finance reached $62bn in 2014 and $52bn in 2013. With COP21 discussing finance beyond 2020, Africa’s negotiators are exploring new ways to ensure that old development money is not simply recycled.

“$100bn is an inadequate political figure. What the international community needs to mobilise for climate change is in the order of trillions. We are proposing to set up a process for a standing committee on finance to go out and do serious technical work to mobilise climate finance…There needs to be space in the text for us to do that,” says Nafo.

Nevertheless, extracting finance from developed nations to mitigate climate change is likely to prove futile if donors refuse to support the costs of adaptation – from backing new agricultural techniques to providing funds for flood defences.

UNEP estimates that even under the 2°C scenario, such costs will hover around $35bn a year by 2050. For Nafo, any discussions around finance must broach this thorny issue.

“It becomes difficult to address adequacy if finance is not a part of the conversation. We see adaptation needs and climate impacts now. This is going to have a fundamental bearing on the development trajectory of Africa,” he says.

If those remarks reflect trepidation around the potential for a comprehensive funding deal at COP21, there is nonetheless renewed optimism that the private sector can step into the breach. It helps that African governments are now beginning to see business as crucial in the fight against climate change.

“Private sector is key in climate discussions, and I’d want to see the private sector being a part of the COP21 discussions,” Margaret Mwanakatwe, Zambia’s Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry, told African Business at an investor conference in London.

Although the central agreement will be hammered out solely by governments, the wider conference is expected to hand a role to business. A UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) strategy document says that private sector engagement is “essential to the success of the Action Agenda and COP21 at large”, and encourages action via emissions reductions and public pledges.

Nafo argues that engagement with business needs to be all-encompassing, and ought to be a key priority for African governments and UN agencies looking to mobilise funds for adaptation.

“$100bn is insignificant, we need to mobilise trillions, and they cannot be mobilised if we don’t start a serious conversation with the financial economy – hedge funds, industry, pension funds. The UNFCCC needs to leave Bonn and go to Davos – go to where the private sector is and engage.”

In a bid to capitalise on the talks and encourage private sector participation, African heads of state are expected to launch flagship renewable energy and adaptation finance schemes to coincide with COP21. AfDB’s Nyong says that such programmes cannot act as a “panacea” for a comprehensive financial agreement, but will play a vital supporting role.

“We want to bring that up to scale and see how we can coordinate efforts to bring about adaptation. With those two initiatives I’m very positive, especially with the buy-in we are getting from partners,” he says. 

Unity of purpose

Cooperation with business, strong diplomatic support from heads of state and high-profile initiatives all point to a continent that is approaching COP21 with a seriousness befitting the grave situation. Whether Africa’s sincerity will be matched by developed nations remains to be seen. For PACJA’s Mithika Mwenda, the continent has put itself in a strong position to push for the changes necessary to avert disaster.

“The African voice has become quite strong. We are going as a unified unit – that’s the only system we have in these murky waters of negotiation.”

For the AGN’s Nafto, an agreement is likely – but he cautions that it may not be the miracle cure that the continent is looking for.

“Paris is already making history. Having the world coming together is not just a statement, this will lead to change over time. Is it going to be fast enough to address the issue? This is my anxiety. That’s where some of us are trying to come back to the substance of the text to add elements which can be implemented. There’s a tiger on paper – but that tiger needs to bite.   

David Thomas

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