After Ursula von der Leyen took office in November 2019, her first visit outside Europe was to Africa. Selecting Africa as her first foreign visit was a bold statement to seek a partnership of equals with the African Union. In her speech, she made clear that Europe strongly aspires to become a geopolitical partner and a more assertive actor in the global arena. She presented the fight against climate change as the EU’s first priority.
Politico described the selection of Africa for the first foreign trip as a positive step forward, as Africa “has long viewed Europe warily through the prism of colonial history and its ambiguous aftermath, in which Europe has proven to be a dependable source of development aid yet failed to show any real political will on Africa’s behalf.”
But how much of that reinvigorated political will is in the interest of Africa, and what will this mean for climate action?
The EU Strategy forgets Africa’s poorest countries
In March 2020, the European Commission announced its new Comprehensive EU Strategy for Africa. “Green Transition & Energy” is one of the three partnerships. Cooperation on climate change as a topic is well developed throughout the entire Strategy, corresponding to the high political priority given to climate change by the Commission. This is extremely important, as Africa is the continent most severely affected by the impact of climate change, while playing almost no role in the global warming process. Therefore, “action on adaptation”, including through climate financing, is the main priority for Africa, as emphasised in the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
However, analysis reveals that the document shows a prioritisation of the formal, productive and technology sectors as well as climate mitigation. This could come at the expense of agriculture, the informal sector, human development and climate adaptation. This focus reveals a preference to partner with middle-income countries, rather than with the poorest, least developed countries in Africa. The flows of European climate finance to Africa also reflect this imbalance: according to a recent study by ActAlliance, in 2018 less than one-third of climate finance reported by EU institutions went towards adaptation and least developed countries (LDCs) received only 14 percent of overall climate finance.
Africa’s legitimate fears of the EU Green Deal
The EU, amidst heated negotiations at the UN climate conference COP25 in Madrid in December 2019, announced its EU Green Deal. With the Deal, it aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and to decouple economic growth from resources use. While this is proof of a radical move forward, the European Green Deal is first of all a transformative agenda for Europe. However, if the EU is serious about the Green Deal in an interconnected world, it would have important implications for the EU’s relations with Africa. In fact, the Green Deal could give Europe-Africa cooperation on climate change and green transformation a boost. Cooperating with African partners on energy transitions and promoting renewable energy, establishing circular economies and supporting adaptation can contribute to structural, sustainable transformation and job creation. Joint knowledge creation in these areas could move the AU-EU partnership a step forward towards a ‘partnership of equals’.
At the same time, many African policy-makers consider the Deal as being imposed on Africa. They are worried that the ambitious pact will create a new type of protectionism by imposing new non-tariff barriers, such as the carbon border adjustment mechanism that may affect access to the European market. African voices are critical of the fact that this European agenda with a focus on mitigation, circular economy and carbon border taxes might shift political attention away from commitments made, for example to support adaptation and provide adequate climate financing.
What is making these divergences even more difficult is the lack of a well-functioning joint EU-AU process to tackle the climate crisis. History shows that the Joint Africa EU Strategy (JAES), committing the two continents to cooperate on climate action, had little success. So, how could the European and African green agendas meet and be effective? Here are three recommendations that could lead the way to joint climate diplomacy in a post-Covid setting, ahead of COP26 in 2021.
- From a governance angle, it is important to mainstream climate change throughout all Europe-Africa processes, including the JAES, the Juncker Africa-Europe Alliance as well as the bilateral Africa strategies of EU member states. A more targeted Europe-Africa climate partnership with a strategic long-term plan could enhance the effectiveness of climate action. Such a targeted approach could give an overview of all efforts and rationalise the multiple instruments, including the financing instruments. This Europe-Africa climate partnership should address climate-related issues at appropriate governance levels, where interests intersect and with the involvement of the right institutions and non-state actors. So far, urban cooperation between European and African cities, through networks such as ICLEI or C40, have proven to be effective for lesson sharing and implementation. These models should be scaled up. Additionally, regional EU diplomacy with groups such as the G20, LDCs or SIDS could further strengthen climate cooperation.
- The African Union is in the process of drafting a Climate Strategy for the continent, delayed due to the pandemic restrictions. While this will be a highly welcomed policy declaration, an African Green Deal, that sets out what green transformation for Africa means, could help African countries align their priorities continentally, but also enhance beneficial cooperation with the EU.
- Steps should be taken to meet Africa’s needs for climate finance, especially in the domain of adaptation. This should include supporting climate-related alliances, focusing on sustainable agriculture, nature-based adaptation, water diplomacy and sustainable cities. Public finance, in Europe and Africa, should continue to stimulate the private sector to make use of the business potential associated with the green transition in Africa, while also making use of innovative mechanisms to build resilience in African countries against climate impacts.
 These recommendations are based on a forthcoming policy brief by the European Think-Tanks Group (2020), authored by ECDPM, DIE and ACET.