Europe and Africa need to see eye to eye on climate change

By Carlos Lopes, Professor at the University of Cape Town and former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)

Africa’s most important priority is energy. Clean energy transitions will affect the African continent differently from industrialised regions, such as Europe. Diversifying the energy mix should not trump the need to reduce energy poverty. Energy transitions must meet socio-economic and affordability criteria as embodied in the ethos of the SDGs. But, what is less discussed is the potential for Africa to be a significant contributor to the global clean energy revolution. Beyond its interest to shift from low value extraction towards higher value beneficiation and industrial development, it is positioned to also enrich existing value chains with its abundant renewable resources.

Africa’s Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) -which came into effect on the 1st of January 2021– could be used as the propeller for the establishment of sustainable technologies and sustainable infrastructure, whilst lowering the burden of negative trade balances and climate-related asset stranding.

Africa’s ability to access green technology will be critical. Currently, little R&D in green technologies takes place on the continent. In the last 20 years, only 4 African countries (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and South Africa) have filed renewable energy technologies patents. A total of 5031 patents comparing poorly to the top-3 leaders in the field: China (240,065), the United States of America (106,171) and Japan (84,316). Africa also lags behind other developing regions such as South America (15,840). Connecting the R&D agenda with green technology development will be key for accelerating low-carbon industrialisation.

The Paris Agreement has provisions for technology and financing specifically directed towards mitigation and adaptation. Most importantly, in its Preamble, the Paris Agreement emphasised “the intrinsic relationship that climate change actions, responses and impacts have with equitable access to sustainable development and eradication of poverty”. The continent unambiguously backed the Paris Agreement, which sets ambitious targets but also provides safeguards for developing countries such as the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Africa has expressed commitment to shared responsibility. But this cannot be a one-way traffic road. Under the Paris Agreement, signatory governments committed to strengthen their emissions-reduction plans every five years, through their respective National Determined Contributions (NDCs). So far, of the 105 countries that have publicly done it within target, 44 are in Africa.

The European Union has opted to pursue more ambitious targets than those set up in the Paris Agreement. This should be welcomed. The European Green Deal, the framework of which was introduced in 2019, is now being prioritised as part of the EU’s post-COVID-19 recovery plan. A new decision targeting a 55% emissions reduction by 2030 has just been set. Although its implementation will materialise through agreements on several legislative texts, it is not lost to Africans that it is likely to affect the continent in different ways. Attention needs to be paid to both intended and unintended consequences.

Europe is a major trading partner for Africa. Imposing additional hurdles to trade by introducing additional non-tariff requirements to access the EU market can be damaging for Africa’s infant industry. It may also violate Europe’s obligations under the Paris Agreement apart from its moral responsibility to cater for its contribution to the climate burden. The Carbon Border Adjustment Tax is a good example of a well-intended proposal that may directly affect Africa’s known weak trade position. The EU assertion that “should differences in levels of ambition worldwide persist, as the EU increases its climate ambition, the Commission will propose a carbon border adjustment mechanism, for selected sectors, to reduce the risk of carbon leakage” is worrisome for Africa.

The EU is keen to subsidise its private sector to promote the Green Deal and energy transitions, through a financial package €1 trillion under the Sustainable Europe Investment Plan. The impact of climate subsidies, notably in the agricultural sector, are another form of subsidies likely to further strain Africa’s exports to its main trading partner. Africans have no difficulties to access the European market when they export untransformed natural resources while struggling with these type of policies for any transformed goods.

As Africa and Europe move forward in establishing a new basis for their partnership it will be imperative to shift the discussion from ‘how Europe could help Africa’ to ‘how we can help the planet together’. Such ambition will not be possible without addressing faulty trade arguments that have contributed to isolate and impoverish Africa, precisely because the continent’s transformation and industrialisation was not prioritised.