Recent COP26 talks finally concluded with an agreement thrashed out in overtime, but there was little sense of victory in Glasgow as the climate conference wrapped up. Indeed, COP President Alok Sharma fought back tears as he apologized for the “profound disappointment” which many countries felt at the watered-down accord. While a few pragmatists have hailed important steps forward in commitments to reduce fossil fuel reliance, others have denounced the COP as a wasted opportunity and a “betrayal of the planet and the people.”
One of the bitterest betrayals is undoubtedly wealthy countries’ failure to honor commitments to help developing nations tackle the challenges of climate change. Back at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, a pledge was made to provide $100 billion a year of support to the poorest countries by 2020, yet this target is now unlikely to be met until at least 2023. Commitments in Glasgow to rectify this by providing $500 billion over the next five years have unsurprisingly been met with skepticism.
Africa: bearing the brunt of climate change
The continent most vulnerable to the future effects of climate change is Africa. Three of the 10 countries most at risk from the impacts of the climate crisis are African. One of them – Madagascar – is already on the verge of a climate-induced famine. Moreover, the increased frequency of droughts, floods, and cyclones in many parts of the region is a grave threat in the coming years.
The devastating effects of climate change are estimated to erase up to 15% of the continent’s GDP by 2030. This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow given that Africa contributes just 3.8% of global emissions despite being home to around 15% of the world’s population.
In the lead up to the Glasgow conference, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo and current Chair of the African Union, Félix Tshisekedi, called on world leaders to put Africa at the forefront of COP26 discussions. “Africa is tired of waiting,” Tshisekedi—who has made the fight against climate change one of his top priorities and whose pledge alongside Boris Johnson to battle deforestation was one of the brighter moments of the COP—warned.
The global struggle against climate change, Tshisekedi underlined as he called on countries to make firm funding commitments toward the African Union’s climate adaptation program, will not be won unless it is won in Africa. Indeed, Tshisekedi’s intervention made it clear that Africa is a unique opportunity in the search for a greener future. With much of the continent’s infrastructure yet to be built, only a small additional investment—an average of 3% of total costs—would ensure that this infrastructure is built green and resilient from the beginning.
Tshisekedi and other African leaders are likely frustrated and disappointed following the COP26. Not only are there doubts over the rearranged funding targets being met, but delegates also fell short in their aims of getting 50% of green climate funding committed to adaption measures in poorer countries. They also came away without any firm commitment over “loss and damage” payments to compensate for destruction caused by the effects of global warming.
Climate solutions lacking funding commitment
The lack of focus on developing countries at COP26 is particularly frustrating considering the efforts that many of these countries are making. African countries are already spending around 5% of annual GDP on climate initiatives, compared to less than 1% in countries such as the UK. This is despite the fact that poorer nations are still having to pay around five times more on debt repayments than on climate measures.
As Félix Tshisekedi highlighted in the lead-up to the COP26, the African Union has worked together with the African Development Bank to craft an Africa-led plan to climate-proof key economic sectors, dubbed the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program. Many individual African states have stepped into the breach as well: Morocco, for example, has become a world leader in solar energy with the installation of a giant solar plant that has greatly reduced its reliance on fuel imported from the Middle East. Gabon, the second-most forested country in the world, has plans to harness its rainforest energy potential to transition to a carbon negative economy and become a “green superpower.” In Kenya, projects are running in poorly-sanitated areas to turn sewage into biofuel as part of an effort to create a greener circular economy at a local level.
These are just a handful of initiatives that could be scaled up with international support and expertise. This global solidarity, however, has been in short supply. According to 2019 research, only 18% of Green Climate Fund financing has gone to the poorest countries compared to 65% to middle-income nations.
COP26: a missed opportunity
The Glasgow Summit presented an opportunity to redress these imbalances and to allow those nations most at risk from climate change to shape the agenda. Instead, Africa has been given short shrift. Progress has indeed been made on emissions cuts and phasing out fossil fuels. But calls for more far-reaching change from campaigners from developing countries have been left largely unanswered, with commitments too vague and no real guarantee that funding will materialize.
Africa has both an abundance of natural renewable resources and a political will for transitioning to a more sustainable future, making the continent ideally positioned to become a hub for both climate resistance and new green technologies—something which would benefit the entire globe. Research has shown that taking bold climate action could be worth $26 trillion to the global economy and create 65 million new green jobs by 2030, as well as preventing millions of avoidable deaths.
COP26 was a major chance to tap into some of this potential to craft a meaningful plan for tackling the serious challenges ahead. Instead, it feels like a tragically missed opportunity. One can only hope that COP27, slated for next November in Egypt, will prove more fruitful.
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