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A much larger transformation in Africa — why a just transition must be complemented by climate-resilient development

A much larger transformation in Africa — why a just transition must be complemented by climate-resilient development
Climate change is negatively affecting food harvests and pushing up prices in Africa, leaving 18 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and parts of Kenya facing the risk of severe hunger. (Photo: iStock)

In the lead-up to this year’s Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, or COP28, this series on climate change and development in Africa presented by the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance aims to help readers in understanding the nuances of the debate on how to respond to the systemic impacts of climate change.

According to the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, this July was the warmest month in world records that go back to 1880. Scientists working on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been warning about this increasing temperature rise around the world for several decades. 

Climate change is negatively affecting food harvests and pushing up prices in Africa, leaving 18 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and parts of Kenya facing the risk of severe hunger.  

A major debate is unfolding within countries and between the major players in the climate change debate on how to respond to the systemic impacts of climate change. Divergent approaches are also reflected in the narratives and perspectives of these different stakeholders on the concept of what is known as a “just transition”. 

The Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, based at the University of Cape Town, has launched this series of articles to help the reader in understanding the nuances of this debate. 

In this series a range of academic experts in development and governance will argue that the concept of a just transition must be understood not only as a transition from one energy system (based on fossil fuels) to another (based on renewables), but as part of a much larger transformation that includes mitigation, adaptation and resilience. 

Improve lives, tackle imbalances, reform institutions

The just transition must also improve the lives of the poorest people by transforming the economies of developing countries, adding value to their natural resources or commodities and increasing decent jobs. 

The just transition should also address the global imbalances, asymmetries and inequities of the global economy. It must reform the global governance institutions that have constrained the development of developing countries and increased inequality, both between countries and within countries.

However, the series argues that the concept of just transition should be complemented by the concept of climate-resilient development and be integrated into the national development strategies of developing countries. 

In addition, the IPCC has argued that climate-resilient development pathways should be advanced through just transitions that make transformational changes across a range of economic, social and ecological sectors in national economies. These transformations must also aim to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, as agreed on by the United Nations.

just transition in Africa

Activists, students and supporters protest during the Call For Climate Justice Resistance Against Oil And Gas Corporations outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre on 13 September 2023. Their demands included ambitious just transition plans from all carbon corporations and polluters, no new investments in oil, gas and coal, and for all governments to withdrawal subsidies from all fossil fuel industries. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Responsibility and obligation 

There are at least three reasons that developed countries have a responsibility and an obligation to contribute significantly to the process of transformation required for developing countries to advance their climate-resilient pathways and the SDGs. 

First, developed countries have historically been the main emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG). Developing countries, especially the poorest in Africa, have contributed an insignificant amount to climate change. It is increasingly recognised that developed countries are responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions during the past few centuries, while the most destructive and damaging economic and social impacts are affecting developing countries and regions such as Africa. 

Second, structural asymmetries and inequalities such as the inequitable commodity terms of trade, international trade rules and financial architecture continue to constrain and impede the development of many developing countries, reducing them to poverty and underdevelopment. 

Third, developing countries, especially the most vulnerable small island states and least-developed countries, are experiencing the most devastating impacts and burden of climate change.

Coherence and alignment

While the concepts of just transition and just energy transition are helpful to address the concerns of workers and communities as they make the challenging transition to lower-carbon emissions in energy and other sectors, the policy measures adopted to address the energy transition will require greater coherence and alignment in developed and developing countries. 

The authors of the articles in this series discuss the need for alignment of these measures with:

  1. Monetary and fiscal policies;
  2. Sustainable industrialisation; and
  3. A stronger green state that guides the investments required for climate-resilient pathways.

They argue that a strong and intelligent state is required to lead this process of investment-centred transformation for the following reasons: 

First, a mere tinkering with market-based approaches, such as carbon pricing and de-risking that is incremental and project based, will not be able to reach the scale and depth of the transformation that is required if humanity is to meet the challenge of holding global temperatures to below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels

Second, attempts to de-risk the investments of asset managers and other major businesses could undermine the efforts to advance inclusive and just transitions and climate-resilient development pathways in developing countries. 

Third, efforts under way to address the mitigation of GHG emissions must also accompany other efforts to address adaptation in agriculture and industry and the building of greater resilience in infrastructure and social institutions.

Plants in a hydroponic garden installation in the Youth Hub inside the Green Zone ahead of the COP28 climate conference in Dubai on 29 November 2023. (Photo: Annie Sakkab / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Opportunities for Africa 

The current systemic crises offer African countries an opportunity to leapfrog technologically and transform their economies, by building renewable energy infrastructure to provide affordable energy to the poor and for their sustainable industrialisation pathways. An abundance of renewable energy and critical minerals for the green industrial and digital revolutions provide African countries with the opportunity to add value to their natural resources or commodities, create decent jobs, reduce poverty and increase living standards. 

Extreme temperatures and climate change affecting agriculture also create an imperative for developing countries to obtain the use of climate-smart agriculture technologies, increase yields and productivity and develop more resilient food systems for food security. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: As UAE COP28 agenda raises scepticism, African scientists call for end to new fossil fuel exploration scramble

Developed countries have a responsibility and an obligation to provide developing countries with adequate climate finance for mitigation, adaptation and resilience, together with transfers of technology and capacity-building, to help them advance their climate-resilient development and just transition pathways. 

However, this cannot be achieved if the existing imbalanced, asymmetrical and inequitable framework of the global governance architecture in finance and trade remains the same. It is argued here that these institutions will need to make fundamental reforms if they are to be made fit for purpose – that is, to enable the just transition and transformative climate-resilient pathways required to achieve the ambitious mitigation targets set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Time for global African agency

Thus, African countries need to exercise their agency at a global level. The articles in this series make some specific proposals on the reform of these global trade and finance institutions to enable the just transition and climate-resilient development in developing countries, and in Africa in particular. 

African countries should work together in the African Union and the African Continental Free Trade Area to build climate-resilient development pathways as they implement the latter’s regional trade and development protocols for the purpose of building sustainable regional value chains and more resilient cross-border infrastructure, creating decent jobs and reducing inequality between African countries, and spurring growth and prosperity across the continent. 

Africa should seize the climate crisis, the green industrial revolution and the digital revolution as opportunities to leapfrog its development and advance its own Green New Deal. DM

Faizel Ismail is director of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town and the author of three books on the World Trade Organization.

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