Gabon’s Environment Minister, Lee White, is readying an arsenal of arguments in favour of funding the next stage in Africa’s campaign to stave off the catastrophic effects of climate change.
Gabon, whose landmass is nearly 90 per cent covered in forests, making it the world’s second-most-forested country, is leading the African negotiating team at the United Nations climate summit that begins on Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland. Despite years of broken promises from Canada and the world’s other wealthy countries, Mr. White is ready to make his case for Africa again.
He will tell the summit about the rainfall that Gabon’s forests generate across Africa, without which a wave of climate refugees might flee drought by migrating to Europe.
He will describe the huge amount of carbon that the Congo Basin’s forests are absorbing for the world’s greenhouse emitters. And more ominously, he might warn of the wars that climate change could trigger. As many as 23 African countries could be vulnerable to violent conflict as a result of climate change, according to one study.
Mr. White, a British-born conservationist who became a Gabonese citizen and cabinet minister, will be a key player when negotiators begin their quest for a new global climate deal at the Glasgow summit, known as COP26. This time the negotiators will find it difficult to escape the growing discontent of leaders from Africa, the region where climate change is hitting hardest – and where the world’s promises have repeatedly gone unfulfilled.
“One of the problems we have in the climate negotiations is the skepticism among African countries and others because of a whole series of promises that haven’t been honoured,” Mr. White told The Globe and Mail in an interview.
“The biggest problem in the negotiations is the lack of confidence between the developed and developing nations.”
In 2009, developed countries pledged to raise US$100-billion annually by 2020 to help poorer countries deal with the impact of climate change, but the promise went unfulfilled. “It’s 2021 and we’re still scrambling to pull together the first US$100-billion. And it was meant to be US$100-billion per year,” Mr. White said.
The broken promise has become such a vital issue for the developing world that the COP26 leadership asked Canada and Germany to devise a plan for fulfilling the US$100-billion pledge. On Monday, a report by the Canadian and German environment ministers said the annual target would not be met until 2023 – three years later than the original promise.
“There has been significant progress made, but the rate of progress had slowed considerably,” Canadian Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told The Globe.
He predicted that the target will be surpassed by 2023, with further improvements in 2024 and 2025. “That, I think, is important in terms of conveying to the developing world that the developed world is delivering on the commitment,” he said.
In the leadup to the Glasgow summit, African countries have united to demand an improved system for tracking progress on the US$100-billion promise. Some experts estimate that this target is only one-10th of the amount needed by developing countries to survive climate change and reduce their carbon emissions.
“We all know it’s going to take a lot more money than that to deal with the climate crisis, but the US$100-billion deal is a matter of trust and confidence, so we definitely want to see clear indications that the developed world has achieved it,” Mr. White said.
For many African countries, the climate battle is reaching life-and-death proportions. Africa produces less than 4 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, compared to the 80 per cent that are generated by the world’s 20 biggest economies – yet Africa suffers more from climate change than any other region of the world.
A report last week by the UN climate agency, the World Meteorological Organization, predicted that up to 118 million of the world’s poorest people could be exposed to drought, floods and extreme heat within the next decade if current trends continue.
Africa’s 1.3 billion people are “extremely vulnerable” to climate change, and the economy of sub-Saharan Africa could contract by 3 per cent by mid-century as a result of the trend, the report warned.
In one of the most visible impacts of climate change, Africa’s rare glaciers – including the famed glacier on Mount Kilimanjaro – could vanish within the next two decades, it said.
Another report this month, by the World Bank, found that the number of natural disasters in sub-Saharan Africa has increased much faster than in the rest of the world. Compared to the period from 1970-79, for example, the frequency of droughts in the past decade has nearly tripled, the number of storms has more than quadrupled and the frequency of floods has risen more than tenfold, the report said.
The UN’s food agency, the World Food Program (WFP), predicted this month that the number of people living in hunger around the world could surge by 189 million as a result of an increase of 2 degrees in average global temperatures.
“The climate crisis is fuelling a food crisis,” WFP executive director David Beasley said in a statement last week.
“The climate crisis has the potential to overwhelm humanity. The world is not prepared for the unprecedented rise in hunger we will see if we do not invest in programs that help vulnerable people.”
Some of the world’s most extreme weather has struck Africa with brutal force in recent years. Mozambique has suffered an unprecedented number of disastrous cyclones. The Horn of Africa has been devastated by massive swarms of locusts, which scientists believe are a result of climate change.
The island country of Madagascar, perceived in popular culture as a paradise for wildlife, has been hit with some of the worst effects. A series of droughts has already left more than a million of its people in severe hunger, and the country could soon face a growing famine as a result of climate change, with tens of thousands of lives at risk, WFP says.
While Africa is largely a victim of climate change, a few of its governments are themselves contributing to the problem. South Africa, heavily dependent on coal-fired electricity, is the world’s 12th-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and its state-owned electricity monopoly, Eskom, is considered the world’s worst-polluting power company. European countries and the United States have offered billions of dollars to help Eskom move into greener forms of energy, but coal-related industries are a powerful lobbying force within South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, environmentalists are worried that a new plan for industrial logging will cause deforestation in the Congo Basin, disrupting rainfall patterns, and contributing to droughts and floods. The Congolese government announced in July that it plans to lift a long-standing moratorium on new logging concessions. The move could damage Africa’s credibility at the COP26 climate talks, Greenpeace Africa has said.
Mr. White is still optimistic that the negotiations in Glasgow will make progress. He has attended more than 10 previous COP negotiations and he knows how difficult it is to reach global consensus. But he believes the world’s political leaders will find it difficult to ignore the increasing drumroll of terrifying climate forecasts and mounting reports of severe droughts, cyclones, wildfires, floods and other extreme weather.
“I sense growing momentum for the COP,” he said. “I get the sense that the political world is ready, the momentum is there and we’re going to make some decisions this time.”
With a report from Adam Radwanski in Toronto
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