Africa’s message for China

Drought threatens millions with starvation in Africa. Despite its efforts, the continent is ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of climate change. Godwin Nnanna says China can help.

A major challenge confronts Africa today: the impact of climate change on its people and future. One just needs to pay visit to the drought-ridden west African country of Niger, parts of southern Africa and the oil-rich Niger Delta region of Nigeria to appreciate how real the threat is. No part of the continent has been spared.

Throughout vast sections of the Horn of Africa a searing drought rages – the worst in over a decade.  Sudan, the country which supplies China with about 7% of its oil needs, is one of the worst victims of climate change. The UN says that urgent steps are needed to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, after crop failures caused by a severe drought. Nearly two million people are at risk of starvation.  

Climate change is a great burden for Africa. It is the continent which bears the least responsibility for global warming, but which unfortunately has become its main victim. Home to 14% of the world’s population, Africa is particularly at risk because of its reliance on food from arid land; more than half of the continent’s cultivable land is arid or semi-arid.

And although adaptation options are available, Africa does not have the human, infrastructural, and economic capacity to effect a timely response to climate change.

For many years, global warming was discussed as a hypothesis – a threat likely in the distant future. Now its staggering reality stares us in the face. Unfortunately, government policies in most parts of Africa have been overshadowed by concerns about conflicts and the poverty that results from them; it is as if the issue were only the business of the west. But if the continent is to achieve food security and eradicate extreme poverty, this environmental concern ought to be accorded priority. 

In Nairobi last November, scientists at the United Nations Conference on Climate Change gave a stark assessment of what could happen in Africa if developed nations do not rein in their carbon emissions. Up to 30% of the continent's coast could disappear as sea levels rise by 15 to 95 centimetres over the next 100 years. Important cities such as Cape Town, Cairo and Addis Ababa are at risk. If sea levels were to rise by one metre, part of Lagos, the economic centre of Nigeria, would be submerged. Alexandria, a popular tourist destination in Egypt, and Accra, the serene capital city of Ghana, could both also suffer.

This assessment makes bleak reading for many in Africa. And even more worrisome is the warning in a new report, which was launched on April 6 in Brussels by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body that has been assessing global warming since 1990. Even if greenhouse gas emission remains at its present state, the report warns that a much warmer atmosphere is expected in the years ahead.

The overwhelming view of the IPCC scientists is that climate change is to a great extent man-made and – without action – it will get worse. Global warming is happening faster than many had predicted and its impact on Africa’s ecosystem is worse than previously envisaged.

Green walls

But some positive environmental stories are emerging from Africa. In December last year, African leaders launched the Green Wall Sahara Initiative, a project which aims to slow the advance of the Sahara Desert in the Sahel zone, which runs along the southern fringes of the desert from Mauritania in western Africa to Djibouti in the east.

The plan will entail the planting of 300 million trees over three million hectares of land, and its stated objective is to “convert desert to green land and wealth.” It is hoped that the initiative will enhance environmental sustainability, curb land degradation, promote integrated natural resources management, conserve biodiversity, contribute to poverty reduction and create jobs.


Senegal is on the western end of the proposed “green wall”. The country currently loses 50,000 hectares of productive land each year, and strongly supports the idea. No one knows how long this project would take, but Senegalese environment minister Modou Fada Diagne observes: “Instead of waiting for the desert to come to us, we need to attack it.”


President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria spoke at the launch of the programme in Abuja. “Protecting and restoring dry lands will help relieve the growing burdens on Africa's threatened areas, thereby contributing to greater peace, economic stability and security,” said Obasanjo. He then noted that “Africa expects China and other development partners to support the vision to ensure its realisation.”


Carbon finance


Desertification may have local solutions, but reducing the consequences of climate change in Africa entails international action on carbon emissions. It means countries must show greater commitment to the Kyoto Protocol and its provisions – including in the post-Kyoto era. With US reluctance to commit to the Kyoto Protocol, Africa now expects China, as the next biggest carbon emitter, to push for greater global commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.


It is in China’s interests to help mitigate the effects of climate change, both internationally and domestically. It is also in the interests of Africa, its major economic partner, that it does so. Observers believe that a significant change could occur if China makes stronger commitment to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions. As post-Kyoto negotiations evolve, many feel that China will have to consider commitments to reducing its emissions after 2012.


Carbon finance, the World Bank says, provides an opportunity for companies and governments in industrialised countries to meet their greenhouse-gas emission reductions commitments through emissions trading, or in exchange for investments that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transition economies and developing countries. In the case of developing countries, this is made possible through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which brings clean energy technologies and hard currency to developing countries from the sale of carbon emissions reductions.


A major area of concern for African leaders is the fact that Africa’s share of CDM projects is so marginal. At the end of 2006, there were about 15 CDM projects under consideration in Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for only 1.7% of the total number of projects worldwide. The African Union has expressed their concern at this grossly unequal distribution of carbon finance initiatives, calling it “unacceptable.”


China’s increasing involvement in extractive industries in many parts of Africa is likely to increase the continent’s emissions. Africa has a new message for China: that they should lend a voice to Africa’s call for more CDM involvement on the continent.


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 Ramtuli