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COP27 must hold the countries accountable who contribute the most to the climate crisis

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Young activists march as part of the Global Climate Strike in Cape Town, South Africa on 20 September 2019. Photo: picture alliance / REUTERS | MIKE HUTCHINGS

The repeated underwhelming results of successive Conferences of the Parties (COP) have left many people in the Global South wondering whether there is any point to these gatherings. Many civil society formations in Africa in particular feel that the corporate capture of the event is complete, and that countering it may mean ditching the COPs for more radical alternative spaces. The number of corporate sponsors at COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 was a testament to how hegemonic capitalist forces use COP credentials to either greenwash their marketing or sell their products to a more environmentally conscious audience.

Roland Ngam works as a Programme Manager of Climate Justice at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Office in Johannesburg, where he coordinates the climate blog ClimateJusticeCentral

Ibrahima Thiam works as a project manager in the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s West Africa Office in Dakar, Senegal.

Africans in particular were extremely disappointed with the outcomes of COP26. Their call for loss and damage to be codified as a priority action was not heeded, a fact that was especially painful because the countries that played the biggest role in undermining this agenda item — China, India, and the United States — are all major friends and partners of the continent.

India and China also resisted the final text on phasing out coal, opting instead for a “phasing down”. It is clear why they resisted the effort to power past coal as soon as possible: China, India, and other Southeast Asian countries account for over 75 percent of global demand for coal. In this regard, they cannot be viewed as champions for the Global South’s rights. It is interesting that China is ramping up its coal use while simultaneously scaling up tree planting and solar panel use, an acknowledgement that it recognizes the damage that it is doing to the planet.

Make no mistake: Africa scored some important wins at the gathering. South Africa received an 8.5-billion-dollar aid package from a coalition of partners (notably the US, EU, Germany, and France) to launch its just transition programme with a phase-out of a coal plant in Komati. COP26 also agreed on plans to end deforestation by 2030, which will undoubtedly help efforts to protect the Congo Basin rainforest, the earth’s second pair of lungs and a much better store of carbon dioxide than the Amazon, as revealed by recent scientific research data.

The aid package to South Africa is a good deal. However, it remains to be seen how the ambition to end deforestation is going to play out, given the parties’ perennial issue with honouring pledges — especially the parties that have caused the biggest damage to the environment.

Climate Change in Africa: Droughts, Storms, and Coastal Erosion

There is a reason why Africans feel short-changed when it comes to loss and damage: the entire African continent releases only 1.45 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually — much less than most continents. Over 80 percent of these emissions come from just five countries: South Africa, Algeria, Nigeria, Egypt, and Morocco. This means that 49 of Africa’s 54 countries play almost no role in global warming.

Nevertheless, climate change is already driving an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the continent, with catastrophic consequences for communities already suffering under the yoke of extreme poverty, inequality, and un- or underemployment. Africa is at its warmest in 2,000 years, owing in large parts to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that are the highest in 4,000 years. The continent’s hottest years on record have all occurred since 2015: 2016 was the hottest, followed by 2020, and then 2019 and 2021.

The continent recently witnessed a series of weather events of unprecedented intensity. Between 2020 and 2022, more than 1 million people faced famine in the world’s first climate change-induced famine in Madagascar. The drought killed over 1 million livestock in Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa.

In South Africa, at least 1 million small-scale farmers have given up farming because there is no rain to irrigate their crops. Coastal parts of the region have witnessed increased tropical storms, cyclones and intense rainfall. The province of KwaZulu Natal was recently lashed by rains that caused over 2 billion US dollars’ worth of damage and hundreds of deaths.

But Africa is not just ground zero for rising heat levels: crops have been failing in the east and Horn of Africa for a number of years now, as rainfall variability causes drought in the land. The droughts have also decimated livestock and pushed pastoralists into protected areas in search of freshwater sources.

West Africa is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change impacts, including in energy sustainability, agriculture and other livelihoods, health, water, sanitation, security, ecosystem resilience, migrations, and population shifts. Although the region has recovered partial precipitation after the major drought of the 1970s and 1980s, it experienced some of its highest temperatures in the 2010s, stunting vegetation with catastrophic consequences for human settlements and local biomes. Meanwhile, coastal communities are reporting an increase in coastal erosion, saltwater encroachment, and increased salinization of rice paddies in the Sahel region.

All this is happening against a backdrop of claims of overfishing by Chinese and European trawlers. The combined effect of these activities is a growing ecosystems collapse that is driving migration into urban areas and across the Mediterranean.

Droughts have also affected the Central and West Africa region, where farmer-herder skirmishes have affected communities in northern Cameroon and Nigeria. In late 2021, Kousseri in Cameroon became a ghost town when over 90,000 people fled another wave of farmer-herder skirmishes that saw pastoralists kill 22 farmers and injure a further 30.

From 6 to 16 June 2022, the Bonn Climate Change Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will be held, like every year, in Bonn, Germany. This smaller and more technical pre-conference — officially the fifty-sixth session meeting of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) — is important for preparing and setting the path towards the better-known Conference of the parties (COP) at the end of the year. This year’s COP will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022. Important issues to be discussed will be financial support for adaptation and just transition and the issue of loss and damage, which denotes reparations for irreparable damages caused by global warming. 

What Can COP27 Do?

Given the present conjuncture of catastrophes, sweltering heat domes, unprecedented forest fires, coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and tropical cyclones, we cannot afford to sit back or fold our arms. So what do African countries expect from the next COP?

COP27 will take place in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. The scenery is breath-taking: pristine waters, palm tree-lined streets, and beautiful resorts. However, Sharm-El Shaik does not really offer itself to the kind of mass mobilizations that can grab the attention of global leaders on the scope and scale that we saw in Glasgow.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that this year more than others, mobilization around the event should start earlier and involve more alternative COPs organized across the entire planet. These gatherings should all focus on achieving one objective: shaming high-polluting nations to stop their actions and demanding that historical polluters pay up for loss and damage now.

Rich economies must start treating climate change like a clear and present danger. This means reining in their corporations responsible for the biggest share of the problem — especially those engaged in the renewable transition.

Curiously, the structural characteristics of entrenched, exploitative capitalist systems largely based on commodity production presage the perpetuation of dangerously exploitative relations as observed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a major global producer of the so-called “transition minerals” (lithium, cobalt, copper, magnesium, zinc, and nickel) and rare earth elements. We must ensure that the sites of transition minerals do not become valleys of death and desolation as we chase low-carbon sources of transit and energy.

Secondly, we need to start demanding the kind of systemic change and transformative policies that can lead us to a new era of better care for our home, the planet. We must get to the root of the structural drivers of ecosystems collapse. We have to relitigate and redefine humanity’s ontological relationship to nature. The climate crisis is a systemic crisis of neoliberal capitalist accumulation. It is the consequence of a productivist obsession with GDP growth that must be reversed.

Some scientists are already predicting that global average temperature rise will likely breach 1.5°C by the 2030s. We need to introduce a new universality of frugality and dependence. The world’s transition problem cannot be resolved by half-hearted and mercantilist solutions. Greenwashing serves up false solutions that drive us further away from the actions that we should be taking to roll back climate change.

Paying for Loss and Damage and a Green New Deal

The nations that bear the most historical responsibility for climate change have a duty to help Africa transition to just, fair, low-carbon economies. There is already grumbling in some African countries about the Global North’s hypocrisy, after the EU elected to label gas as a green source of energy despite pressuring countries like South Africa and Nigeria to divest from it. South Africa’s Energy Minister has gone as far as to call the West’s pressure campaign “colonialism and apartheid of a special type”.

If Africa, which contributes very little to the problem, is made to shoulder the biggest burden of the just transition, such complaints are only going to grow. More dangerously, it could lead to many African countries jumping on the “pollute now, clean up later” bandwagon that we see in many Asian countries.

Paying for loss and damage in Africa does not necessarily mean transferring cash to the continent. The Global North’s just transition commitments to the Global South can be translated into Green New Deal projects that surgically target the following sectors in the various regional economic communities:

  1. Significant expansion of the continent’s road and railway system;
  2. Development of renewable energy infrastructure and expansion of the electricity grid so that the over 700 million Africans who have never had electricity can finally get it;
  3. Rehabilitation of coastal areas and mangroves;
  4. Ending deforestation, development of urban forests, and expansion of the Great Green Wall;
  5. Large-scale installation of microgrids as well as farm mechanization and local/regional markets;
  6. Expansion of universal basic infrastructure for health care, education, mobility, and social life.

There is a doom-and-gloom campaign by the minerals energy complex, which predicts imminent catastrophe if steps are taken to begin the just transition anytime soon. But calling for climate justice in Africa means giving the most impacted communities a voice in seeking real solutions for the defence of their lands and bodies of water from polluting mining companies. It means promoting transformative economies through agroecology, energy democracies, food sovereignty, and just transitions. In doing so, those who are responsible for the earth’s predicament have a moral obligation to fund new agendas.

The Stone Age did not end because the world ran out of stones. The Coal Age should not persist simply because we still have a lot of coal. Our development trajectory must be based on what is good for the planet and the future of our children and our children’s children. These truths must come out loudly and clearly at COP27.