Our Burning Planet


Covid-19 has shown us that the global community will need to support Africa in its response to the climate crisis

Africa’s (in)ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a model on how the continent may be able to respond to, as much as cope with, the detrimental effects of climate change. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Africa’s (in)ability to respond to the pandemic serves as a model on how the continent may be able to respond to, as much as cope with, the detrimental effects of climate change. This will have a significant impact on the operations of the multinational corporations which conduct business on the continent.

Peter Leon (partner and Africa Chair), Silke Goldberg (partner), Ernst Müller (senior associate), Jannis Bille (associate), and Zoe Asher (trainee solicitor) are with law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

As nations around the world continue to battle through the Covid-19 era of lockdowns and social distancing, we are inundated with news on the many existential crises that the world faces.

The manner in which countries (both individually and collectively) responded to the pandemic may, however, provide useful insight into how countries might respond to climate change — the greatest existential threat of our time. It may also serve as an important pre-COP26 warning to the developed world that it urgently needs to agree on whether or not (and how) it will come to Africa’s aid as the continent is forced to respond to the consequences of climate change.

It is now clear that the global community has the capacity to respond with significant speed and force. Within a period of approximately six weeks, well over 100 countries had instituted either full or partial lockdowns in the first quarter of 2020. Some 15 months later many developed countries have implemented (and even completed) initial vaccination programmes.

Most African countries have, however, not been able to follow suit. Bar a few exceptions, less than 5% of all African countries’ populations have been fully vaccinated. This includes leading economies such as South Africa (3.1%), Egypt (1.4%) and Nigeria (0.7%). While there are various reasons for these delays, many come down to a lack of funding, weak governance and an absence of the necessary infrastructure to roll out comprehensive vaccine programmes — especially in rural areas.

In many respects, Africa’s (in)ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic serves as a model on how the continent may be able to respond to, as much as cope with, the detrimental effects of climate change. This, in turn, will have a significant impact on the operations of the multinational corporations which conduct business on the continent.

As the Covid-19 model shows, while these multinationals (often headquartered in the developed world) were able to implement measures to mitigate and respond to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, their ability to do so was often hindered by the conditions in the countries where they operate. The same will manifest itself in the context of climate change.

For the reasons considered in this article, the global community will need to support Africa in its response to climate change.

The security policy questions which arise from the impacts of climate change on Africa ought equally to concern the private and public sectors in light of the economic impact it will have on the global economy and energy transition.

Environmental, social and economic consequences

It is uncontentious that the impacts of climate change extend well beyond an increase in the Earth’s temperature. Although many of the visible effects of climate change appear to be environmental in nature, these consequences may cause and exacerbate both social and commercial issues.

For most countries in Africa (and globally) the most significant impacts will centre around the availability of water. The specific water problems vary per region. For example, countries in the eastern parts of Africa may experience extreme flooding events, while western and southern African countries are likely to experience extended periods of drought. Although opposite in nature, the ultimate results of these extreme weather events are similar: both affect agricultural production which could lead to food scarcity.

The social impacts that may arise from this (especially owing to the significant number of subsistence farmers on the continent) is obvious.

A lack of water will also directly affect business productivity for many sectors, the agricultural and mining sectors being key examples. Among other things, flooding or drought may cause damage to production sites, affect operations and influence supply chains.

The impact on water, as but one example, provides a useful illustration of the polycentric, yet interconnected, nature of the impact which climate change may have on environmental, social and economic factors across the continent. Similar interrelated consequences will arise from coastal erosion, deforestation, desertification, extreme weather events (including cyclones), heat stress, an increase in waterborne diseases, poor air quality, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents.

The role of security policy in addressing the impacts of climate change in Africa

At this juncture, the risks which will arise from the impact which climate change may have on the African continent are not comprehensively addressed under domestic or international policy frameworks. As climate change associated risks are not localised to specific regions or countries, they have the potential to give rise to regional and international security issues (the competition for scarce resources and migration being two salient examples).

If the regional and international risks (and concomitant geopolitical issues) are to be mitigated, the global community ought urgently to commence work on developing and implementing the required governance systems.

Governance by countries needs to focus on two key categories:

  • Climate change mitigation: comprising policies to address climate change, which may include targeted emissions reduction or sensible set-off mechanisms; and
  • Climate change adaptation: developing policies that address the incidental economic, social and environmental effects of climate change.

These processes need to run in parallel, for two reasons. First, because the issues highlighted earlier are often ignored and require urgent attention, as the effects of any emissions-reduction legislation would not be felt immediately.

Second, while emissions may be reduced as part of the “global energy transition”, the viability of the process depends on a number of minerals that are located in Africa. Examples include cobalt, lithium and rare earths.

If the economic, environmental and social issues above are likewise not addressed in their own right, extractive companies may be precluded from accessing the resources required to drive the energy transition. This may, in turn, retard global decarbonisation efforts through a combination of resource shortages and related price increases.

Key considerations in the development of coherent security policies

A number of international organisations and institutions have recognised the need for policies to mitigate the impact of climate change in Africa. Despite this, a coherent suite of policies has yet to be developed. To address this, the following questions could facilitate the design and implementation of effective policies.

Responsibility for the design and implementation of policy

The nature and scale of the issues faced vary significantly between and within African countries (eg, access to water in rural and urban areas). The policies required to effectively address these issues will therefore also necessarily vary significantly. This raises questions as to who has the required expertise and is best placed to design these policies.

Expertise alone, however, will not be sufficient to effectively address the issues outlined above. A number of international organisations have formulated potential solutions: for example, a World Bank report suggested that increasing the capacity of surface water reservoir storage, rainwater harvesting and desalination could all be used to address water supply issues.

The UN Climate Change Secretariat, in turn, is helping countries identify and manage climate risks through the formulation of National Adaptation Plans. In order to mitigate the issues above, solution-oriented and tailored policies must also be implemented and monitored.

Once the appropriate body is determined, it is necessary to consider the question of funding.

Funding of design and implementation

Since 2015, one of the main instruments for guiding policy responses in this area has been through the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement: 52 African countries have submitted their first NDCs. However, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has noted that the initial NDCs are flawed, in part because they were formulated on the assumption that international financing would be available.

The question of how the design and implementation of security policies are funded is one that must be urgently addressed, especially in light of changes to the availability of international financing and investment.

In the past, market-based mechanisms, driven by regulatory requirements, have been used to expand the availability of funding for decarbonisation and offset initiatives. For example, a number of projects in this area were funded through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol. While the EU Emission Trading System (EU ETS) encouraged investment in the least developed countries under the CDM, international credits have recently been phased out from the EU ETS, which may noticeably reduce investment in relation to some of the above issues.

It has been suggested that to ease the financial burden for governments, companies, such as extractive companies, could be required to take measures in the community (or communities) local to their operations.

At a national or regional scale, governments could also implement measures to generate revenue to fund the transition. A recent example of such a measure is the proposed regulation to establish a carbon border adjustment mechanism in the European Union (EU), which the European Commission published on 14 July 2021 (the regulation).

Under the regulation, which is intended to come into effect on 1 January 2023, importers of certain goods will be required to purchase a number of electronic certificates to cover the total embedded emissions in imported goods. This will of course have a significant financial impact on the exporters (including African manufacturers) of the goods regulated under the regulation. At this juncture, electronic certificates will be required for cement, electricity, fertilisers, iron, steel and aluminium.

Ultimately, the sum of government-imposed measures will only be effective if a well-coordinated approach is followed. If not, the patchwork quilt of solutions may only further delay access to the necessary funding.


The WMO observed that many countries’ ability to implement cohesive climate policies is limited by human and financial resources, expertise and competing priorities. It also noted that these issues are compounded by the increasing complexity of the work involved in designing cross-sectoral security policies.

Without effective public governance to address these elements, the implementation of comprehensive security policies which mitigate the environmental and social issues outlined above will continue to pose great challenges.

COP26 will provide world leaders with an invaluable opportunity to discuss how these issues can be best addressed, not only to mitigate serious environmental and social impacts of climate change, but also to ensure the security of resources essential to the energy transition. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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