Africa doubts promises after saving Copenhagen climate talks

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Far too often, African leaders have been unable to present a united front on the world stage. Not this time around. At the Copenhagen climate talks, the continent fielded a single negotiating team, and it paid off. But for many delegates, the reliability of funds promised at the summit remains in doubt.

Months before the Copenhagen conference on climate change, the African Union (AU) decided that the continent should participate in a more united, coherent manner than it often does at such international gatherings, by designating Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi as the lead negotiator for the continent. Africa often finds itself on the margins of international negotiations and usually is excluded from backroom bargaining. But in Copenhagen, by fielding a single negotiating team African leaders did work together in order to ensure that the continent’s voice was prominently heard.

African technical and policy experts met regularly each morning to coordinate their work in the various committee meetings and drafting sessions. African countries also played prominent roles in other groupings, with Sudan chairing the developing countries’ Group of 77 and Lesotho leading the least-developed countries.

On 14 December, amidst signs that some countries were considering a bid to abandon the Kyoto Protocol – which was signed in 1997 and obligates participating industrialized countries to significantly reduce their emissions of polluting greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming – the African delegates brought the conference to a brief standstill by walking out. The talks soon resumed, and the Kyoto Protocol remained intact.

South Africa, as Africa’s most industrialized economy and a notable source of greenhouse emissions, was able to play an especially pivotal role. Acknowledging that responsibility, South African President Jacob Zuma pledged that his country could cut emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 and by 42 per cent by 2025, with some international financial and technical support.

As the talks headed towards stalemate, President Zuma consulted with other African leaders about the possibility of walking out, South African negotiator Joanne Yawitch later told reporters. But they decided it would be better to stay and continue influencing the process from the inside. President Zuma and several other African officials, including Mr. Meles and representatives from Lesotho and Algeria, participated in a series of informal meetings of about 30 countries that negotiated the final text of the Copenhagen Accord. Had they not taken part, Ms. Yawitch commented, “maybe what we have now would have been worse.”

Financial gains

Thank to their unprecedented mobilization and level of involvement throughout the talks, African countries prominently benefited from the financial provisions included in the agreement painstakingly reached in Copenhagen. Alongside other developing countries, the continent has long argued that since the major industrialized nations contribute the most to global warming, they should shoulder the costs. Hence, they expected major financial assistance, both to help them adapt to the effects of climate change and to enable them to pursue economic development in ways that do not despoil the environment.

The Copenhagen Accord accepts that principle. The developed countries commit themselves to provide developing countries with “new and additional resources” of up to $30 bn over the three years of 2010–12. The least developed countries, small island developing states and Africa would be given priority in allocations of funds earmarked for “adaptation.”

The accord established also a goal of increasing financing to some $100 bn annually by 2020, provided that developing countries take their own actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure the transparent use of external funding.

Some delegates from developing countries wanted considerably higher amounts. The African Union had estimated earlier in the year that all developing countries would need $67 bn annually by 2020 to adapt to the effects of climate change, plus an additional $200 bn a year to help them reduce greenhouse emissions, convert to cleaner energy sources and preserve their forests.

Ethiopian PM’s arguments

Yet at the conference Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles, representing the African Union, requested only the lower figures that were ultimately included in the accord. He recognized that his proposal would disappoint some Africans, but argued that it was better to scale back Africa’s expectations “in return for more reliable funding and a seat at the table in the management of such a fund.”

But for many delegates, the reliability of such funds remains in doubt. President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso wanted some assurance that they would not be diverted from existing aid budgets, while others pointed to the donor countries’ long record of unmet promises.

African environmental activists argue that such African purpose will remain vital in the next rounds of climate talks — a two-week negotiating session in Bonn, Germany, at midyear and another high-level UN conference in Mexico City towards the end of 2010.

Copenhagen failed to achieve an equitable, legally binding agreement, Mamadou Barry, coordinator of the Coalition of Senegalese Youth on Climate Change, said in Dakar on 23 December. But it was significant that African leaders took part in a coordinated fashion. In the coming talks, he said, African leaders should “maintain their unity so that climate justice can become a reality for the continent.”

Ultimately for Africa, the agreement reached in Copenhagen is significant in two respects. First, for the actual elements of the accord, including the promises for financial aid it would receive. And second, for Africa’s strong presence throughout the talks.

Mr. Ernest Harsch writes for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.

Africa Renewal  Africa Renewal magazine, published by the United Nations, examines Africa's development, achievements and challenges. It provides expert analysis and on-the-spot reporting to show how policies affect Africa's people.
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