Africa must be at the heart of COP26

By Dr Penny Byrne, Climate Research Analyst at Standard Bank & Simon Freemantle, Senior Political Economist at Standard Bank

The COP26 summit presents a vital opportunity for global leaders, particularly those representing developed economies, to place Africa’s unique and pressing needs and demands at the centre of a more equitable framework for future climate mitigation and adaptation. The reason for Africa’s centrality in these discussions is simple: though its contribution to climate change has been negligible (in all, Africa contributed just 4% of total emissions in 2019 despite being home to over 17% of the world’s population), the continent will be powerfully, indeed disproportionately, affected by its long-term consequences.

Evidence in support of Africa’s elevated vulnerability is mounting.

  • Average temperatures in Africa are expected to rise faster than global averages, increasing 2.0˚C above the mid-20th century baseline by 2050 and 4.0˚C degrees above by the end of the 21st century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
  • Africa had its fourth-warmest year on record in 2020, with a continental average of 1.17°C warmer than the 1910-2000 average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This average temperature was just 0.25°C cooler than in 2010, Africa’s hottest ever year.
  • In the last 50 years, Africa has seen a more than six-fold increase in recorded climate-related hazards, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. In low-income countries that lack the financial and institutional infrastructure to respond to such catastrophes, the damage is often enormous. For instance, according to the UNHCR, 2019’s Cyclone Idai led to 1.85 million people requiring urgent assistance and the internal displacement of 146 000 people, while the subsequent flooding damaged 100 000 homes, destroyed 1 million acres of crops and demolished USD 1 billion worth of infrastructure.
  • Although the Atlantic side of Africa has seen relatively uniform sea level rises at close to the global mean rate, the Indian Ocean side is experiencing above-average sea level rises at around 4.1 mm/year. This poses a variety of threats to low-elevation coastal zones, as well as biodiverse and socio-economically vital mangroves along the coast.

Not only are the effects of global warming more acute in Africa but, for a variety of reasons, the continent is also particularly vulnerable to its effects.

  • Most low-income African economies lack the financial resources to combat and adapt to climate change. These weaknesses have been further compounded by the COVID-19 crisis. Though growing rapidly, financial penetration rates in Africa remain comparatively low, meaning that when natural disasters strike most poor people affected by the impacts lose their entire livelihoods and lack the insurance cover to recoup losses.
  • Agriculture, which is particularly prone to climatic shifts, still accounts for around 30% to 40% of Africa’s total GDP, while around 80% of the continent’s population is dependent on low-yielding, rain-fed agriculture. Half of all African farmers stated that changes in climate have made farming conditions “worse” or “much worse” in a 2019 Afrobarometer survey.
  • Many of Africa’s fast-growing cities are vulnerable to sea-level rises. According to one report, 76 of Africa’s fastest-growing cities face “extreme” climate-related risks. Already, around 30 million Africans live in the so-called flood hazard zone, while climate change is also reducing the health of the continent’s coastal mangroves which provide critical buffers to coastal weather.
  • Global warming will challenge socio-economic stability in some of Africa’s more vulnerable regions in the decades to come. Here, reduced water availability, declining food yields, and potential increases in rural-urban migration because of climate change all have the potential, particularly when coupled with economic fragility and population growth, to undermine social cohesion. Climate migration is increasingly common: in 2017 alone it is estimated that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced across the world, one-third of whom were forced to move by “sudden onset” weather events.
  • Detailed studies have shown that Africa is likely to experience a range of health-related impacts related to global warming, which will again be most acutely felt in poorer regions.

These effects are likely to become increasingly more severe. Based on current pledges and policies, the world is not on track to meet the Paris Climate Agreement to keep warming below 1.5°C, although the less ambitious 2°C target may still be within reach. A total of 131 countries are discussing, have announced, or have adopted net zero targets, covering 72% of global emissions. National net zero emission targets could, if fully implemented, reduce best estimates of projected global average temperature increase to 2.0–2.4 °C by 2100, bringing the Paris Agreement temperature goal within reach.

With this in mind, COP26 must place specific emphasis on supporting African countries – particularly low-income countries – to manage the growing implications of a crisis that they had almost no hand in creating. The top priorities for African negotiators, many of which have been articulated by the Chair of the African Group of Negotiators, Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, include:

  • A general increase in advanced world climate financial commitments, as well as to ensure that these commitments are honoured. This is in the context of the advanced world’s failure to honour the Paris commitment to provide USD 100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries. South Africa’s Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy argued in a recent interview that the “floor” for developed country climate support should be USD 100 billion per year, but that “we need to start to move that floor to US 750 billion a year by 2030”.
  • For Africa to receive at least half of total climate finance support for developing economies given the continent’s limited role in causing global warming, and the severe economic implications that it faces in handling its effects. Between 2016 and 2018, 43% of total climate finance was allocated to Asian economies and 25% to Africa. Further, almost 70% of total finance went to middle-income countries, a category that does not include most African economies.
  • For most climate financing to Africa to take the form of grants, rather than loans. A recent OECD report, outlined how loans as a share of total climate finance to developing economies rose from 52% in 2013 to 74% (of the USD 62.2 billion total) in 2018 while the share of grants decreased from 27% to 20%.
  • For financing to prioritise both mitigation and adaptation given Africa’s elevated need for support for the latter. Here, the OECD has shown that out of the overall climate finance in 2018, 70% went to climate change mitigation and just 21% to adaptation.

The grossly distorted supply and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines emphasises how far we still have to go before we can approach our shared crises in a fair and responsible manner. This reality, too, must inspire negotiators at COP26 to ensure that the agreements struck are both fair and binding.