But, what is the Africa Position?

But, what is the Africa Position?
Climate change and the slow walk to Paris


We as a people are slowly and steadfastly overusing our earthly reserves, and by so doing, we have remained oblivious to our ecosystem capacities and limitations. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the forthcoming Paris conference already bears the hallmarks that will define and shape the future of humanity and pave the way for either shared prosperity or an environmental mess that future generations will be left with the burden of cleaning up. 


The paradox is that in Africa, environment and development are two interdependent sides of the same coin. Yet, why is it that for a people so well-endowed in natural resources, they are left rudely exposed to the vagaries of climate change?


I recall sitting up in my chair and trying to make sense of it all. It was in October and it was yet another warm day in Victoria Falls. The beauty of the falls that awes thousands of people, stood mighty and imposing, but unmistakably threatened by climate impacts with visible manifestations such as the reduction of the water levels of the Zambezi River.


I was being interviewed by a Chinese journalist, keen to understand why Africa was so acutely defined by climate change and its impacts and why, more than any region, Africa needs a strategy to bail itself out of the spectre of climate extremes and their effects as it prepares for the summit of humanity, the 21st Conference of Parties, in Paris, this December. The journalist was also eager to understand the benefits of co-operation between China and Africa specifically related to support for enhanced infrastructure, agriculture and energy generation.


As I rambled on about the centrality of adaptation as one of Africa’s tools to fight climate change impacts, and in my frenzied illustration of why climate change is a battle that Africa can address full on, my interlocutor paused, and looked me in the eye, as he ventured: ‘but what is the Africa position?’ Unperturbed and matching his sanguine demeanour, I argued that the Africa position is about recognising that an agreement in Paris will not come full circle unless it is able to align Africa to its growth potential. I hastened to add that whilst some African countries are recording high growth rates, this growth could become a foreign concept if the natural resources that Africa principally relies on are not turned into assets that will benefit current and future generations. With more extreme climate events in the form of rising sea levels, frequent floods and droughts, Africa will need to rely on technologies that will enable its people to punch their way out of vulnerability and poverty as they claim new avenues leading to climate resilient development. But, in as much as I argued that the Africa position is about cutting a deal that will make climate finance a central pillar of the agreement and open up new, predictable and transparent sources of finance, I could not help thinking that I was  doing a pretty good job of ‘ducking’ a reasonable question.


What is the Africa position? As I struggled to respond with conviction and authority, I recognised that the Africa position is not so simple to unpack. Which Africa are we defending? Is this the Africa that has huge appetite for renewable sources of energy that will power its industries, light up homes and schools, serve as a torch to brighten Africa’s tourism prospects or give millions of African women the license to tap into modern energy systems? Indeed, it has been widely rehearsed that climate change presents new opportunities for Africa to address energy poverty and growing crisis. Or should we rather focus our attention on agriculture as Africa’s Achilles heel, but, paradoxically, representing the greatest opportunity for the region to sprint towards structural transformation? True, climate change impacts will have major effects on staple cereal crops across Africa, and will translate into reduced productivity by as much as 10 per cent by 2050. The twin problem of poor agricultural productivity and its corollary, land degradation, are reducing the potential of small holder farmers and locking them in a perennial cycle of limited access to fertilisers, rudimentary equipment and tools, and denying them of reserves and surpluses.  Moving from a dysfunctional food system marked with severe structural deficiencies to a performing sector able to restore degraded lands and reduce food imports is no small feat. And tempting as it is may be to conflate all to climate change, the latter is not the sole culprit.


Or should our defence of the Africa position focus on fisheries where there are likelihoods of significant losses of marine and riverine fisheries and fish stocks? This again is a paradox given that the sector is as replete with potentially abundant ecological goods and services as the oceans, aquifers and lakes of Africa. However, whichever way you slice the cake, there is no discounting the fact that there is no definitive Africa position. Sectors such as agriculture, forestry, energy and water constitute both challenges and opportunities.


The Africa position is not about counting multiple vulnerabilities in the different climate sensitive sectors, rather it is about identifying where the opportunities lie in climate finance and technological innovations not just as means of implementation, but as a means of survival for a people whose resilience has been tested.


The Africa position is about taking a strategic, high altitude view  to  deliberately ‘mine’ the opportunities, not just in showcasing adaptation as worthy of investment, but also looking at mitigation opportunities in forestry, energy and agriculture. Africa’s people know far too well that their transformation and prosperity cannot be mortgaged for as long as the climate negotiations have lasted. Hence, the next twenty years should be Africa’s time to reap the benefits of its blue and green economies; champion climate resilient strategies and retain all the aces in technologies that will rev up its economies; strengthen its infrastructure and transform its societies.


So, as I pondered over the question: what is the Africa position? I was tempted to retort that Africa cannot go to Paris with a low ambition. But, Africa’s ambition should go beyond single narratives. The Africa position should be underpinned by the notion of equity and predicated on a fair agreement. This is about saying to farmers, fishers, pastoralists, foresters of the continent that the world will stand with them when the water levels of their rivers drop, and will act in unison to stem the tide of rising sea levels and celebrate when good rains reign over poor harvests.
Our humanity is intersected and the only position worth defending is the one that celebrates our common planet and rejoices in the knowledge that it is within our means to alter the pace of change. The Africa position is telling the world, at COP 21, that Africa is ready to tap into the opportunity for development, and climate change is a mere accelerator to charting a new pathway.


Fatima Denton is an IPCC Lead Author and the Director of an Innovations, Science, Technology and Natural Resource Management Division, the Special Initiatives Division, at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

E-mail: fdenton@uneca.org

Opinions expressed in the ACPC Climate Diaries are the authors’ personal views and do not represent the view of ACPC. ACPC accepts no liability for use of or reliance on information found on the Climate Diaries.