Understanding Africa’s priorities for COP 21 at Paris

Expectations are exceedingly high for the upcoming Conference of the Parties (COP21) climate conference as major world leaders (unlike at past COPs) have signaled strong support to finalize a legally binding international climate agreement limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Another major difference this year: Africa will likely be a key player.

The challenges and priorities for the continent at COP21 will go beyond strategies to limit greenhouse gas emissions, like adaptation mechanisms to reduce vulnerabilities and financing measures to ensure sustainable growth. At the conference, Africa will have a united stand on the best course of action to address climate change in Africa. Amadou Sy discusses the continent’s position and expectations in his policy brief “Financing Adaptation and Mitigation in the World’s Most Vulnerable Region,” part of the recent Brookings publication, “COP21 at Paris: What to Expect.”

Some key observations from the report are:

–          Africa is on the frontlines of the repercussions from changing climate. Increased threat of droughts and floods hamper the agricultural sector. With about 30-40 percent of Africa’s GDP and about three quarters of Africans relying on agriculture, shocks to agricultural production can have severe impediment on human development. As elaborated by John McArthur in his brief on the relationship between agriculture and climate change, agriculture is the sector that contributes to and is most susceptible to changes in climate patterns. Estimates indeed suggest that global warming, even if limited to below 2 C will reduce total crop production by as much as 10 percent.

–          Africa currently accounts for the smallest share of global greenhouse gas emissions, but mitigation steps are necessary to avoid a high carbon lock-in. Africa contributes only 3.8 percent to the global greenhouse emissions, compared to the largest emitters like China, United States, European Union, which ac­count for 23, 19, and 13 percent of global emissions respectively. However, Sy argues that this trend might change as Africa seeks to move to a stronger growth trajectory with rapid urbanization, which will increase Africa’s emission of greenhouse gases unless adequate investment in renewable technologies is undertaken at an early stage. For instance, under the International Energy Agency baseline scenario for 2040, power generation in sub-Saharan Africa would quadruple, and the region’s share of global carbon dioxide emissions would increase a whole percentage point if the energy mix is not altered.

–          Though Africa will bear the grunt of global warming, it often has limited bargaining power in international negotiations. In Paris, African leaders and negotiators seek to achieve an inclusive, ambitious, and equitable COP21 agreement that would lead to lower carbon emissions. Sy maintains that the unified Common African Position (CAP) developed by the Af­rican Group of Negotiators and endorsed by the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment strengthens their bargaining power, much like it did for the Sustainable Development Goals. The CAP seeks firm commitments from devel­oped economies—of the magnitude $100 billion by 2020—to support mechanisms that will adequately finance climate adaptation, and not just climate mitigation.

–          Among the issues to be agreed upon in Paris, the need for financing both climate adaptation and mitigation will probably be the most important concern for African negotia­tors, says Sy. The COP21 seeks to agree on a new multilateral instrument that will apply to all countries, set out a transparent and verifiable monitoring mechanism, and provide ad­equate means of implementation in terms of finance, technology, and capacity building. In Africa, many national governments are initiating governance systems for climate change adaptation such as di­saster risk management, public health initiatives, adjustments in technologies, and infrastructure and ecosystem-based ap­proaches. However, according to estimates by a 2013 United Nations Environment Program study (assuming the targeted 2 C temperature increase scenario), meeting adaptation costs in Africa by the 2020s will require a steep increase in annual funding for adaptation in Africa by about 10-20 percent annually. Even if domestic resources are mobilized, the international cooperation would be required to help meet Africa’s climate funding gap. To solve this problem, Sy says, would require that the current governance of the “global commons” be addressed.

–          The contentious issue of loss and damage (L&D) could likely be a stumbling block next week. According to Sy, Africa, together with other developing countries, is at high risk of L&D associated with climate change impacts, including extreme weather shocks and slow onset events (sea level rises, desertification). World Bank estimates suggest that losses to insurers due to weather shocks have quadrupled to $200 billion a year since the 1980s. Developed economies have expressed concerns about an “unending string of liability” and thus negotiations on the issue are likely to be tricky at best.

In the end, Sy argues that the Paris summit is a chance to build an understanding of the threats and risks from unmanaged climate change and also the opportunities that lay in the low-carbon transition—including the path it paves to fight global poverty. In short, the negotiations next week can be an important turning point to strengthen global action, but the task for Africa is clear—admittedly less than straightforward—to lead in implementing sustainable climate-resilient and low carbon development. International cooperation and financial support for innovative financial solutions like carbon finance would be crucial in achieving this ambitious endeavor.

This brief was prepared as part of a collection of short briefs for the report

“COP21 at Paris: What to expect.”

For more insight on what Brookings experts are thinking on the topic, refer to

other briefs

on key issues such as aid, finance, carbon pricing, sustainable infrastructure, and the relationship between climate and agriculture.