The negotiation text for the Paris COP 21 was published in February 2015. Several key themes in the text will occupy the negotiators in Paris. While climate change is a global concerns, there are historical, regional and local specificities which ensure that of the main themes under negotiation, some will have more significance for Africa than other continents, and Africa will seek outcomes from these themes that support the continent’s sustainable development, adaptation and mitigation goals. Of these, none is more significant than the question of climate finance and other means of implementation. Also significant for the continent are the questions surrounding the founding principles of the UNFCCC and Kyoto protocol, the Precautionary Principle, the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibility, and the principle of sustainable development. Successive COPs of the UNFCCC have had the effect of refining and the interpretations of these principles in ways that have caused concern among some African constituencies. These concerns are reflected in efforts to uncover the extent to which the Paris accord will represent shifts in the global interpretations of these principles, and the implications of these reinterpretations for Africa. Of particular concern is the question of how climate science is generated and deployed to inform global climate policy positions, and how these are implemented through mechanisms of the UNFCCC.
The extant climate science confirms that climate change is not a distant prospect but a current reality. Climate change is unequivocal, and the impacts are already being felt in many different spheres of life. But in particular, climate change is negatively affecting the livelihoods of the most vulnerable communities, especially small-island developing states, fisher-folk, rural smallholders and other natural resource dependent communities across the African continent. For such communities whose livelihoods are dependent on climate sensitive activities such as agriculture and fishing, adaptation to climate change is imperative. Adaptation must also occur at the municipal, state and global levels. At these local levels, the capacity to adapt to climate change impacts is determined by the underlying social and economic weaknesses that also determine vulnerability to climate change impacts in the first place. These underlying weaknesses include access to resources, land tenure, health and education, and the wider enabling environment created by strong and accountable local and wider governance systems. Adaptation at the local level is therefore difficult to separate from development. Some observers have therefore called for a ‘development first’ approach to adaptation that addresses the vulnerability context, rather than addressing the impacts of climate change alone.
While climate change entails a slew of negative impacts on livelihoods and economies, and even an existential threat to whole nations as in the case of small-island developing states (SIDS), it also offers some opportunities. At a broad developmental level, it is acknowledged that given the correct level of support and enabling environment, climate change could stimulate developing economies into adapting sustainable development paths. At more localized levels, the transition to carbon neutral development pathways offers entrepreneurial opportunities to investors, new opportunities and spaces for policy makers to address equity concerns in gender and youth policies, as well as opportunities to revisit questions of regional and international articulations of economies. However, the opportunities from climate change are attenuated significantly by the costs of climate change. In Africa, there is a need to negotiate the balance between costs and benefits carefully and develop a narrative that is realistic and supports a progressive position on climate response strategies.
Finally, there can be no doubt that the narrative of climate change is highly political, and that the political context shapes the nature of the global climate governance framework. To be sure, significant efforts have been made by African researchers and activists to analyze the political economy of global climate governance. However, there remains an urgent need to unravel the political nuances of the UNFCCC process in order to ensure informed participation in the process by African politicians, negotiators and policy makers. There is also an urgent need to create spaces for the elaboration of African political positions on climate changes, and to create debate on these positions between politicians, policy makers and the various African stakeholders affected by climate change.
Given this context, the specific themes that will be addressed in the climate dialogues will be means of implementation, the linkages between climate science and climate policy, opportunities for development in the context of a changing climate, and global climate governance.