Beyond Climate Justice: Africa, the COP 21 and the Ethiopian Model

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
Beyond Climate Justice: Africa, the COP 21 and the Ethiopian Model

Stakes for Africa at COP21 are high. The continent, more than any other region in the word, will be hardest hit by the negative effects of climate change. Yet it is responsible for only 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The question of “climate reparations” – the idea that developed nations have to provide compensation for the high costs that global warming is already imposing to developing countries – is likely to be a major hurdle in the signing of a global agreement during the 21st UN climate change conference in Paris.

However, it is essential to realize that multilateral climate agreements are not a panacea. Developing countries have already taken initiatives to handle climate change by themselves, as shown by the example of Ethiopia, which proves that African countries can implement ambitious environmental policies going beyond existing current international agreements.

­A global threat

Since U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that any deal reached in Paris would not be legally binding, enthusiasm for the COP21 has started to fade. Back in 2001, the country had already refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on the basis that the world’s first climate change treaty was unfair on the United States, as it didn’t include major developing countries like China and India.

Nevertheless, six years after the failure of the Copenhagen Summit, negotiators seem much more ready to make positions converge and reach a compromise. Besides, the COP conferences placed climate change at the heart of policies of countries all over the planet, creating a global conscience for a global phenomenon.

The impact of climate change is increasingly described as one of the most serious security threats for the future. Scientists describe climate change as a “threat multiplier” for conflicts, and recent research have linked the drought experienced by Syria between 2006 and 2011 – and its mismanagement by the government – as a catalyst in the uprisings that led to civil war. Without having directly caused the conflict, the stress of the worse drought ever recorded in Syria, added to long-standing political grievances and the defiant atmosphere of the Arab Spring, helped trigger a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

 In addition, many scientists believe that climate change and spread of disease are linked, and some have even speculated that extreme weather patterns may have played a role in the outbreak of Ebola.

However, more than two decades after the 1992 conference in Kyoto, it is appearing that the multilateral level is not necessarily the most efficient: most effective policies to slow down global warning are national and not global. Without any international commitment, China, the world’s biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, has made a number of moves in the past year to reduce emissions and clean up its environment.

Opposing views        

The past weeks were marked by the resurgence of old debates around whether developed and developing nations should be assigned different targets and whether rich countries should compensate their historical responsibility by helping poor countries.

This has led to two competing narratives at the UN climate talks between those who claim that the world has changed since the division between rich and poor nations was drawn up in 1992, and those who say that this 1992 division should remain the basis for negotiations, since deep inequalities remain.

The question of a “green fund” to help developing countries to adapt to climate disruption is more urgent than ever. African governments, in particular, face a major challenge: maintaining their current level of greenhouse emissions without depriving their populations from economic development. In Africa, climate change does not consist in intermittent pollution peaks but in everyday situations directly impacting life and death. The worst drought in almost a decade has decimated agriculture in Southern Africa this year, leaving 1 in 10 people in the region at risk of going hungry, while rising sea levels are eroding the coast of Togo and destroying home and businesses.

In this context, national actions can have a strong impact. And in Africa, no country illustrates the effects of national efforts and political voluntarism more than Ethiopia, where a decade-old food-security programme is lifting millions out of poverty and showing how preparation for extreme weather events can mitigate the worst consequences. In 2002 already, bad rains had brought the food shortages to the same levels as those of the 1984-1985 famine, but massive deaths were avoided thanks to the emergency system and proactive policies implemented by the government. For a country like Ethiopia, with a budding economy and a huge population, taking the path of sustainable development is an absolute prerequisite, not just an option.

Ethiopia and the birth of a new paradigm

Ranked among the five most dynamic economies in Africa by the IMF, Ethiopia has become over the past year a model of successful economic development, without possessing substantial natural resources such as oil and gas. The country is also a millennium development goals champion, one of the few African countries that managed to reach several MDGs, while achieving a double digit growth rate in recent years.

However, climate change poses a huge challenge to Ethiopia’s development. The country is faced with increasingly unpredictable rains, and sometimes the complete failure of seasonal rains, while the country is ranked 7th out of 198 countries most at risk of climate change.

By launching the Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy (CRGE) in 2011, the country has formally merged its aims of developing a green economy and greater resilience to climate change under a single policy framework and is now aiming to bring the country to middle-income status by 2025 while maintaining its current low carbon footprint with an ambitious plan to achieve a zero net Carbone emission by 2025. Developing dams, while also investing in wind, solar and geothermal energy, should create enough capacity to power a manufacturing boom without relying on fossil fuels.  

The Climate‐resilient Green Economic Strategy demonstrates Ethiopia’s commitment to bypass the approach to economic development founded on highly polluting technologies. Successful implementation of the CRGE would mean a reversal of existing trends, where growth was considered to be incompatible with green economy, and the initiatives implemented in Ethiopia are setting a new paradigm for development, distinct from the trajectories of developed countries.

Some argue sustainable development is a “rich peoples’ problem”. On the contrary, developing countries cannot avoid investing in smart development and to build climate resilient infrastructures. They didn’t wait any external stimulus to start doing it.

The challenge in Paris will to tread the middle ground, and to put an end to the narrative opposing the North and the South and to the circular finger-pointing exercise. No international agreement can repair the fact that rich countries have been able to pollute the planet without hindrance for two centuries, causing a climate disruption that is now hurting developing nations. However, the Summit should go beyond a “charity” approach and the bitter rich-poor divisions that broke Copenhagen, since all parties have good reasons to contain climate change in the South.

Even if in most developed countries growth typically trumps potential future problems, creating powerful incentives to leave the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to others, in the long run, most countries will benefit from a massive reduction in global warming. If nothing is done to address climate change, vulnerable countries will suffer disproportionately, making successful economic development even more difficult than it was in the past and increase current levels of poverty. Letting them face alone the consequences of climate change would also be in contradiction with the spirit of the SDGs decided this year in New York.

Even if they are much more proactive than before, the least developed countries need a strong support through a collective responsibility, implemented by the international community, which assures them of an effective support. From an African perspective, beyond the idea of reparations, a good treaty should first and foremost be an ambitious multilateral agreement fostering their sustainable development efforts.

Institutions such as the African Development Bank have already stepped up support for African countries to build resilience to climate change and to finance green economy, since the global finance architecture does not currently provide the finances Africa needs. And whatever happens in Paris, Ethiopia is exploring all options to ensure the implementation of its green development vision, including private investment.

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