Africa embraces new climate order with leadership and ambition

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Mathai was a great story teller. One of her favorite tales was about of a hummingbird fighting a firestorm: While the strongest animals were discussing a course of action, the little bird was flying back and forth bringing water in its little beak and pouring it into the flames. “I am doing what I can” was its answer to those who were questioning whether such an effort could yield any result—thereby leading the way by example. Even in the aftermath of the new climate agreement at COP21, the little hummingbird of Africa is facing what is considered by many to be the most daunting challenge of our time.

In 2012, the continent represented only about 3 percent of global nominal GDP and 2 percent of net global greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, the continent includes countries that are considered most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. From Sierra Leone to the Gambia, the population living on the shore at the Atlantic is losing one to two meters of precious land to the rising sea level every year. The same phenomenon is threatening Djibouti on the eastern side of the continent. Further inland, changing patterns in rainfalls are negatively impacting agricultural output.

Through its INDCs, Africa is telling the world that it will be a leader in climate change. It has set a new level of ambition, through an inclusive process that could induce a paradigm shift in approaches to international development. 

1. In terms of ambition, through countries like Gabon and Ethiopia, Africa is setting the tone and raising the bar for the rest of the world, especially in mitigation.

Gabon submitted its INDC as early as April 1, 2014—a remarkable move in that only five Parties had submitted their contribution by then. With 88 percent of its territory covered by forests, Gabon represents a significant potential for mitigation. According to its INDC, the country intends to reduce its cumulative emissions by 65 percent in the period from 2010 to 2025 compared to a “business as usual” scenario. This goal requires not only developing renewable energies but also policies and tools for sustainable land use management. Importantly, Gabon, an oil producer, will have to forego important revenues from exports and invest in equipment to reduce gas flaring. These intentions are all the more ambitious in that they do not take into consideration absorption of carbon dioxide by its forests, which is actually estimated at four times the level of the country’s emissions. While results-based payment schemes for the conservation of forests could have compensated for this opportunity cost, the INDC clearly affirms that the country will not base its development strategy on rents but rather on the climate-friendly management of its lands and forests. 

This ambition is even more impressive given the underlying assumption of 10 percent annual economic growth throughout that period of time. Gabon’s intended pathway—a sustainable one, away from rents coming from oil production and mere forest conservation—is remarkable.

The case of Ethiopia is another example of tone setting. Though a least-developed country with the ambition of becoming a middle-income country by 2025, in its INDC Ethiopia sets out to reduce annual emissions by 64 percent from the “business-as-usual” scenario in 2030. Beyond this target, Ethiopia has made significant progress mainstreaming climate change consideration into its economy. For example, the government prepared a climate resilient and green economy strategy integrated into its Second Growth and Transformation Plan.

Gabon and Ethiopia are not the only ambitious ones. Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco, South Africa, Comoros, Algeria, Congo, and Eritrea—have taken similar steps. For instance, Kenya has a high ambition for reducing emissions, notably through the development of geothermal and wind energy. In addition, Kenya has developed an approach to incorporate climate consideration in its budget processes. In the long run, these policy choices could successfully prepare African countries for a transition toward a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy.

2. As African countries were developing their INDCs, they embarked on an inclusive process, engaging a broad range of stakeholders: This new emphasis on country ownership could lead to a paradigm shift in international development.

Though the world is making efforts to curb emissions now, the results will only be seen decades later. In the meantime, there is a need to help vulnerable communities cope with the immediate effects of climate change such as droughts, heat waves, extreme storms, intrusion of saline water in aquifers, or coastal erosion. Thus, current research confirms the need for pairing adaptation with mitigation efforts. Due to the universal nature of climate change effects, inclusive processes—owned by the countries themselves—for tackling these effects are requirements for success, as they are meant to ensure that the desired impacts will be attained and reach all relevant beneficiaries.

For instance, the World Bank report, “Shock Waves,” reviews the link between climate change and poverty and strongly recommends the adoption of poverty alleviation measures alongside climate mitigation policies. Poor households are indeed likely to be negatively impacted by programs or projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps through the increase in prices with the removal of fossil fuel subsidies or rising unemployment following divestments from coal-intensive industries. Pierre Noel Giraud, a respected French economist, also advocates for the setup of policy frameworks that will temper the immediate effect of climate friendly measures, for instance by creating social safety nets.[1]

Multi-stakeholder engagement is necessary for structuring these policies effectively—as articulated under the concept of country ownership and reaffirmed in numerous reviews of the Standing Committee on Finance and the decisions taken by the COP in Durban. Beyond climate finance, special attention to country ownership is now considered a necessary approach to ensure that economic growth will not increase inequalities but benefit all communities with due consideration of equity, inclusiveness, and sustainability.

This guidance has been quite well followed by African countries as they were preparing their INDCs. For instance, Algeria undertook multiple rounds of reviews between February and September 2015 before submitting its INDC to the Inter-Ministerial Council chaired by the prime minister for adoption. The document published by the country mentions that various stakeholders were consulted in this process, including the government, the National Economic and Social Council, local authorities and business organizations, socio-professional associations, and environmental protection associations, as well as experts, scholars, and representatives of the civil society. Another good example is the Gambia where sensitization workshops were held in the country’s local government areas, and stakeholders provided inputs on appropriate mitigation options. Benin used the same approach, consulting the civil society and private sector before the Cabinet adopted their INDC.

In conclusion, Africa is showing renewed leadership as the planet faces climate change. Countries have taken important steps in preparing their contributions, and the world as a whole has come to an agreement. Despite these African countries’ leadership, tall ambitions, and inclusive processes, the real success rests on the way they handle two questions. First, to what extent can the depth of country ownership of these processes ensure that ambition will be reconciled with inclusiveness and equity? This question is relevant in all countries and communities, but especially in Africa where the trade-offs will be the hardest between short-term gains in poverty alleviation and long-term gains in sustainable development. Finally, how effective will be the conversion of these ambitious INDCs into a stream of programs and projects, well prepared, financed, and soundly implemented?


This blog reflects the views of the author only and does not reflect the views of the Africa Growth Initiative nor any official communication or position of the Green Climate Fund.

[1] “Le climat va t-il changer le capitalisme  ?”, éditions Eyrolles, juin 2015