Climate change: Why Africa should top the agenda at COP28

Afshin Molavi

Take a look at Africa on a typical world map. Straddling the equator, the continent is roughly the same size as Greenland and slightly smaller than Russia. In reality, however, Africa is a massive landmass, a cartographic illusion that’s about 14 times larger than Greenland, more than twice as big as Russia and bigger than the US, India, Japan, parts of Europe and China combined.
Now, consider another map. Imagine if we depicted countries and continents not by their area but by their total carbon dioxide emissions. In that map, Africa would be miniscule. In fact, according to researchers at the Our World in Data project and the Energy for Growth Hub, Africa has only accounted for about 2.73 percent of global emissions since the dawn of industrialization. If we were to remove South Africa and the countries of North Africa from the data, the remaining sub-Saharan African countries – home to some 1 billion people – have accounted for just 0.55 percent of total emissions.
By contrast, Europe, the launch pad of the Industrial Revolution, has produced 33 percent of cumulative global emissions, while North America and Asia clock in at 29 percent each. Together, these three continents account for more than 80 percent of total emissions. By now, we all know that climate change is an existential threat to our planet and our way of life. We should also know that the largest emitters are best prepared to adapt to the damages, while the continent that has done the least to contribute to emissions is the most vulnerable. From changing rainfall patterns and extreme heat to water scarcity and rising food insecurity, the climate-related challenges in Africa are only just beginning. The upcoming COP28 gathering in the UAE is an opportunity for the international community to highlight the continent’s vulnerabilities and acknowledge its minimal contribution to the problem.
The top priority for COP28 should be to support the financing needs of African and other emerging and developing countries to support affordable renewable energy. At a recent African Development Bank meeting, COP28 President-designate Sultan Al-Jaber called the lack of available, accessible and affordable finance the “critical challenge” that is “putting the world’s climate goals and Africa’s sustainable development at risk.” More than a decade ago, developed nations pledged $100 billion in annual climate finance to developing countries beginning in 2020 to help bridge this funding gap. Those pledges have failed to materialize. Al-Jaber has called wealthy nations’ efforts in this regard “dismal.” While “expectations are high,” he adds, “trust is low.” Climate finance is rising across the world as countries race to meet net-zero goals and companies opt to green their businesses. But the money is not arriving in Africa. Bogolo Kenewendo, a UN Climate Change High-Level Champions’ special adviser, says that Africa – home to 16 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s remaining rainforests – only attracts 3 percent of climate finance. She also notes that just six African countries are on the receiving end of this finance.
For COP28 to have a meaningful impact, leaders must marshal the political will to ensure that past pledges are met and new ones are made. African countries should top these funding goals. Beyond supporting renewable energy in Africa, however, we must also understand this basic fact: Africa’s emissions are low not because of poor policies or abundant green power; rather, it is due to underdevelopment.
Simply put, much of Africa was left behind in the fossil fuel-driven industrialization that has made the world wealthier and healthier and more connected than at any time in human history. A staggering 600 million Africans lack access to electricity, roughly 43 percent of the continent’s population. This inevitably means that fossil fuels will be needed to get more Africans on the power grid. Yes, renewable energy sources should be cultivated, but Africans deserve the same rights to electricity and power that so many in the developed world take for granted. Fossil fuels will be part of that mix.
“If we’re going to have a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we’ll need both,” says Nj Ayuk, executive director of the African Energy Chamber. “We’ll need fossil fuels to ensure energy security and drive industrialization in developing nations, even as the world works to pull together the necessary investments, infrastructure and governance to make a world fueled by renewable energy work.” With Africa’s population projected to double by 2050, we should all hope for faster growth to meet the tremendous demand for jobs, infrastructure, healthcare, education and other needs. Greater access to energy will help achieve those goals. We are all children of Africa – it is the place where humans first roamed the Earth – and humanity’s future will increasingly be African. The continent’s success in economic development, and in meeting the climate challenge, is in everyone’s interests. The contours of climate change responsibility are as skewed as the average atlas. At COP28, we can finally redraw the map.