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Africa can lead the charge on climate change

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Africa can lead the charge on climate change

Climate change is an existential threat and Africa’s leaders need to act urgently to avert disaster, says industrialist and philanthropist Ivor Ichikowitz. The decisions will not be easy, but with the right political will Africa can galvanise action across the world

Climate change denialists and those leaders who are slow in taking action on climate change will be judged by history. There is little time left to waste on them. 

Despite the best efforts of the global community, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP25) in December 2019, didn’t deliver on clear actions that would save the planet. We are indeed rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic is sinking.   

Previously, there had been hopes that joint action on climate was inevitable. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) very clearly sounded the alarm, calling for steep and drastic cuts in emissions in order to reach the target of a 1.5 degree increase in global warming to avoid climate catastrophe.

That optimism however, clearly proved to be premature. If the devastation that we have seen in Australia isn’t a wake-up call, then what will be? Already scientists warn that this ‘fire weather’ could be the new normal in a world where we have a three degrees Celsius temperature rise.

The bush fires, together with Caribbean hurricanes, Pacific typhoons or African cyclones, combined to cause approximately $150bn worth of damage in 2019.

While many of the world’s developed nations may possess the infrastructure, capital, geography and other assets needed to withstand such delays, their less developed counterparts do not. And time is running out.

But these are not easy choices. Africa concurrently and desperately needs to pursue robust and aggressive economic development at every level to lift millions out of poverty, and yet, this same development activity can have a corresponding impact on climate.

At the moment, Africa is very far from being the cause of the global climate crisis. According to the World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a paltry 2.27% of the world’s total CO2 emissions, as compared to the US and the EU, with their portions totalling 14.54% and 8.97% respectively. When calculated in per capita terms, the disparities between Sub-Saharan Africa and developed regions are even wider.

Heaviest burden falls on Africa

Yet despite the fact that Africa isn’t causing global warming, we are definitely suffering its consequences.

When Cyclones Idai and Kenneth rampaged through Southern and Eastern Africa in 2019, they left hundreds of thousands homeless in their wakes, with the floods that followed from those historic storms causing the number of reported malaria cases to soar in a region the World Health Organisation (WHO) states already accounts for almost 80% of the global malaria burden.

In other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, droughts, the likes of which haven’t been recorded in a generation, also took their toll. Absent rains withered last year’s crops, placing a financial burden on the 54% of working Sub-Saharan Africans employed by the agricultural sector, putting an estimated 45m South Africans, Zambians and Zimbabweans at risk of hunger.

What’s more, longer periods of drought have depleted the reservoirs of Sub-Saharan Africa’s hydroelectric dams, the area’s largest source of electricity. As a result, widespread blackouts that already weigh significantly on business activity are growing far more common in a region where, in 2016, only 42.8% of the population had access to electricity.

From desertification in the Sahel and the rapidly rising seas on the West African coast to the proliferation of crop pests and diseases across the continent, climate change threatens to restrict and even reverse Africa’s economic and social development.

Unabated, the risk of intra-national and international competition for potable and irrigable water, staple foods and habitable land will only increase. Should this scenario come to pass, the rate of poverty, unemployment and en masse migration towards Europe and the US will continue to rise.

Despite the clear mandate to reduce emissions, Africa also direly needs to increase its electricity supply in order to allow businesses to grow – and herein lies the most important sustainability challenge. There are dozens of coal-fired power plants currently being planned and constructed on the continent, as regardless of their high emissions, the demand for power is overwhelmingly necessary for many nations to graduate to the next level of development. 

Global fight

We must look to the tragic circumstances of Australia in January 2020 and remember that Africa is also on the front lines of the global fight on climate change.

As home to some 60-65% of the world’s uncultivated arable land and nearly double the amount of the combined agricultural land of the US and EU, Sub-Saharan Africa must become the breadbasket of the world.

And with almost 50% of global cobalt reserves as well as other large deposits of mineral resources, the continent is now, and can remain, a centrepiece of the global economy. By feeding and fuelling the future, Africa is well positioned to attract much-needed foreign direct investment (FDI) and generate skilled jobs.

But every day that passes without aggressive climate action in fact diminishes the likelihood of these transformations. Action is required now. As Africans we must take the charge and start implementing the solutions that we already know will have a significant impact. 

We know there is no silver bullet. We know that solutions can be found in new technologies, changing people’s behaviours and smarter energy and environmental policies. 

Reforestation is one such solution and according to new research potentially one of the most effective and cheapest ways to fight global warming. One such study estimates that planting a trillion trees around the world would be adequate to remove two thirds of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere. But this is not just a numbers game and it needs to be done smartly. 

Striking a balance

What can be done to strike a balance between economic growth and climate change prevention on our continent? How can we preserve our pristine forests, plant billions more trees while continuing to develop our economies and lift millions people from poverty?  

The first order of business should be for African leaders to immediately initiate more aggressive climate action measures while also maximising economic benefits. Fortunately, some countries in the region have already made progress toward this end and serve as instructive examples.

Ghana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique recently enacted an Emission Reductions Payment Agreement (ERPA) with the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, which provides states with a financial incentive to curb local deforestation, long a carbon-emitting practice. 

Clearly burning less fossil fuels is a key part of the solution. Longer-term solutions are abundant in the electric power sector, especially considering the region’s lower electrification rate and its rapidly growing demand. Accordingly, Sub-Saharan African states would do well to invite greater investment in their renewable energy sectors – as Zambia and Ethiopia have done in recent months – and reduce their reliance upon polluting fossil fuels and increasingly unreliable hydropower. 

As the African Development Bank recently demonstrated, states and regional institutions can accelerate this process by organising international investment forums to connect policymakers with potential investors. However, this must be supplemented by measurable ‘calls to action’; reforms to the domestic regulatory framework, a perennial obstacle to private investment in much of Sub-Saharan Africa’s power sector.

The opportunities derived from investment in private sector research and development (R&D) abound. Look to the breakthrough of Heliogen, for example, a start- up enterprise backed by Bill Gates. At close of 2019, the company leveraged cutting-edge Artificial Intelligence (AI) and a field of mirrors to effectively reflect sunlight, generating extreme heat well above 1,000 degrees Celsius, producing carbon-free solar energy that can, should the political goodwill be matched by practical implementation, replace fossil fuels in regions as yet untouched by the ongoing ‘clean energy revolution’.

No African government will autonomously enact policies to ensure that, for example, two-thirds of their lands remain forested against the interests of growth and development without appropriate considerations in place from their partners on the continent and around the world.

Socially impactful ecological initiatives to correspond with foreign direct investment (FDI) in support of preservation and the safeguarding against climate change reflects the true potential of the clean energy revolution. It can usher in a fresh era of international partnerships to mutual benefit, while further deteriorating a stigma of exploitation that has left lingering resentment within communities in many resource-rich African countries.

For quite a number of years, Africa has been more or less ignored by Europe and the United States, while other nations like China have invested billions in our infrastructure, changing the dynamic of our geopolitical and commercial landscape. The result has been a net positive for us, while more and more competition creates necessary conditions to chart a new path forward. 

However, we must look toward fostering creative, innovative, and collaborative solutions to address those partnerships in the face of the undeniable climate crisis. We must take greater custodianship to the global clean energy revolution as it pertains to Africa, to our own environment, while striking a critical balance with the continent’s need to continue growing for the future. 

Taking a lead

Africa has shown in the past that it can take the lead and galvanise global support for matters that are of fundamental importance to the continent. It did so in asserting the freedom and independence of African countries from colonial and apartheid rule, and more recently, in concluding a trade agreement that will promote greater intra-African economic integration.

It can do so again, if it garners the political will to view climate change as an existential threat, deserving of the same African unity and global advocacy as previous campaigns led by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and subsequently, the African Union, alongside the continent’s regional institutions. Africa cannot be the passive recipient of outside incentives, policy advice, funding and project management, on terms dictated by others. 

African leaders have no reason to wait to be incentivised here: the threat should be incentive enough. 

Leadership entails making decisive choices and implementing them, even if unpopular in the short term, for the greater long-term benefit of Africa and its citizens. There is no shortage of global goodwill and support, but in the absence of coordinated African leadership, the challenges cannot be successfully addressed, much less owned by Africans themselves.

The initiative has to come from the continent’s political leadership, otherwise we might find solutions once again imposed on Africa from outside the continent. This cannot continue to be the story of Africa.

Ultimately, failure to strike the balance, I suggest, in 2020 and beyond, between responsible development and climate prevention rather than reaction, bucking the longstanding inaction in the face of climate change, may bring to the African plains a similar tragedy as what we witnessed before us in Australia as the New Year dawned.

Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and Founder and Executive Chairman of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation (IFF). The views expressed here are his own.

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