While COVID-19 has presented the world with numerous challenges, it has also generated a conversation about how to reboot the global economy in its aftermath, and how to do so in a sustainable way. It has also highlighted the importance of preparing properly for risks of all kinds and the need for broader societal cooperation on achieving medium- and long-term goals. To “build back better”, African countries are now reconsidering approaches for a transformational shift away from fossil fuel-dependent business-as-usual pathways towards climate-positive actions. The latter include investing in sustainable jobs and businesses, ending bailouts for polluting industries and fossil-fuel subsidies, and integrating climate risks in all financial and policy decisions. Similarly, there is growing interest in using debt swaps or other financial incentives to enhance sustainability while easing debt burdens.
Failing to drive significant change across multiple sectors in the next decade holds enormous risk for all countries in Africa and all sectors. Remedial action to avert runaway climate change needs to take place with urgency, through iterative and steady support for multiple solutions and technologies in various sectors. These actions and policies should be based on, and aligned with, longer-term, economy-wide commitments towards systemic sustainability and green recovery. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for speedy policy responses to crises (including future climatic, environmental and health shocks), as well as the importance of international and cross-sector collaboration, with Africa at the center.
Aligning Africa’s climate policies with green growth
Green recovery plans must align with countries’ revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and the development and strengthening of new Long-term Strategies (LTSs), required under the Paris Agreement. Currently, in most African countries, these long-term pathways, interim goals and timeframes are being mapped out and the details of how to go about achieving these unpacked. These long-term visions need to be in place so that NDCs can build towards longer-term societal goals. Both NDCs and LTSs are living documents that continually need to be revised and strengthened. They should reflect improvements in technology, science and data, demonstrate leadership by increasing mitigation and adaptation commitments, and improve ownership by engaging a broader group of stakeholders around climate commitments.
In Africa, countries have varied in their aspirational commitments and the pathways to achieve their carbon reductions. But much is yet to be determined as many countries are in the process of revising their NDCs and developing LTSs. South Africa has shown leadership with its recently revised NDC (to 2030), as well as its Low Emissions Development Strategy 2050. It has also submitted a national adaptation strategy and a new draft Climate Change Act and has set up governance systems to approach a country-wide green growth vision through an inter-ministerial Presidential Climate Change Commission. This commission held its inaugural meeting in February 2020. Non-governmental stakeholders, such as civil society organisations and environmental advocacy groups, are represented on it too.
Rwanda has also demonstrated leadership with the submission (in March 2020) of its revised NDC, laying out the details of its pathway towards a green transition. The combined contribution is a 38% reduction in GHG emissions compared to business as usual in 2030. Rwanda has estimated the total cost of implementing its NDC at $11 billion. It is also in the process of drafting its long-term Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategy to 2050.
While South Africa, Rwanda and others have made considerable progress on the policy front, many African countries have a way to go to raise ambition and are yet to revise their NDCs or develop their LTSs. Hopefully, with momentum created around COP26 in November this year, countries will finalise plans and come ready to join the race to net zero.
African expectations at COP26
There are signs of real momentum as we head towards COP26 in November2021. Positive global developments have increased the possibility of radical action on climate change: a new US administration, a more active leadership role by China, momentum across the business and investment sector, and opportunities related to green recovery and the introduction of new green stimulus measures. To date, many countries, including some African and other vulnerable developing countries, have pledged to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 or earlier and major players have substantiated their plans by more clearly articulating financing strategies and pathways to implementation. These transformative policy reforms open windows of opportunity for new economic activities, employment and competitive advantages.
For Africa, questions around equity and a just transition are pertinent, with vulnerable people at the centre. So too is progress on climate finance – a major challenge hindering climate action in Africa and elsewhere. In 2020 developed countries committed to deliver $100 billion a year in climate finance to vulnerable countries. This has not happened. COP26 will likely set new long-term targets for climate finance beyond 2020 (perhaps to 2025). A considerable amount of climate finance is urgently needed to support NDC implementation and net-zero emissions trajectories. Many countries pledges are conditional on higher levels of climate finance to support its transition. Therefore, defining the sources and modalities of these financial flows is imperative to unlock country ambition. Also, for African countries, adequate and fair finance for adaptation and loss and damage is particularly urgent.
The Africa Group of Negotiators is also unified on the urgent need to protect nature and safeguard ecosystems to increase mitigation and adaptation benefits, as well as to protect livelihoods. There is hope that COP26 will integrate nature-based solutions (or ecosystem-based adaptation) into the Paris implementation strategy. Progress made at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, to be convened in October 2021 in China, will pre-empt this discussion. It is crucial to align the climate and biodiversity goals of these two multilateral processes, and to further integrate climate change in a post-2020 global biodiversity framework.
Enhanced youth inclusion in climate advocacy is also at the top of the African COP26 agenda. Young people will not only be most impacted by climate change but also inherit the responsibility for addressing it. The question of youth agency is particularly acute in Africa – the region most vulnerable to climate impacts and with the youngest population, with almost 60% under the age of 25. In September 2021, 400 young people from around the world will meet in Italy to discuss elements of the climate negotiation process. This meeting is part of a larger process that started in September 2019 at the New York UN Youth Climate Summit. This coalition of young people includes #Resilient40, a climate network made up of about 70 young leaders from 29 African countries.
The information contained in this opinion piece has been adapted from a SAIIA policy briefing, The Urgent Race to Net Zero: Exploring African Priorities for COP26