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Negotiating climate change between unequal parties: COP25 from an African perspective

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Negotiating climate change between unequal parties: COP25 from an African perspective

Britta Rennkamp

04 Dec 2019

4min min read
  • Climate

his year’s United Nations climate conference (COP25) underway in Madrid has been overshadowed by social unrest. Chile’s President Sebastian Piñera withdrew from hosting the annual conference following a wave of public demonstrations over economic inequality in his country. Similar protests occured across the globe throughout this year, fuelled by public anger over inequality, corruption and economic challenges. The linkages between the world’s inequality and climate change crises have become increasingly visible, as the climate crisis is mainly a battle about redefining winners and losers. 

What does this mean for African development? The current global system of capitalism has left Africa at the bottom of the world’s income ladder The highest levels of global multi-dimensional poverty are concentrated on the continent. Africans' livelihoods mostly depend on agricultural activities, which make them highly vulnerable to climate change. Rapid urbanisation and a growing population require urgent infrastructural investment.China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative offers access to much-needed infrastructure, including coal technology, which appeal to the ruling elites in many countries in the region. 

These dynamics raise essential questions with far-reaching consequences for the future: Why should African countries not build coal plants when many others do? Are investments in coal plants the best use of limited resources if less costly technologies are available? This current trajectory is geared to set African nations on to high emissions and high poverty pathways. Coal power plants not only dramatically add to the emissions burden, they also lock small electricity sectors into technological pathways that can crowd out future investments in clean technologies. Big coal investments carry the risk of offering rent-seeking opportunities and come with heavy health and environmental tolls on the surrounding population.

Increasingly, well-resourced and capacitated civil society action manages to counter-balance these politics – in Kenya for example, it halted the development of a coal plant near the coastal town of Lamu, a UNESCO heritage site, pending a comprehensive environmental assessment. 

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Protesters march to call for more governmental action against destructive climate change in Nairobi's Uhuru Park on 20 September 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya. (Getty Images AsiaPac)

The reality of the current climate change negotiations mirrors the inequalities between industrialised and developing nations. The Paris Agreement has dissolved the logic of Annex 1/ non-Annex 1 countries in the Kyoto Protocol, which mostly corresponded with the distinction between industrialised and developing nations. All signatory parties to the Paris Agreement need to submit nationally determined contributions (NDCs), which communicate the climate actions individual countries will take to achieve the goal of keeping the global temperature increase well below 2 degrees. A sticking point in the Agreement is its vagueness about the contribution of African countries, as their overall contribution to global emissions was only 3.7% in 2018. 

"The reality of the current climate change negotiations mirrors the inequalities between industrialised and developing nations."

African interests in the current negotiations in Madrid center on the following issues*:  

NDCs: New NDCs will have to be submitted over the course of next year ahead of COP26. The first round of NDCs in many African countries were largely dominated and written by international consultants. African nations should avoid a repeat of this, and drive the process themselves so that their actions and demands are articulated effectively.  

Transparency and reporting: countries will have to report more stringently on their emissions sources and action than before. A general concern in African countries is the lack of data on both emissions and policy impacts. There is consultative group of experts on capacity that aims to support and to develop the reporting mechanisms in developing countries. 

Adaptation: Adaptation is not high on the agenda in the current negotiations. The Africa Group's proposal to set a global goal on adaptation in the Paris Agreement is still under discussion. The main controversy here is whether adaptation is a problem which nations need to deal with individually or whether it should be funded collectively. African countries are pushing for collective responsibility while others try to marginalise the issue in order to avoid having to pay. 

Markets: The market mechanism under the Paris Agreement, which aims to generate funds towards the target of reaching ‘net zero’ emissions,  is on the negotiation agenda. These negotiations are relevant for Africa’s forests, mainly in the Congo Basin. 

Finance: At COP21, parties resolved to mobilise USD 100 billion per year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries. They also  agreed to set a more ambitious financing target prior to 2025. The Africa Group is urging to action the definition of the new target immediately and to make finance available based on countries' needs. The industrialised countries do not echo this priority in the current negotiation processes. 

• United States withdrawal: The US has reached the last stretch of a long process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement with effect from November 2020. With the second largest emitter and the richest nation in the world no longer contributing to climate finance, developing countries will have less funds available to them. The withdrawal of the US may also set a precedent for other countries to pull out, as happened under the Kyoto Protocol.

In essence, contestation over financial liabilities – who will have to pay for what – is  at the centre of the negotiations, as has been the case in previous climate summits. African countries’ input in this game is marginal, while the most powerful countries try to avoid paying. The US is leaving the agreement. The EU and other developed nations are more committed to financing capacity building, loss and damage, and supporting the Green Climate Fund within their own margins. India’s and China’s contributions are uncertain. While India is progressing on implementing its solar mission, the Chinese have managed to reduce some of their emissions from coal-fired plants. There is still a long way to go towards reaching the global temperature goal, while the world’s largest emitter is successfully exporting its homegrown coal technologies to Africa and elsewhere. A global non-proliferation agreement for fossil fuels is not in sight. 

The current issues on the international negotiations table in Madrid will not safeguard Africa’s developmental progress from the impacts of climate change. Solutions to this crisis are left to be determined by African societies themselves. They must make use of abundant renewable energy resources and the opportunity of declining technology costs, which can provide electricity for growing societies and increasingly urban livelihoods. Actively engaging in civil society, public and private climate action is now essential. The more action on the ground, the more meaningful the next NDC submission in 2020 will be – for Africa and its people. 

*Based on an interview the author conducted with a senior negotiator in the Africa Group on 2 December 2019.

(Main image: Ashley Cooper/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.