Africa Portal Backgrounder No. 64
The COP15 opening ceremony in Copenhagen, Denmark (Flickr/UNclimatechange).

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  • The African Group of Negotiators (AGN) has become increasingly important over the course of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, especially in recent years.
  • Early on, the group confronted a number of obstacles to effective participation and was unable to influence global outcomes effectively.
  • Investment in negotiating capacity, which has helped to increase the group’s influence in recent meetings of the UNFCCC, has been a response to past ineffectiveness and new dynamics in the global negotiations have raised incentives for participation.



The African Group of Negotiators (AGN) has been active in the global climate change negotiations since their inception at the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992. The group operates as a regional coalition for pooling resources and power among African states, and seeks to advance common African interests on the issue of climate change. Yet, for the most part of the past twenty years, it has been a relatively minor coalition compared to others such as AOSIS, OPEC and the G77, which have each significantly shaped the course of the UNFCCC negotiations over the years. As a result, it has attracted scant attention from policymakers and political scientists interested in the global climate change negotiations; little is know about the group’s history, its successes and failures.

However, in recent years the AGN appears to have grown in stature. At the 12th Conference of the Parties (COP12), in Nairobi, it took on a more proactive agenda-setting role that signaled a notable departure from its past. Subsequently, at COP15 in Copenhagen, it again played a quite prominent brokering role, particularly in the negotiations on climate finances, and its activities attracted considerable attention in the press. In Cancun and Durban, as well, this high level of engagement has continued. The positions that the AGN has advocated have been more dynamic and ambitious; the group has clearly differentiated itself from others, such as the G77; and it appears to have been able to bargain more effectively, influencing global outcomes to a greater extent.

Today, as a result, it is far more important for followers of the UNFCCC negotiations to understand the AGN - to know where has come from, how it has evolved, how it currently operates, and what role it might play in the future. In this backgrounder, a preliminary sketch of its history in the global climate change regime will be offered. I begin by discussing the origins of “African Groups” in the United Nations (UN) system, which laid the basis for regional cooperation in various negotiating forums, including the UNFCCC. I then recount the AGN’s early experience in the climate change negotiations, in which the group encountered a number of important barriers to effective participation. Finally, I offer an account of the AGN’s growing involvement and influence in more recent UNFCCC meetings.

The Origins of the AGN in the UNFCCC


The AGN’s roots lie, first of all, in the bloc politics of the UN General Assembly (GA) during the early period of decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was at this point that Africa’s newly independent states first began to work together in the GA as a regional coalition known as the African Group of the Whole (AGW), which is still active today (Endeley, 2009). Coinciding with the establishment of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, the AGW was formed out of three competing coalitions of African states that had emerged at the time, and its purpose was to coordinate the activities of African states in the GA and to increase their influence on issues held in common.

The AGW was the first “African Group,” and it provided a model for African cooperation in a number of different negotiating forums. In the early negotiations leading up to the Earth Summit, therefore, African states naturally began regional preparatory consultations in order to reach a common negotiating position and to coordinate their strategies at the upcoming global meeting. With support from the OAU and several multilateral institutions, the group formulated a common approach to the various issues on the international agenda, including climate change. However, at this stage, climate change was not the most significant issue for African states. The major problem that concerned Africa was, rather, desertification. In so far as the African common position addressed climate change, it was either connected to the issue of desertification or the group simply followed the lead of the larger G77 coalition.

Only when the official UNFCCC negotiations began after the Earth Summit, spurring the creation of an “African Group” explicitly dedicated to them (the AGN), did African states become more directly involved with the issue of climate change. The African delegates that comprised the AGN would typically gather in the days prior to major UNFCCC meetings, alongside similar gatherings of the G77 and AOSIS. There, the group would coordinate its approach to the issues on the agenda under the leadership of a chairperson selected on a rotational basis by their regional partners.

The AGN’s Early Years in the UNFCCC


Although it was active throughout the early meetings of the UNFCCC, the AGN nevertheless failed to become a major force in the negotiations. In particular, it did not clearly distinguish itself from the G77, which proved to be a much more potent coalition for exerting African interests due to the presence of several large developing states. The issues that most concerned African states during the time were also those that concerned all developing states, which made the AGN relatively less important as a vehicle for asserting African interests. The AGN only became relatively more proactive on occasions when it became particularly clear that Africa’s position was not aligned with other developing states on individual issues.

The most notable example of this occurred during the negotiations that established the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Many African negotiators worried that the rules that were being laid down would make it difficult for African states to attract CDM projects. Above all, they objected to the market-based nature of the CDM, which they believed would put African states at comparative disadvantage relative to larger emerging economies.

However, the AGN proved unable to effectively influence its design. African negotiators, it turned out, did not have the expertise or resources to bargain effectively with their better-trained peers, their access to high-quality information was limited, and they had only a tenuous mandate from African leaders. Indeed, for most African heads of state climate change was still a low priority issue that warranted little attention, and the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) - the only body providing high-level regional leadership on environmental issues at the time - had fallen into a period of relative inactivity in late 1990s.

Towards More Effective Participation in the UNFCCC

The issue of poor negotiating capacity was recognized early on by African participants in the UNFCCC. After COP4, for instance, a negotiating skills workshop was held by the International Institute for Sustainable Development in Dakar in response to requests from several African delegates. African ministers, similarly, voiced concerns about the limited capacities of African negotiators, noting that they “had been unable to secure positions of advantage for Africa” (AMCEN, 2006,). They called upon UNEP and other multilateral institutions to provide support for regional consultations in the run up to COP6, in Marrakesh. But these early capacity building efforts had little effect; in general, African negotiators continued to confront many of the same barriers that hindered effective participation at earlier meetings. 

African participation in the UNFCCC only increased when the true extent to which African states had lost out in the global negotiations became evident. After the CDM began operations in 2005, African states performed poorly. In 2006, the continent’s share of the primary market for CDM credits was only 5.7 percent (Capoor and Ambrosi, 2006). A meager 36 projects were in the CDM pipeline out of a total of 1274 projects for all developing countries. Adaptation - the key issue for Africa - was also much less prominent on the global agenda. According to one study published in 2006, “[the] feeling, especially among developing countries, [was] that despite the widespread instances of climate impacts now being witnessed, the COP [had] not yet created sufficient elements of the climate regime aimed at implementing adaptation” (Karth et al., 2006: 6).

However, African participation also increased due to the fact that the issue of climate change had itself become more important for African policymakers. With international assistance (mainly via the UNFCCC’s LDC Fund), a majority of African states had completed National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) by 2007, which provided much better information about the costs of global warming in Africa and the kinds of investments that  needed to be adapted. The Stern Review was also released in 2006, attracting a considerable amount of attention within African diplomatic and political circles with its assertion that Africa would be the region most severely affected by climate change. Its finding were then reinforced in the following year with the publication of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, which arrived at similar conclusions.

COP12 in Nairobi, in 2006, offered an initial opportunity for African states to have several of their outstanding concerns addressed, and it marked the first occasion in which African states appeared to take on a more proactive role. African participation in the COP increased considerably compared to previous years, and African delegates were much more involved in setting the agenda. The Nairobi COP would, in the words on one observer, move Africa “into the spotlight of the climate policy process” (Sterk, 2007:140). Due in great part to the efforts of AGN negotiators, the conference produced the Nairobi Work Programme on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change and the Nairobi Framework, which aimed to facilitate adaptation decision-making and improve participation in the CDM, respectively. The COP, therefore, touched on two the major concerns that the AGN had identified.

The AGN was relatively less prominent at the following COP in Bali, which was intended to address the issue of non-Annex 1 commitments. Given the nature of the issues that were discussed, the G77 naturally served as the main negotiating coalition for African states. But, in subsequent negotiations, several new dynamics served to bolster African participation. First, it became much clearer to African states that their involvement would have to increase, since the stakes were now much higher. A number of other non-Annex 1 negotiating groups appeared to become more proactive around this time, and this provided an incentive for the AGN to differentiate itself to raise its voice in the new negotiating environment.

Second, there were now important distributional questions on the table, mainly in terms of access to climate finances and technology. African states wished to maximize the share of financial support they would be entitled to, and doing so would be easier with a narrower negotiating coalition. This was all the more so since it was clear that many emerging economies would not have access to such finances, and therefore the main competition for climate finances would primarily occur amongst lower incomes states - giving the relatively larger African coalition a comparative advantage.

In response to these new incentives, more concerted efforts were made to increase the AGN’s negotiating capacity, as well as the overall coherence of the group. African delegates tried to persuade Africa leaders to dedicate more resources to the negotiations; multilateral institutions and bilateral donors were approached to provide financial and technical support for AGN delegates; and experts from civil society groups were increasingly incorporated into African delegations in order to expand the number of highly-skilled negotiators that could be deployed at UNFCCC meetings. African leaders also made the decisive decision, in 2009, to create the Conference of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC), which would facilitate communication between African negotiators and high-level policymakers, allowing the former to participate more effectively, coherently and with a stronger mandate. The African leaders represented in CAHOSCC would also provide assistance in the negotiations by directly negotiating on the behalf of Africa in the ministerial-level meetings of the UNFCCC.

The combined effect of these efforts has become increasingly apparent in the most recent meetings of the UNFCCC. This can be seen, first, in the growing number of African negotiators, as well as the rising number of submissions to the UNFCCC by individual African states and by the AGN as whole. It can also be seen, second, in the growing impact of African negotiators at meetings of the UNFCCC, and the greater sophistication of their proposals.

In Copenhagen, for instance, Meles Zenawi (the chair of CAHOSCC) played a notable role in the negotiation of finances for developing countries, and his efforts were publicly lauded by many, from Nicholas Stern to Nicholas Sarkozy. At Durban, as well, African states proved to be strong proponents of a comprehensive legally-binding deal for 2020, allying with European states, the LDC Group and AOSIS in order to put pressure on larger emerging economies and recalcitrant developed states to accept the Durban Platform.



Over the course of the UNFCCC negotiations, therefore, the AGN has grown in stature. In its early days, the group failed to distinguish itself from other coalitions, and when the position of African states failed to align sufficiently with others, the group failed to effectively assert itself. Poor resources, limited access to high-quality information, and a tenuous political mandate hindered participation.

Yet, in response to past failures, greater concern about the issues at stake arose, and the new negotiating dynamics that have prevailed in the UNFCCC in recent years, has enabled the group to become far more ambitious. It has made strong efforts to attain and invest resources in negotiating capacity, allowing African states to bargain much more effectively than in the past. Many problems remain, of course - African participation continues to be uneven, resources are unequally distributed and internal conflicts are abound. But, despite these challenges, the group has increasingly spoken with a single voice, and cooperation is likely to deepen in future negotiations as the group builds upon its recent achievements.

Works Cited

AMCEN (2006). History of the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, 1985-2005. Nairobi: AMCEN Secretariat

Capoor, K. & P. Ambrosi (2006). State and Trends of the Carbon Market 2006: A Focus on Africa. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Endeley, E. (2009). Bloc Politics at the United Nations: The African Group. Toronto: University Press of America.

IPCC (2007). Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability: Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kartha, S.  et al. (2006). Adaptation as a Strategic Issue in The Climate Negotiations. European Climate Platform Report No. 3, November.

Sterk, W. (2007). “The Nairobi Climate Change Summit (COP12-MOP2): Taking a Deep Breath before Negotiating Post-2012 Targets?” Journal for European Environment and Planning Law v4, no. 2.

Stern, N. (2006). The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

About the Author

Charles Roger is a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia (UBC). His research focuses on transnational governance, global environmental politics, and international political economy. He holds a B.A. from Concordia University, in Montreal, and an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Prior to his studies at UBC, Charles worked as a researcher at LSE and acted as a consultant to the United Nations on climate change and energy governance issues in developing states.

In recent years, the African Group of Negotiators has become increasingly important at UNFCCC negotiations. Investment in negotiating capacity, which has helped to increase the group’s influence in recent meetings, has been a response to past ineffectiveness, while new dynamics in global negotiations have raised incentives for participation.