Jean-Michel Severino
Jean-Michel Severino

We have finally arrived in Copenhagen – final stop after a long series of preparatory meetings. With the Kyoto Protocol expiring in 2012, delegates are tasked with drawing the lines of a new international agreement on climate. With these negotiations, our nations are engaging in one of the most complex and determinant exercises in collective action they have had to manage in the history of international relations.

While the responsibility of industrialized countries and emerging economies in the grand battle against carbon emissions is now well known, the place of Africa in the climate agenda has been largely neglected. Sub-Saharan emissions, estimated at only 3% to 4% of global man-made emissions, are deemed of little interest. Yet Africa is central to the global environmental crisis in three important ways.

Firstly, Africa would be the first victim of major climate disturbance – with side-effects affecting the whole planet. Experts predict that the continent will experience some of the gravest changes, whereas the capacity of African societies to respond to them is among the weakest in the world. Several African countries are already experiencing reduced rainfall, soil degradation and the depletion of precious natural resources in a context where two thirds of Sub-Saharan Africans make a living from the environment. The economic, social, migratory and security impacts of this vulnerability on the rest of the world cannot be ignored, as this continent will be home to over two billion inhabitants in 2050.

Secondly, Africa is one of the important actors in the global environmental crisis. The continent saw its forest coverage fall by 10% between 1990 and 2005 – i.e. more than half the recorded global shrinkage. Furthermore, while the poorest African countries are those with the highest carbon energy content, Africa will experience by far the largest growth in energy requirements in the next 50 years. The fate of the planet will be different whether these needs are met with fossil or renewable energies. Hence, the fight against climate change will also happen in Africa.

Finally, because of its vast natural heritage, the African continent holds some of the most potent solutions to the global ecological trap overshadowing the 21st century. With 220 million hectares, the forests of the Congo basin represent the second largest mass of tropical forest in the world. At a time when global emissions are rapidly rising, this gigantic carbon capture machine is, like agricultural land, one of the essential elements of climate control. It is vital for the December agreement to recognize and promote the African contribution to the world’s delicate climatic balance. Indeed efforts to preserve these natural resources and to exploit the vast potential of the sub-continent’s renewable energies have a cost. If humanity considers the carbon storage capacity of African biotopes as a global public good, then everyone should contribute to its protection. The race against the clock has thus begun to find the mechanisms that will make this preservation possible and spark the move toward sustainable energy models.

Three promising tracks will have to materialize rapidly.

  • The first consists in increasing the use of existing tools, such as Clean Development Mechanisms (CDMs) – which enable actors from the North to promote projects that reduce emissions in developing countries. Up to now, Africa has missed out on the benefits of CDMs: to date, less than 2% of these projects take place in Africa, as opposed to 73% for Asia. The continent ought to be the carbon market’s new frontier.
  • The second track that needs to materialize in Copenhagen is for the carbon storage of African lands and forests to be recognized and for ‘avoided deforestation’ to be rewarded. At a time when humanity is coming to measure the value of biodiversity and the importance of land and forests in climate control, Africa has much to gain by making itself the guardian of a heritage that is essential to humanity’s survival. This is worth several billion dollars annually, which could constitute one of the essential stepping stones for economic growth in Africa in a post-petrol era.
  • Finally, the “climate justice” plan sponsored by France and others in Copenhagen, which aims to increase the access of Africans to clean energy, is crucial at a time when three Sub-Saharan Africans out of four have no access to electricity. It is a question of justice. But as we have seen, it is also a question of climate regulation. Linking public and private efforts to equip 2 billion Africans with renewable energy will therefore be one of the major challenges of the coming decades.

In the past, African countries have found it difficult to make their voices heard in major international negotiations. Their decision to act as a block in Copenhagen is an important step forward. However, Africa and its partners will now have to unite to express loudly and clearly the fact that the sustainable exploitation of Africa’s vast environmental potential in the interest of all is also a stage in the critical path toward a viable climate.

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