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Tangible Outcomes From the Biden’s Leaders Climate Summit are Critical for Climate Justice in Africa

By Alice Ruhweza, Africa Regional Director | Laurent Some, Head of Policy and Partnerships | Victor Nyambok, Policy and Advocacy Communications Manager - WWF International

US President Joe Biden was elected on a strong climate platform, in an election where climate change was one of the central issues. The Leaders Summit on Climate, a two-day virtual meeting on Earth Day that brought together 40 world leaders including 5 African Presidents is an early indicator that shows the US appears committed to building synergies around an ambitious climate agenda.

Reflections from the Biden Climate Summit

 President Biden announced a game-changing emissions target for the US. He said country would cut emissions by 50-52% by 2030 from 2005 levels, nearly doubling its previous commitment for 2025. This is a historical increase, an unequivocal and very welcome signal of the leading role the US intends to play in climate geopolitics, and a clear motivator for action by fellow big-emitters.

African Presidents who spoke at the summit unanimously flagged the need for sufficient finance to support African nations to meet their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) targets which are largely conditional on external funding. They called upon industrialised countries to substantially increase climate finance flow to Africa and address the challenge of disproportionally small flows of desperately needed adaptation finance to Africa. They reiterated the critical importance of climate adapation to Africa.

The five African Leaders who attended the summit included President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Ali Bongo of Gabon and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari.

As a vulnerable region, Africa faces an even wider adaptation gap, with far-reaching impacts already being felt in agriculture, health, infrastructure, and livelihoods. African Leaders called for enhanced engagement from international community to support Africa’s efforts.

The African Development Bank was recognized as the first multilateral bank to meet, and exceed, the 50% target of finance for adaptation. Other emerging themes in the leaders' speeches included a potential revamp of  debt-for-nature swaps with a focus on adaptation, carbon pricing and green hydrogen production for international markets.

Africa and Climate Change

According to African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa currently loses $7 billion to $15 billion a year due to climate change and that is likely to increase to as much as $50bn or 3 percent of continent-wide gross domestic product annually by 2040 without investment in adaptation strategies.

The continent continues to bear the brunt from climate change impact. According to the latest World Meteorological Organization (WMO) State of the Global Climate 2020 report, large parts of Africa continued to experience very extensive flooding.

Floods and the worst desert locust infestation in East Africa in 25 years, resulted in large-scale displacement of millions of people in many countries in Africa including Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Benin, Togo, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon and Burkina Faso. Sudan and Kenya were the worst affected with 285 deaths reported in Kenya, and 155 deaths in Sudan and over 800,000 people affected, along with further indirect impacts from disease.

In Southern Africa, long-term drought continued to persist, particularly the Northern and Eastern Cape Provinces of South Africa, although heavy winter rains saw water storages reach full capacity in Cape Town, continuing the recovery from extreme drought, which peaked in 2018.

Many lakes and rivers have also reached record high levels especially along The Great Rift Valley, including Lake Victoria, the Niger River at Niamey and the Blue Nile at Khartoum. This resulted in displacement of communities and loss of livelihoods from agriculture, fishing and tourism.

COVID 19 Implications

It is beyond doubt that Africa is experiencing a challenging context, with an emerging configuration of political, economic and social dynamics taking shape in the wake of the unprecedented disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Looking back at 2020 and as we entered 2021, most countries in Africa understandably focused on containing the COVID-19 global pandemic. Efforts are being made to ramp up screening and testing for the virus and secure vaccines for use on the continent.
As governments mitigate the effects of the pandemic, Africa needs to remain cognizant of the looming triple threat of climate change, the destruction of nature and biodiversity and the impact of continued unsustainable use of our natural resources, as well as the increasing probability of future pandemics demands action.

COVID-19 has created unique momentum to rally investment towards green and blue solutions, with governments reworking budgets and revising sector economic plans.

Building Forward Better - A Green and Just Recovery

A forthcoming study by WWF and BCG highlights why a green recovery is important for Africa to build forward better. For example, the study finds that continuing to boost renewable energy in East Africa through (i) redirecting efforts from coal and large hydro grid generation to renewables and (ii) increasing off-grid renewable solutions could result in tremendous benefits for the economy, environment and people in the five East African countries.

The study estimates that US $21 billion could be added to overall GDP; direct improvement to the health and livelihoods of 26 million people and 7 million new jobs, across sustainable agriculture, fisheries & aquaculture, wildlife-based tourism, and renewable energy by 2030. Furthermore, the study also estimates that going green could prevent hunger for 15M people currently at risk with climate smart practices to improve agricultural productivity; and save 10 million people at risk of displacement due to climate-induced natural disasters such as droughts and floods.

Furthermore, the East Africa region itself would see decreased depletion of stranded brown assets (such as coal and hydropower dams) and enhanced and diversified business opportunities. For instance, South Africa, the fifth largest exporter of coal and Africa’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, needs to replace its ageing coal-fired power station fleet in the coming years and renewable energy has become cheaper than fossil fuels.

At the Leaders summit last week, President Ramaphosa announced that South Africa will bring forward the plan to peak and plateau emissions in 2025 and decline from 2035 to a decline from 2025. This means that South Africa will never build another coal power plant again. And with many financial institutions having announced that they will no longer be finding coal power plants, the chances of South Africa or any other African country to seek funding, or cheap loans for a coal power plant are close to zero. The President also stressed the need to create new jobs from the new renewable economy to replace those that will be lost during the transition.

Common but Differentiated Responsibilities

Building forward better also provides an opportunity to tackle the injustices created by climate change. While we all share responsibility for mitigating climate change, the burdens imposed by mitigation should be borne mostly by those countries that have done the most to cause the climate crisis, and which have profited enormously from fossil fuel-powered industrialization. This means the rich world has the responsibility to cut emissions faster and to provide financial and technological support to developing countries to enable them to follow a low-carbon path to development.

African has the largest proportion of developing countries that need support to address the vulnerability to climate change through support to early warning systems, adaptation needs assessment and adaptation activities. 

The rich world must compensate least-developed countries for the loss and damage they face from climate change and help them adapt to a less climate-secure world. This includes mobilizing and providing additional financial resources to Africa for climate friendly technologies to address both the urgent adaptation and mitigation needs of Africa and other developing countries. The African Development Bank recently joined forces with the Global Center on Adaptation to launch the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program, which aims to mobilize $25 billion for climate adaptation by 2025. But a lot more is needed.

At the summit, President Biden announced plans to triple public financing for climate in developing countries by 2024. Other financing pledges were made including the new LEAF Coalition (“Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance”) that aims to invest a $1 billion global call for proposals for verified emissions reductions from tropical forest countries and jurisdictions.

Africa’s Tropical forests absorb billions of tonnes of carbon each year and host a vast diversity of life forms, while providing multiple other benefits to people locally and globally. For example the Congo’s Cuvette Centrale peatlands are estimated to contain 30 billion tons of carbon. Some studies suggest that if one-third of it were to burn, it would double atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and raise global temperatures by 5 degrees Celsius! Scaling up finance to protect forests and biodiversity is critical to efforts to tackle our connected climate and nature crises.

The Road Ahead 

The upcoming Petersberg Climate Dialogue, the Partnership for Green Growth and the Global Goals Summit and the Summit of G7 Leaders will be crucial moments for leaders to deliver vital climate finance commitments especially on the US$100 billion goal in support of developing countries climate action promised over a decade ago. For the African continent, already experiencing severe climate impacts and an ongoing economic crisis,  delivering on finance and adaptation is a prerequisite for success.

Africa is already spearheading integration of innovative indigenous and other technologies for both adaptation and mitigation to climate change but more needs to be done on areas such as drought resistant crops, crop diversification, improved farming technologies, better irrigation techniques, control of climate related disease such as malaria and dengue fever.

The COVID-19 pandemic, resulting economic crisis, growing inequality and the climate crisis creates a challenging context for success at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. Many countries have not yet submitted enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), including many of the largest emitters, and most of the NDCs submitted are not in line with the Paris climate goals. 

COP 26 provides an opportunity to build on the emerging momentum to establish trust between and within countries based on equitable and just climate solutions. This year the world will be looking to COP26 to provide hope and confidence that we can accelerate the transition to a zero-emission and climate-resilient future and prevent a climate catastrophe. 

There is growing recognition of the need for climate justice and the interconnections of the climate crisis with the systemic inequalities that is now more than ever prevalent in our societies. 

The latest Science is showing this is make or break time. We have no time to waste.  The climate is changing, and the impacts are already too costly for people and the planet.  This is the year for action.  Countries need to commit to net zero emissions by 2050.  They need to submit, well ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, ambitious national climate plans that will collectively cut global emissions by 45 per cent compared to 2010 levels by 2030.  And they need to act now to protect people against the disastrous effects of climate change

Africa’s participation in the summit reflects the continent’s role as an important factor in the world’s efforts to reduce emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Whether it is reducing deforestation, desertification, or addressing rising sea levels, it is impossible to address the worst impacts of climate change without Africa’s input and cooperation. 

And Africa is ready to engage.

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