Our Burning Planet


COP27 is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog fossil-fuel-based development

COP27 is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog fossil-fuel-based development
People watch the flooded area of Umbeluzi river due to the heavy rains in the town of Boane, 40 kilometers from the capital Maputo, Mozambique, 16 February 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Luisa Nhantumbo)

‘Leapfrogging’ fossil-fuel-based economic development would help overcome Africa’s socioeconomic challenges, while simultaneously building resilience to physical and transition risks associated with climate change.

The late Desmond Tutu once said, “there comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

This metaphor almost perfectly describes Africa’s climate change context leading into COP27 later this month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. It is expected to focus on building Africa’s resilience to the effects of climate change, or “pulling people out of the river”.

While COP27 should indeed look to build Africa’s climate resilience, it must not be short-sighted in ignoring opportunities for inclusive and sustainable economic development on the continent.

Africa’s population will double by 2050, reaching 2.5 billion, with one billion of those people living in urban areas. If the needs of this growing population are met by fossil-fuel exploitation and unsustainable food systems, the world will not achieve the 2°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, let alone the 1.5°C target required by science.

However, the continent is uniquely positioned to turn physical and socioeconomic challenges into opportunities by “leapfrogging” fossil-fuel-based economic development. This would help overcome Africa’s socioeconomic challenges, while simultaneously building resilience to physical and transition risks associated with climate change.

Catalysing climate finance pledged by developed countries to developing countries is critical, especially considering that only $20-billion of the promised $100-billion climate funding reaches African countries annually. It is, therefore, in the best interest of both Africa and the world’s Net Zero agenda for developed countries to follow through on these climate finance pledges.

Beyond this, COP27 should drive climate action, through both mitigation and adaptation, as an investment opportunity and source of socioeconomic development across Africa.

COP27 should continue to enhance Africa’s climate resilience

Climate change is a global crisis, requiring global collaboration. However, not all countries are equal, and neither are their contributions or resilience to the climate crisis. The global North has largely industrialised off the back of fossil-fuelled economic development, contributing significantly to the climate crisis. The development of nations in the global North also makes them more resilient to climate change impacts and able to adapt to transition risks.

Africa’s contribution to climate change is negligible, contributing about 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions in the world.

Climate models suggest temperatures will increase faster than the global average, with sub-Saharan Africa’s temperatures increasing at double the global average. Despite the continent’s tiny contribution to climate change, 600 million people still do not have access to energy. These climate and socioeconomic challenges risk perpetuating each other, leading to a snowball effect, and further entrenching the generational poverty trap.

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These realities give rise to two important elements of international climate negotiations. First is the UNFCCC’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities”.

Simply put, this principle requires developed countries to provide financial support to developing countries to support their climate objectives (noting this does not absolve developing nations from their share of responsibility).

The second is the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage — a mechanism which aims to provide support to developing countries for addressing loss and damage caused by climate-related disasters. Negotiations around these two mechanisms are expected to be the focus of this year’s COP, given the African context.

While it is critical to secure international agreement and commitment to mechanisms which “reactively” enhance Africa’s climate resilience, it is equally important, if not more so, to “proactively” build Africa’s climate resilience. This means turning physical and socioeconomic challenges into opportunities for sustainable and inclusive economic development. These opportunities can and should simultaneously mitigate climate change risks while enhancing climate resilience across the continent. 

A focus on inclusive, sustainable economic development across Africa is needed

Environmental sustainability and economic development are not trade-offs. In fact, they are synergistic and positively reinforcing. Africa’s climate and developmental agendas can both be achieved by “leapfrogging” fossil-fuel-based economic development in favour of more inclusive and sustainable opportunities.

For example, accelerating the deployment of renewable energy mini-grids can simultaneously avoid GHG emissions (and other environmental impacts from fossil-based power), while providing affordable, clean energy access to the millions of people still without access.

In addition, alternative ownership models could create distributed generation “prosumers”, providing a source of income to many. But simply using renewable energy technologies is only half the battle won.

To truly capitalise on the benefits of the global energy transition, Africa must pursue industrialisation strategies which prioritise local manufacturing of low-carbon and renewable energy technologies. This will support local skills development, job creation, and a secure energy supply while providing a new export market to replace existing at-risk fossil fuel exports.

Namibia, for example, is aiming to become Africa’s first green hydrogen export hub, with plans to export three million tonnes per annum to the EU.

This “sustainable overhaul” must not be limited to the energy sector. Rather, African countries should pursue a suite of interventions across all sectors of the economy. Fossil fuel subsidies should be redirected to support sustainable, responsible, and inclusive mining of “transition energy metals”, such as copper.

Climate-smart and regenerative agriculture can address food security challenges, reduce reliance on European imports and build resilience to geopolitical shocks, such as the war in Ukraine.

Circular economy interventions across all sectors can create new jobs, improve resource-use efficiency, and minimise waste. Investing in natural capital and nature-based solutions that enhance carbon sequestration and biodiversity opportunities can strengthen Africa’s carbon market while providing environmental and socioeconomic co-benefits.

Ensuring Africa’s transition to an inclusive, low-carbon economy is not just important for Africa, but for the global economy as well. COP27 should aim to not only “pull people out of the river” by driving climate adaptation and resilience, but also “go upstream” and prevent Africa from “falling in the river” by catalysing inclusive, sustainable economic development across Africa. DM

Reinhardt Arp is a Senior Analyst at the Carbon Trust Africa, with a background in climate change and low-carbon transition advisory.

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