This week, about 100 world leaders gathered to attend the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 76), with some of the leaders taking the opportunity to increase their climate finance pledges to help developing countries tackle climate change. President Biden’s pledge to increase climate finance to $11billion attracted the most attention. While these new pledges are welcome, it is vital to stress the point that rich countries still owe poor countries trillions of dollars and a minimum of $100 billion to Africa to urgently help the continent address the twin challenges of climate catastrophe and the impact of COVID-19 pandemic. It is instructive that despite the fanfare that greeted UNGA and the climate pledges the plight of Africa actually received very little attention from the world leaders.
Recently, because of the unprecedented floods in Western countries including Spain, Germany, and the United States of America, rich countries are beginning to awake to the devastating impact of climate change and the need for emergency measures to deal with climate change-induced loss and damage within their territories. However, Africa, and many poor countries around the world have long been living with the crippling impact of climate change and much of this impact has not been fully appreciated by rich countries who are mostly responsible for climate change.
Indeed, the African climate change context had passed dangerously-epic proportions. Nigeria, for example, has witnessed intense and unprecedented scale of flooding in the past 5 years. The International Federation of the Red Cross and Crescent Societies reports that in September 2020 alone, torrential rainfall, river floods, and flash floods affected 192,594 people across 22 states in Nigeria (including 826 injuries, 155 fatalities, and 24,134 displacements). Little, if any of this, was reported by international news agencies.
An estimated 27 to 53 million people in Nigeria might have to relocate with a (0.5 m) increase in sea level. Sea level rise is threatening other low-lying countries in Africa with research suggesting that cities like Abidjan, Cape Town, and Dar es Salaam will be totally submerged with (1.0m) global sea level rise. At the same time, oil and diamond-mine infrastructure in coastal African countries worth trillions of dollars are very susceptible to sea level rise and coastal erosion.
Climate change is also causing a decrease in productivity of many staple food crops in Africa. About 86 percent of Africa’s agriculture is rain-fed, implying that even moderate variations in rainfall, temperature and precipitation patterns could have immediate impact on agricultural production. Analysts determine that climate change will reduce crop productivity by up to 20 percent, 30 percent and, in some cases, 50 percent over the next 20 or 30 years. Again, the anticipated loss runs into several billions of dollars and the situation is bound to worsen food and other dimensions of insecurity in Africa.
According to recent preliminary estimates the total economic impact of climate impact, which has been worsened by and COVID 19 pandemic could cost Africa $200 billion annually by 2070. The real number may well be far beyond that. For example, a study done by UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) now merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) indicated that climate change could cost Nigeria alone $460 billion by 2050.
The impact of climate change in Africa has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although case fatality rates for COVID-19 have not been as much as originally feared at the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, the social and economic impact of COVID-19 in Africa has been devastating and potentially long-lasting. Economies in Africa were growing at about 3% GDP before COVID-19 but are now projected to suffer between 2% and 8% recession as a result of the pandemic. The African Development Bank indicates that the continent’s economy will contract between $173.1 and $236.7 billion in 2020/2021. The region is further expected to witness inflation of up to 5%, alongside a dramatic fall in remittance and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2021 and beyond. The same AfDB sources indicate up to 30 million jobs could be lost and between 28 to 49 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty.
Climate and COVID-19 have indeed put Africa in the eye of the storm and many of the governments have no idea how to recover from the worst recession that has befallen them in more than half a century. Many African countries have been stretched to their limits in terms of financial and socio-economic resilience. The debt profile of many of these countries has risen dramatically and in many cases to levels that are widely considered as unstainable. Viewed in this way, one can see that climate change and COVID-19 have put the future generations of Africa in debt to rich countries.
Given the role of rich countries in imposing the risk of climate change and COVID-19 pandemic on Africa, it is arguable that 50 percent of the projected $ 200 billion cost of climate change to Africa should be borne by rich countries. This would imply that rich countries owe Africa at least $100 billion for climate related loss and damage and several billions to help boost recovery from COVI19-pandemic.
Against this background African leaders should have been a lot more united and forceful in requesting the United Nations General Assembly to reaffirm that climate change is threatening development in Africa and pushing millions into poverty. They should have made it clear that Africa deserves, not handouts, but generous compensation and meaningful investment to help it address the impact of climate change imposed on it by the rich countries. They should have asked the rich countries to provide a commitment that the voices of those that are disproportionally suffering from the impact of climate change will not be marginalized in the forthcoming UN COP26 Climate talks in November for there are already strong indications that unequal vaccine access, rising travel and accommodation costs as well as high rates of COVID-19 infection might limit the participation of African countries among others in global climate talks at the 26th Conference of the Parties.
Now that the opportunity has been missed in UNGA, African leaders must start now prepare to use the opportunity of COP26 to ask for specific climate finance programs that target Africa so that the future of millions of African children is not mortgaged by climate change that is caused by the pollution from rich countries.
By Chukwumerije Okereke