G8: Africa’s failed expectations

The G8 leaders recently pledged US$60 billion to fight disease in Africa. This is laudable, writes Godwin Nnanna, but they missed an opportunity. If the G8 want to show real partnership with Africa, they should be fighting climate change.

The G8 Summit in Heiligendamm offered up another golden opportunity to lever major change on the issue of global warming. But, as usual, the United States scuttled it.  All the summit was able to elicit from US president George W. Bush was a vague statement that the country will “seriously consider” a global target to halve emissions of greenhouse gases.

Heiligendamm’s inability to agree targets on cutting emissions represents a failure of leadership.  For many convinced of the urgency of a common global front on this issue, it is profoundly disappointing that the summit was unable to achieve a definitive reduction target. The G8 countries are responsible for more than 40% of all global emissions, and as such, they should lead the way in international efforts for emissions reduction.

However you view it, Bush’s statement is no commitment at all: it is an escape clause – a rhetorical flourish that allows the US to continue the foot-dragging that has so far made the Kyoto Protocol no more important than the piece of paper on which it is written. Perhaps, as some have said, it is a “parting gift” to UK prime minister Tony Blair.

The summit’s joint declaration is robust:

“We take note of and are concerned about the recent IPCC reports which concluded both, that global temperatures are rising, that this is caused largely by human activities and, in addition, that for increases in global average temperature, there are projected to be major changes in ecosystem structure and function with predominantly negative consequences for biodiversity and ecosystems, e.g. water and food supply.”

But this statement seems to run counter to the actions of the G8 leaders. It is clear that the world’s biggest emitter, the US, will still not accept a binding cap on greenhouse-gas emissions – the reason why it has consistently opposed the Kyoto protocol, since its main mechanism is a cap-and-trade system that challenges countries and confederations to set binding curbs on emissions. 

Africa and the developing world had expected far more on climate change from the summit. The destabilisation of the global climate is becoming the biggest issue for social justice all around the world – and one that needs effective action. The world’s present generation has a responsibility to make the planet liveable for future generations. And while action by the G8 countries cannot totally avert climate change, it is definitely an important step.

The Kyoto Protocol recognises the historical imperative for the US and other G8 members to take the lead. The protocol puts no demands on China, as it is a developing country, despite it being the second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The US has repeatedly pointed to that as a reason for its rejection of the accord, an argument that will only become more prominent in the post-Kyoto era. The climate-change regulations that follow Kyoto cannot afford to leave out China, India and other “G8+5” countries.

With its position in the global economic and political order, the US must set an example in matters of utmost importance like climate change. It can do this by accepting mandates on global warming, and by showing China and India they will be forfeiting the opportunity to be at the forefront of green-technology developments if they do not also subject their industries to international limits on emissions. This is what Africa expects from the world’s number one emitter.

The US needs to go beyond its criticism of Kyoto and take steps to retrieve its energy policy, which the Bush administration has surrendered to special interests.

It is worthwhile noting that China, in launching its national policy on climate change, said it will only make reductions when the west leads. What is needed is greater collaboration and negotiation between the major emitters: only concerted international action can help minimise the dangers of global warming.

Interestingly, both the US and China accept that climate change is happening, that it is being accelerated by their huge industrial activities and that it must be addressed. This may allow movements towards a greater understanding at the UN climate change conference in Bali in December.  

This cooperation should recognise that economic development has to continue, and Africa needs partnership on its road to development. No amount of aid, even if used very carefully, will secure the continent from climate change’s effects – at least as long as Africa’s partners keep evading the real price of environmentally responsible development. 

The G8 leaders’ pledge of US$60 billion to fight disease in Africa is laudable, but it does not foreclose Africa’s need for its partners to contribute (and not just financially) to confronting those environmental factors that will increasingly make the continent unable to bear its vast population. Climate change is an unprecedented threat to health and food security in Africa. It could make many of the problems which Africa already deals with much worse.

One way the developing world has shown its own commitment to global concerns on climate is the agreement by leaders of the G8+5 countries – China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa – to decouple emissions from gross domestic product (GDP) growth. The Heiligendamm summit document refers to this as “reducing the carbon intensity of economic development”: the greenhouse-house gas emissions per unit of economic output (GDP).

This is a crucial step. It means these countries have shown their determination to strike the right balance between broadening energy access and managing natural resources sustainably. Reducing the energy intensity of GDP is the way forward for the African continent.  It is possible to reduce poverty and at the same time strengthen our capacity for climate change adaptation.

Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton University, recently provided a four-step formula in his post-summit analysis, which he believes sets out both a fair and practical way to tackle climate change:

“*Establish the total amount of greenhouse gases that we can allow to be emitted without causing the earth’s average temperature to rise more than two degrees Celsius, the point beyond which climate change could become extremely dangerous.

*Divide that total by the world’s population, thus calculating what each person’s share of the total is.

*Allocate to each country a greenhouse-gas emissions quota equal to the country’s population, multiplied by the per person share.

*Finally, allow countries that need a higher quota to buy it from those that emit less than their quota.”

For industrialising third world countries, Singer’s option may not seem realistic – either now or in the near future. But perhaps it will be food for thought for leaders like China’s president Hu Jintao, who has said that “considering both historical responsibility and current capability, developed countries should take the lead in reducing carbon emissions and help developing countries ease and adapt to climate change.”


Godwin Nnanna is the Accra Bureau chief of BusinessDay Nigeria. He was a gold medallist in the 2006 UN Foundations Prize for excellence in reporting development and humanitarian issues.

Homepage photo by Mel Kots and John Kots