Africa must lead on climate change, says UNDP’s Achim Steiner

The latest IPCC report, the economic fallout of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine all boost the urgency of a more coordinated global climate change response.

Conversation with

Image : Achim Steiner

In February, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its most downbeat assessment yet of the catastrophic global impact of climate change.

The report revealed that a rise in weather and climate extremes has already led to irreversible impacts as natural and human systems have been pushed beyond their ability to adapt, with the vulnerable, particularly developing nations and peoples, disproportionately affected.

What the world has experienced so far is a mere foretaste of what is to come, the authors warn, especially if the world misses its target of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

“Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage. Multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously, and multiple climatic and non-climatic risks will interact, resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions,” they write.

The world must respond 

Few policymakers have as sure a grasp of the implications of the report – and how the world must respond to its grim conclusions – than environmentalist Achim Steiner.

The administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and former executive director of the UN Environment Programme tells African Business that the report is a clarion call to forge a radical, coordinated global response. 

“The impacts of a changing climate are disrupting the way our economies have grown, our infrastructure has been built, our agriculture and food systems have evolved, and even our health systems will be affected. It is a very grim prospect… This is not science fiction. This latest report documents how climate change is arriving on our doorsteps, on our land, and on our coastal zones,” he says.  

Steiner says the outlook is particularly dire for Africa’s arid and semi-arid zones, such as the Sahel, where further declines in areas that already see rainfall of just 700-800mm leave people facing an existential crisis. 

“Just a small decline in rainfall can make the difference between being able to live in that same area and practice agriculture on that land or having to give up. And we have seen this phenomenon in the Sahel region in particular. It’s already impacting millions of people,” Steiner says.

Negotiations must move quicker

The 60 year old Brazilian-German says that the annual Cop negotiations to negotiate emissions reductions – which will return to Africa in November at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt – are not currently moving quickly enough to make a decisive impact on the IPCC’s dismal scenarios. 

“Let’s be very frank, when you read this latest report, which is quite a brutal analysis really of how close we have come to a point of no return on certain thresholds and tipping points with global warming – I think it is very clear that the climate process so far, the negotiations, have been too slow in bending the curve of emissions.

“By the year 2030 our emissions levels should actually have been coming down by 45% to 25bn tonnes. Where we’re actually heading right now is towards 50bn tonnes by 2030. All of that is a very sobering balance sheet, but imagine a world that didn’t have that climate change convention, that didn’t have these annual meetings that ultimately allow the world to judge how governments are responding to the challenge of climate change.”

Nevertheless, Steiner says Sharm-El-Sheikh will be a pivotal moment in which African policymakers help the world to fully comprehend the irreversible changes that are underway on its own doorstep.

“It is also very much a Cop in which Africa can demonstrate the implications of climate change for its own future but also help the world to understand that if we invest together then this problem remains within the realm of the solvable.

“African leadership in the lead-up to this Cop has the ability to convene nations despite the differences. We live in times that are not the easiest in which to perhaps forge common cause in the multilateral forum. The pandemic has already slowed us down, the economic constraints that are faced by many African nations in the wake of this pandemic clearly also impair many countries’ abilities to advance.

“I think Sharm El-Sheikh is a crucial moment for the international community to embrace this idea that without investing in one another, we are simply not able to advance.”

More cash is needed

For the conference to truly succeed, wealthy nations must put more cash on the table to support the developing world. Progress on a pledge to deliver $100bn a year to help developing countries adapt to the disproportionate affects of climate change must be reignited, says Steiner.

“We need more public finance from the wealthy nations who have the means financially to actually support our countries. This is not charity, this is a co-investment, a shared interest. And therefore at Cop in Egypt we must finally get to a way in which this $100bn that has been committed to the developing world are actually realised.

“I think perhaps the most significant shifts that will change the financing equation are really those that are happening in the marketplace. The minute that our markets and our financial systems begin to recognise that investing in high carbon emitting infrastructure is ultimately a stranded asset and it  will not meet with favourable consumer and product acceptance, then we are actually steering investment In that greener, low carbon emitting economy.

“That development through decarbonisation will drive the economic paradigm of investment in infrastructure for decades to come.”

Without significant assistance to the developing world, the global economic disparities that have been highlighted during the pandemic will spill over into an anaemic climate response, Steiner says. 

“I think as we now look with a degree of optimism over the next year or two in terms of the pandemic perhaps subsiding, let us be very clear the year 2022, 2023, 2024 will still be years in which the tail end of this pandemic translates into extraordinary economic liabilities.

“We are in an asymmetry here when it comes to dealing with the urgency of accessing finance and the ability to mobilise financing. It is a moment where deliberate policy choices could yield enormous benefits for years to come.”

Ukraine war implications

That economic disruption has been further exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine are major suppliers of wheat and corn to African markets, and together supply a third of the wheat to the global market. Since the war broke out, prices have soared to record highs, overtaking levels seen during the global food crisis of 2007-08. 

“The outlook for many African economies on the energy price front or also on food prices is not a promising one. I think we will see the ramifications of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine translate into many ripple effects across financial markets. But also, an international community that is so polarised makes it very difficult to convene international negotiations, whether it is around climate change or the ability of the G20 to come together.

“For Africa unfortunately this often means being at the receiving end of decisions or a lack of decision-making. In many ways the outlook for 2022 has just become worse.”

Nevertheless, spiralling oil prices as a result of supply disruptions and potential embargoes on Russia should cause many countries to reassess their energy priorities and move away from fossil fuel exploitation towards greener energy sources.

“In the current international setting and context, where the price for a barrel of oil has now gone beyond $100 per barrel, who would not in their right mind prefer to invest in a national indigenous domestic independent electricity generating infrastructure and reduce this dependence on the volatility of global financial and energy markets?,” Steiner asks. 

Listen to the full interview on our podcast UNDP’s Achim Steiner: Can Africa avoid climate catastrophe?  

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