Our Burning Planet

OUR BURNING PLANET

We are on the cusp of something revolutionary – Africa Europe Climate Alliance

From left: Executive director of the African Climate Foundation Saliem Fakir, former BBC Correspondent Karen Allen and Mary Robinson, adjunct professor for Climate Justice at Trinity College Dublin and Chair of The Elders. (Photos: Neil Baynes | Supplied | EPA-EFE / Martial Trezzini)

The urgency to decarbonise the human planet moves from a ‘pure environmental issue’ to ‘massive structural transformation’, Our Burning Planet webinar participants hear.

The Covid-19 pandemic — in little more than a year — has transformed the world in ways perhaps once imagined only by sci-fi writers, exposing thorny issues of climate injustices between continents at odds with each other for centuries. 

Even as US president Joe Biden’s recent election has refreshed hopes of achieving a liveable world into the long-term future, the uneven global vaccine roll-out has thrown into the spotlight the inequalities arising out of natural disasters in the Anthropocene. 

In an Our Burning Planet webinar on Thursday, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson, African Climate Foundation executive director Saliem Fakir and former BBC foreign correspondent Karen Allen teased out ways in which the pandemic could offer fair climate solutions.

This was where a drive like the new Africa Europe Climate Alliance was critical, said Fakir, especially in its role as a creator of cross-continental partnerships on behalf of the Africa Europe Foundation: relationships focusing on development rather than largely fixating on disaster response. 

“Most people talk of climate issues as if it is only about catastrophe, and risk and vulnerability to poor people, and that is obviously true. But at the alliance we are saying these things should not be tilted only towards managing disasters, profitability and risk — a development component should be at the heart of the climate agenda between Africa and Europe,” said Fakir. 

“Climate has moved from a pure environmental issue to a mainstream economic-development issue,” he said. “We are now moving to massive structural and economic transformation. We are seeing a technology wave that is going to come into play, and the promise is that it can lift into the 21st century a world that is totally decarbonised … We are on the cusp of something significantly revolutionary.” 

Yet, Fakir cautioned against the looming inequality spectre “if this transition is not achieved justly. A double-edged sword, it is not just an optimistic story for one group of people; it might be quite negative and exclusive for another group, so Africa must be included in this new technology wave.”

South Africa, as a leading African economy, needed “a lot more capacity from the cheapest energy, and renewables are definitely among these”, Fakir added; still, he was bullish on the “massive debate about increasing better generation outside the main utility, Eskom” and emerging possibilities for municipalities to procure their own power. 

He also singled out as a hopeful sign President Cyril Ramaphosa’s newly appointed climate commission, whose first meeting was scheduled for this month, he said. This statutory body would have the clout to shape a stronger, more ambitious decarbonisation programme for South Africa — “one that cannot just be paper rhetoric, but translated into investable initiatives”.

Highlighting what he called an African paradox, Fakir said the continent had vast energy resources in wind and solar, “and yet there are 600-million people without proper energy access. In Nigeria, 70% of people still use diesel generation.” 

For his part, he said this meant that “the role of government is crucial — it has to begin to think of different ways in which it can encourage the right kind of development and capacitate the state with technical expertise; and then mobilise public and private resources in a way that is attuned and aligned”. 

When it came to community investments, he had harsh words for what he called “rapacious parasitic privatisation. We need to get away from a model of private investment that is just about returns; it must be about a strong social dividend.”

For her part, however, the former Irish president was keen to highlight why the private sector still mattered in Africa’s development. 

“In Africa, what is needed is clean energy and incentives to invest in,” she said, “because this help is not mainly generated by governments; it is generated by the private sector.”

Allen, who hosted the webinar, echoed Robinson’s sentiments: “Money talks,” she remarked, alluding to why the campaign for climate justice, in a volatile age, needed to pivot towards “derisked rather than risk-free” investments — managing risk rather than attempting to eliminate it.

A BBC foreign correspondent for three decades until 2019, Allen now undertakes policy research for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), where she is helping to develop partnerships between international institutions and the private sector.

She referred to a “unique constellation of stars”, potentially creating a more favourable environment towards climate justice — this was driven by a pandemic that has “exposed how interdependent we are as a global community, a US president committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and a series of devastating wildfires and hurricanes that have served to concentrate the mind”.

Robinson, honorary president of the Africa Europe Foundation and chair of leadership group the Elders, said the pandemic was an invitation to our species to “think more about what kind of world we want, and how fragile our humanity is”. 

While we “could be knocked sideways in every sense”, she said, “we have more empathy for the idea that we need to deal with this climate issue urgently”.  

She also reflected on a different relationship between Africa and Europe emerging in such a world, which she envisaged as “a much more equal relationship. Europe has to recalibrate its relationship with Africa completely.” 

This would necessitate something of a tectonic shift in the geopolitical order: “It cannot be just the ‘African Union’ and the ‘European Union’, or just the countries of the two continents … it has to be a whole fabric of relationships and a network of networks, one that is actually at the heart of the Africa Europe Foundation and the Climate Alliance,” said Robinson.

The speakers noted a packed agenda of international events and initiatives in 2021 and 2022, harbouring opportunities to forge climate-resilient bridges between Africa and Europe. These included this year’s UN climate conference in Glasgow (CoP26), as well as CoP27, slated to be held in Africa in 2022.  

“We have work to do,” said Robinson. “And I think a lot of that work is that Europe has not in the past been seen as a real, equal partner to Africa. That is what has to change.” DM/OBP

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  • The world needs to see a rapid acceleration in deployment of renewables in the first few years of the 2020s. Are the new relationships and partnerships gearing for such an acceleration?

  • What do we do about our Dept of Environment (both DEFF and blind)? Barbara Creecy has just signed approval for exploratory off shore drilling for gas and oil of KZN coast. How can they possibly be supporting new fossil fuel ventures now?

  • Africa needs to wake up to the reality that population growth is out of control and they must resolve this as a matter of the highest priority as their contribution to climate control. Population reduction is a highly emotional issue. It touches on the core of being human, the right to pro create.

    The debate is largely framed and discussed in the developed world yet the real crunch is happening in the developing World. Yet we are allowing the debate to be framed by the one issue of contraception that takes the mind off from the really serious underlying problem. We need to switch minds ON not off.

    Consider these two facts alone. Global population increase since around 1970 has been 4 billion, almost all in the developing world – a 133% increase. Over the same period there has been a 70% DECREASE in most animal species in the Masai Mara.

    The guilt of the affluent world blinds them to the reality that the problem is in the developing World; yet how can that be? They consume so little per capita and have had it rough for too long. Surely there is some mistake?

    And of course it is not their fault or problem per se; it is just that the last wild, natural areas of the World are within their domain; we collectively have already raped much of the so-called developed world and therefore all the more need to preserve that which remains – which happens to be in the developing world, where co-incidentally rapid human population is pushing the equation the other way and in fact crowding out what remains of our collective natural world.

    They two statistics above are of course related and together they inform us that our World is in deep peril.

    Population numbers are usually reduced to economics; how can we feed so many? Where will our energy come from? The scientists respond, we do not know but human ingenuity has always found a way and will continue to do so into the future. Can we allow in any event scientists to be so cavalier with our whole future? Yet even if they can solve our needs, would we be able to properly survive?

    Their confidence belies and totally neglects the inter-connectedness of our World.

    Let me give you an example; there are many – looking at nature as David Attenborough has done for a lifetime gives us so many; choose your favourite species – they all can enlighten us.

    Birds are the World’s pollinators; migratory birds span the globe, enriching our lives and most fundamentally enabling plant species to come to life. The avian migratory highways, like our motorways, have service stations, though in nature these are called wetlands; these dry up, are overtaken by human settlements and needs, and migration ceases. Whole bird species, whole plant species vanish, and as each such species disappear, others are taken in their wake as each component in nature, as it comes to life, as it lives and as it dies or is consumed, is part of the whole, inter-connected rhythm of life that forms our Gaia.

    And globally the same statistics as with the Masai Mara almost certainly hold. 70% of wild animal, bird and plant diversity has been lost, sacrificed on the global human population glut increase of 133%.

    Is this sustainable? Should we care?

    Our scientists say our human needs can and will be met by innovation; that we will be able to feed ourselves, and provide our creature comforts.

    But even if we are so able to adapt, at what cost? Living in a sterile test-tube world bereft of the diversity of flora and fauna that presently both support and sustain us? That inspires us, and gives immense pleasure and value to our lives? Do you want to, even if we could?

    I certainly don’t want to be part of any world that is so human-centric that in order for us to selfishly survive, all other species must be sacrificed on the altar of our ego and uncontrolled libidinous excesses.

    I don’t want to have to explain to my grand children that, sorry, we used to have elephant, lion, cheetah, giraffe, eagle, whale, panda, caribou, penguin, flying fish the list is endless … but we didn’t care enough, and now they are all gone.

    Imagine a sterile world without these magnificent creatures; of course without migration birds would not get to nesting grounds and they too would be extinct. I assume that insects, bacteriae would flourish, making our human world unpleasant, more disease-ridden and of course the loss of fauna would have resulted in an arid, hotter, drier world – all potable water being consumed by the one dominant, avaricious selfish species known as humans. We are told that cockroaches would also survive even a nuclear holocaust; do you want to take your kids to a cockroach museum as that is all that may be left?

    Is this real? Are we really facing a Mad Max future; re-consider those two opening statistics – human growth and Masai Mara losses. Consider where they are heading. Plot them. They are not small numbers and see where the interpolation takes us. Factor in that we are smart, we can bend down the projections by clever human intervention.

    That changes the future by a few years at best perhaps but in no way seriously impacts the collision course we are on.

    The real battlefield is the 3rd World, specifically, Africa; it is all happening largely out of sight of the World’s media yet the ramifications are immense and the only way to overcome these issues is by a global response, and it is nowhere near enough to pretend that offering countries extra condoms is going to materially change the situation.

    You may comfort yourself by thinking or saying, “It’s a developing world problem” – but it is in these areas of the world that our only true large rainforests and natural habits are; and it is no good thinking that the developed world has survived the loss of their habitat and it has been good for humans as least, because after the developing world has been likewise so depleted, there are no world “oxygen lungs” left.

    We urgently need a rational, global debate on the way forward; the countries most out of kilter are in the developing world where the population growths since 1900 have been staggering;

    So the imperatives for action NOW are beyond reasonable doubt.

    What are YOU doing to bring this to the attention of our World leaders? There really is no time – we ALL need to act NOW.