How can Africa amplify its Voices in the Global Debates on Climate Change?

Amidst upheavals related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the 2022 World Economic Forum meeting of global leaders in Davos, Switzerland still managed to touch upon the topic of climate change. A high-profile discussion, led by US climate change special convey John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua promised to work hard to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent further environmental and economic damages.

The damages stemming from climate change are particularly devasting for Africa. At the same Davos discussion, Elizabeth Wathuti, the founder of climate change NGO the Green Generation Initiative, highlighted that 20 million Africans, including 3 million from her native Kenya, are already facing acute hunger due to the impact of climate change. Multiple research findings from international organizations and African universities also argue that Africa suffers, more than any other region of the world, from global warming, as changing weather patterns threaten to disrupt the livelihoods of its growing population still overwhelmingly dependent on subsistence agriculture for survival. 

The vulnerability of Africa to climate change contrasts with its relative lack of agency on the issue. A prominent cause of manmade global warming is the increasing amount of carbon-rich gases and particulates in the atmosphere released from fossil fuel consumption. Major consumers of fossil fuels, then, can greatly help mitigate global warming simply by consuming less or switching to other sources of energy. But no African country is among the major consumers of fossil fuels. Africa, despite having 17 percent of the world population, only uses 9 percent of its oil. South Africa, the largest consumer of coal in Africa, only uses 2.4 percent of the global consumption. By using very little of the world’s fossil fuels, Africa, unfortunately, has little power to affect fossil fuel use.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]African countries will need to overcome difficulties in finding a common voice in the global arena. Non-African states and organizations may seek to drive a wedge among different African states to weaken their influence.[/perfectpullquote]

Furthermore, Africa remains underrepresented in global organizations that can positively impact climate change. One needs no reminder that the Security Council, the most powerful body of the United Nations (UN), has no permanent members from Africa. Many international organizations with mandates on climate change, including the World Meteorological Organization and various working groups of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are located outside Africa. The locations of international forums on global warming provide a “home-field advantage” to non-African countries in their effort to set the narrative and agenda on how the issue ought to be tackled. The same is not afforded to African countries.

Africa’s disadvantage in international discussions of global warming is even bigger in terms of funding for and vocal leadership on resolving its root causes. None of the top contributors of the Kenya-headquartered UN Environmental Program, the only climate change-related major international organization located on the continent, is African. This is not to mention that none of the world’s largest energy firms are African, and these firms primarily answer to wealthier clientele outside Africa. Without financial resources, African individuals, governments, and organizations cannot easily influence international discussions on global warming at the expense of conflicting interests of the top contributors to the cause. 

Boosting Africa’s Profile

To compensate for its lack of market and financial size, Africa needs to expend more effort in courting international NGOs as allies in securing a bigger voice in the battle against global warming. Environmental NGOs have been notable in framing the political discussions surrounding climate change in Africa, with Greenpeace, in particular, working on the continent since 1999. While some of these NGOs are already vocal about the impact of global warming and fossil fuel use in Africa, African countries can further amplify the pro-Africa voice of the NGOs by encouraging them to establish a greater physical presence on the continent. Greater firsthand accounts and direct interactions with the local communities suffering from global warming can make influential NGOs even more sympathetic to Africa’s weak position on the issue and galvanize them to bargain harder on behalf of African countries.

To welcome these powerful international NGOs, African countries need a set of specific policies to incentivize the NGOs to move in. To reduce the cost of the move, African governments should provide subsidized offices and reduced taxes for NGOs’ operations as well as cheap housing and reduced visa fees for their foreign staff. Governments can display a welcoming attitude by providing NGOs with advisory roles in local policymaking, turning them into stakeholders for improvements in local governance. Understandably, African governments are reluctant to cede sovereignty to foreign NGOs by involving them in political decision-making. But if the NGOs feel more involved and responsible for the welfare of African countries, they would be more willing to help Africa battle global warming that they see firsthand. 

Yet, getting NGOs on their side will not be enough for African countries to offset their lack of influence on international organizations, like the UN, where the discussions on global warming take place. To make African interests in global warming more influential, African countries must speak and vote as one block. In this task, it is fortunate that many groupings of African nations already exist, including prominent regional ones like the African Union, East African Community, and ECOWAS. More inter-regional dialogue among these groupings can establish a unified stance against global warming in Africa. The key to Africa finding a bigger voice on the global stage, then, lies in its ability to first find a unified voice.

African countries will need to overcome difficulties in finding a common voice in the global arena. Non-African states and organizations may seek to drive a wedge among different African states to weaken their influence. Concerning global warming, the continent is divided between fossil fuel producers, like Nigeria and Angola, and a much larger number of non-producers. While both sides suffer from global warming, the former benefits directly from exploiting fossil fuels. Without efforts to align the interests of fossil fuel consumers and producers in the long term, it is difficult to imagine a sustained consensus among African states to combat global warming. 

Xiaochen Su is a business risk consultant in Japan and a recent graduate of a doctoral course at the University of Tokyo. He previously worked in Tanzania for a US-based non-profit.

Photo by Numbercfoto via Iwaria.