Is a ‘climate action famine’ inevitable after Cop26?

At-risk African countries must put pressure on those with the most resources to tackle the climate crisis – and they must do it now.

Opinion by

Image : Hannah Ryder

Calls for urgent climate action are getting louder as the next global climate change conference – Cop26, taking place in the UK in November – draws closer. They are coming alongside calls for Covid-19 vaccines to be distributed to poorer countries. 

There are crucial links between these two appeals, particularly when it comes to the African region. Both Covid-19 and climate change have been classed by the psychologist Michele Wucker as “grey rhinos” – foreseeable, yet unmanaged calamities. I would augment her analogy by arguing that the uneven global response to the grey rhinos creates more, multiple and larger grey rhinos.

The successive waves of Covid-19 and its variants, combined with constantly shifting and varying guidance on distancing, masks and vaccine use that so many of us have experienced around the world, are all new grey rhinos that keep charging towards us. 

The fact that at the time of writing African countries on average have only been able to vaccinate under 5% of their populations is itself yet another grey rhino – occurring because of supply constraints – or what Africa CDC head John Ngengakasong has termed a “vaccine famine”. The vaccine famine is exacerbated by the lack of local manufacturing of vaccines and other medical equipment on the continent, which would have reduced the size of that particular grey rhino. 

Climate change creates its grey rhinos – and famines – too. We see country after country take action, but not enough. We see some countries act globally and then recede. And we see some countries not act at all – in some cases due to a sense of entitlement about keeping things as they are, as well as inertia. It is incredibly challenging, after all, to shift domestic or international investors away from coal or gas to renewables, or to remove fossil fuel subsidies. We also see other countries unable to act, constrained due to a lack of finance.

These are all phenomena we are still facing with Covid-19. Uneven action creates more “grey rhinos”, which are especially painful for those who have the least resources, who then become subjected to a “climate-action famine”. 

Implications for Cop26

So what does this imply for Africa’s interests in the forthcoming climate change conference?  

Given how the world has dealt with Covid-19, it is highly optimistic to expect the climate grey rhino to be dealt with once and for all at Cop26. That would require significantly more scaled up action – specific commitments to ambitious, disruptive change on clear timetables and with coordinated plans. 

The reality is that countries and businesses do not yet appear to be ready for this level of scaled-up and coordinated action. While many countries are announcing new “net zero goals”, the latest data suggests, for instance, that fossil fuel subsidies in the world’s 40 richest countries rose in 2020. Multinationals seem to be “greenwashing” rather than shifting their own business models. All of these are inconsistent with facing the climate change grey rhino head on.

So where does that leave African countries? Should they – as the Nigerian vice-president has recently argued – also push for the status quo to be maintained, for example for international public finance to continue to be available for natural gas power, even if not for coal? 

The fact is, the majority of African countries are not like Nigeria. They have less potential for power from gas. And most do not have enough domestic finance from savings or taxes to pay for basic infrastructure let alone upgrade transport infrastructure to accommodate electric vehicles, or pay for flood and drought resistant crops and buildings.

As with the vaccine famine, it is these “climate-action famine” countries that will suffer the most. 

These countries will not just suffer from the impacts of climate change itself, but also will be unable to access the tools that others have to adapt and respond to climate change. They will suffer from being unable to access adaptive technology, or renewable technology. They risk being left wholly outside of this system, while others take their time to act.

Three lessons from Covid-19

This is where three lessons from Covid-19 need to be learned now. 

  • First, it is these at-risk countries that need to put the most pressure and make concrete proposals for what the others with the most resources can do to act responsibly. They need to push those with the most resources to make the disruptive changes now.
  • Second, they need to call for green finance, to support their own disruptive change. The call from South Africa’s environment minister Barbara Creecy for a target of mobilising $750m a year is a step exactly in that direction. More detail on the breakdown of public and private finance is required, with evidence of what kind of transformation the different funds can support.
  • Third, the at-risk countries can also mitigate their own risks. For example, as many African countries are doing now when it comes to pursuing local vaccine manufacturing, they can put the few resources they have into locally manufacturing renewables and generating adaptive technologies and seeds. They can seek to shape local supply chains and those of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), for instance to prioritise local manufacturing.

The main lesson for African climate policy from Covid-19 and its herd of grey rhinos is that there is no substitute for being proactive. Those who are stuck in a status quo are the laggards. They will soon face many grey rhinos. Africans don’t have to.

Hannah Ryder is the CEO of Development Reimagined, a pioneering African-led international development consultancy based in China.

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