Saturday, June 6, 2015

Africa's Challenge

Under the signature of its chairman, Kofi Annan, the Africa Progress Panel (APP), a high-powered group of former African heads of state, public figures, and international business leaders, has added a strong African voice to the international conversation in advance of the Paris conference. In its annual Africa Progress Report, published yesterday, the APP lays out the challenge facing Africa and the world: can Africa's desperately needed economic development take place, not just without adding to the world's greenhouse gas problem, but can it establish prototypes for green development that will inspire the rest of the world? It sounds utopian, but the APP is joining others who see the climate crisis as a powerful driver toward economic justice, and not just remediation. How could this work?

Annan's executive summary points to a variety of solutions, both internal and external to Africa, that need to be brought together. He notes the internal corruption of utilities and finance markets in Africa, skewed to serve wealthy elites while 600 million Africans lack basic electricity. He also notes the massive subsidies still offered by wealthy nations for fossil fuel exploitation. While Africa has enormous untapped potentialities for renewable energy--solar, wind, geothermal, and hydro--it now depends on expensive and inefficient carbon-based energy for most of its modest needs. To fuel a green development surge in Africa, the APP estimates an investment of $55 billion would be needed annually for the next 15 years. Annan proposes that half of that sum could be raised internally by reforming tax collection and reducing fraud within existing African governmental and corporate structures. The rest would need to come from the Green Climate Fund or other international aid sources--or by transferring those billions of dollars in fossil-fuel subsidies to renewable development.

Does Africa matter? In one sense, no--Africa's carbon footprint is tiny, its geopolitical role minimal. Converting its economy and expanding it with renewable energy won't really address the urgent problem of greenhouse gas emissions, a problem caused by the wealthy developed nations and the 'emerging' economies of the G20, of which South Africa is the only African member. Africa didn't cause the climate problem, doesn't contribute much to it, and will not be the place where it is resolved.

But Africa IS the front-line continent for another dimension of the problem: climate justice. As Amman notes, "No region has done less to contribute to the climate crisis, but no region will pay a higher price for failure to tackle it." From the slave trade to colonialism to corporate exploitation of its weak political structures, Africa has been a chronic victim of the excesses of the capitalist economy. Drought and desertification, early effects of changing climate, are already taking a toll on Africa's development efforts. The dichotomy of climate is stark: the crisis is clearly the work of development that has served the wealthy nations and peoples, while the consequences--hunger and thirst, forced migration, devastating weather--will most strongly afflict the poor.

If we in the wealthy nations can discover our better natures, Africa could, in a few decades, contribute massively to the global economy using a new green infrastructure. If not, the African peoples will be the first--but not the last--to suffer from our short-sightedness. That's the African challenge, not just for Africa itself but for the world community as it meets, first at the Sustainable Development summit in New York this September, then in Paris in December. Will the United States be equal to that challenge?

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