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Africa Needs A Fair and Equitable Global Climate Agreement

The two things that will shape Africa’s progress in the coming years and decades are its population demographics and climate change. The confluence of these two phenomena will undoubtedly tip the scales of development in Africa; how they are managed, now and in the future, will determine to which side the scales will tip.

The Demographic Dividend

The growing significance attached to discussions on the population demographic challenge – or opportunity – posed by Africa’s rapidly changing population structure is testament to the importance of this phenomenon to Africa’s present and future. Technocrats, bureaucrats and other stakeholders and spectators have been wrestling with this issue for quite some time now. For a start, Africa is the youngest continent in the world in terms of population, with about two thirds of the population below 25 years of age. This is a profound development that has stirred incessant debate on how to fully and effectively tap the potential offered by this section of the population, thus the erstwhile emergence of the term demographic dividend.  Subsequently, efforts to tap this potential have been dubbed yielding the demographic dividend. Intuitively, this phenomenon will be a game changer; however, it is not the only variable in this serious game.

That ‘climate change is the biggest market failure in human history’ is an apt representation of the challenge posed by this phenomenon.

The Shadow of Climate Change

In September 2014, world leaders met at the UN headquarters in New York for the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit. This was a profound development in global efforts to address the climate change challenge, which has been gaining traction in the global agenda. The main aim of the summit was to raise ambition and catalyse action towards addressing climate change, with a major focus on raising the political appetite and commitment to secure an effective global climate change agreement in 2015. A few days prior to this Summit, hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets in New York, and the world over, in the biggest climate change march in history, calling for climate action. But more importantly, this is not a purely political issue; scientific evidence has been building on the human cause of dangerous climate change, most notably through the reports by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

These developments, and other complementary efforts and actions clearly underscore the significance of the climate change challenge on human development. The scientific reports have consistently indicated that Africa is suffering disproportionately from the impacts of climate change, yet its contribution to this problem is minimal; quite an unfortunate paradox, and one of great concern to me. This challenge becomes more significant considering that small-holder agriculture is the mainstay of most of the economies in Africa, as well as employing a majority of the labour force in the continent. Therefore, the impacts of climate challenge will bear heavily upon the demographic dividend. Thus, it is beyond doubt that the climate change challenge hangs like the proverbial Sword of Damocles over efforts to yield Africa’s demographic dividend.

Securing a fair and equitable global climate agreement is not an option; rather, it is an inevitable intervention. The issue of equity has to be at the heart of this agreement.

The Nexus

That ‘climate change is the biggest market failure in human history’ is an apt representation of the challenge posed by this phenomenon. There is no doubt that Africa is a major centre stage where this ominously potent observation is playing out. Of major interest to young Africans is the increasingly complex challenge posed by the nexus of climate change and the growing youth demographic in Africa. And there is no clearer example than the impact climate change is having on agriculture in Africa.

The global population is growing, and concerns on how to feed this population are also growing. With Africa having a significant proportion of arable land, it holds great significance in addressing this challenge. However, since charity begins at home, the immediate concern is how to feed Africa’s population.

It is quite interesting and encouraging to note that agriculture is emerging as a major sector bound to provide employment opportunities to the expanding youth population in Africa, as well as addressing the food security issue. In my own country, Kenya, many young, highly educated young people are taking agriculture with much zeal and professionalism. This is a stark contrast from the previous trend, where agriculture was viewed as a job for poorly educated, demoralised, old rural folk. This was clearly manifested by the traditional image of a farmer: about 70 years of age, poor and demoralised.

The sad reality is that these worthwhile efforts to ramp up the significance and contribution of agriculture to address food insecurity and unemployment are being undermined by the devastating impacts of climate change. Reliance on rain-fed agriculture is proving untenable, while other viable options such as climate smart agriculture are quite costly in undertaking, requiring significant external financing to prop them up.

Emergent Solutions

I will contend that there is no silver bullet to effectively address the challenge posed by the confluence of climate change and the growing youth population in Africa. Several arenas and platforms to address this challenge currently exist, while others continue to emerge.

Countries are currently engaged in negotiations, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to come up with a global climate agreement by the end of the year 2015. This agreement will seek to commit countries to actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the main driver of human-induced climate change. However, this is the not the first time that nations are attempting to cobble such a deal. Previous attempts have been unfruitful and inadequate; the 2009 Copenhagen Accord is perhaps the most famous failure, which culminated in acrimonious fallout among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases not committing to a binding agreement. The current attempt looks more promising, largely due to one underlying tenet: equity. The basics of the new agreement are framed by a normative framework of equity, with various equity reference frameworks being developed. This includes the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capacities (CBDR&RC), Intergenerational Equity and Equitable Access to Sustainable Development, among others. How to factor in these principles is the main issue of contestation in global climate politics.

The sad reality is that these worthwhile efforts to ramp up the significance and contribution of agriculture to address food insecurity and unemployment are being undermined by the devastating impacts of climate change.

All About Equity

The key underlying issue in the population demographic and climate challenges is distributive justice. How do we distribute the resources we currently have to current and future generations? In tandem, do we kick the can of the climate change challenge down the road for future generations to grapple with it, or do we solve it now? How these key issues will be addressed will determine the population’s demographic dividend in Africa. This will entail having factors of production that will enable the young Africans to create employment opportunities, and enhance food security. But this cannot be effectively realised in a climate-constrained world.

A Fair and Equitable Global Climate Agreement

Securing a fair and equitable global climate agreement is not an option; rather, it is an inevitable intervention. The issue of equity has to be at the heart of this agreement. This will entail ensuring that financial resources are mobilised and allocated to alleviate the ravages of climate change. Climate change adaptation should be given much more focus and funding than it is currently receiving.

The issue of technology development and transfer also has to be clearly dealt with, so as to foster climate-resilient development, such as climate-smart agriculture. Further, the issue of intergenerational equity should be encoded and operationalised in the new agreement. The UN System Wide Action Plan on Youth is a clear precedent and beacon that should foster the integration of intergenerational equity in the agreement.

With the inevitability that Africa’s changing demographics and climate change will shape its political economy, the die is already cast. Thus the upcoming global climate agreement must be built upon a fair and equitable foundation. Hence, the ‘equitable’ question remains: will the leaders rise to the occasion? African youth are watching (and working)!

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