Associate Manager and Sustainability Lead, U.S.-Africa Business Center
April 21, 2023
Africa is one of the fastest-growing, most populous, and resource-rich regions on earth. Yet for all its opportunity, the continent is also the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. African and global leaders often recognize this discrepancy and the need to protect the continent’s natural beauty and abundant resources, but due in part to regional differences, political and economic drivers, and differences in culture and communication, African leaders have vastly different perspectives on how to advance solutions to the climate challenge.
While some African governments, multilateral institutions, and private sector actors align in identifying Africa’s unique climate adaptation and mitigation priorities, among the most pervasive areas of disagreement remain rooted in African countries’ differentiated realities: Distinct scopes and vantage points, sometimes even within single governments or policy circles that often result in incongruous approaches to solutions and a mismanaged application of resources. The continent’s growing market of more than 1.3 billion consumers offers opportunities for innovation and public-private collaboration to help address sustainability challenges related to water, waste, and climate.
As such, a common set of objectives is needed for tangible reforms in key areas to enable the continent to achieve its development objectives in a manner consistent with global climate adaptation targets to create a cleaner, healthier, and more prosperous future. Below are the three key areas of differentiation in Africa, as well as possible solutions:
Differentiated Financing: Aligning stakeholders and tools to finance shared sustainability goals
African corporations and governments pay more for international bank loans than their European, Asian, or North American counterparts, highlighting the need for creative solutions towards financing the estimated $277 billion required to fund climate adaptation in Africa--of which only 10% has been realized.
The African Continental Free Trade Area is envisioned to drastically enhance shipping processes, reduce carbon emissions, and encourage resource-sharing, but implementation is costly, and outside partners are needed to execute. Development banks serve as financing sources for projects and interlocutors for public and private funds but also face severe shortages in capital needed to meet demand.
It is estimated that multilateral development banks (MDBs) would need to triple their annual investments on the continent from $60bn to around $180bn within the next five years to meet Africa’s demand for sustainable infrastructure loans. Furthermore, various governments have different adaptation strategies based on their national development needs, size, and terrain. Gabon, for example, outlined a climate strategy aligning investors around their goal of reducing carbon emissions to protect their tropical forests, which make up 85% of the country. Other countries like Nigeria, which have a significantly larger population and more diverse ecosystems, have had a more difficult time aligning necessary resources, and loans received have not been as coordinated in their asks or implementation.
Greater coordination is needed between national governments and MDBs, especially in establishing global climate and sustainability goals that fit in with financing opportunities for streamlined funding of tangible outcomes, that build resilient infrastructure, and that align with external partners like the private sector.
Differentiated Scope: Aligning around grassroots and considering the social impacts of sustainable transition
Trust is key for any successful collaboration, whether for communities, governments, or international organizations. In the case of sustainable transition, a lack of trust is obstructing progress. In Africa, there is a mistrust that other governments and private sector actors truly intend to help combat climate change and not simply profit from natural resources. A possible solution is greater investment in human capital and social impact through education, upskilling, and a grassroots approach, rather than top-down, national-level implementation by partners.
One example of this tension is the growing issue of safe water access in rural areas. In Cote d’Ivoire, the percentage of the urban population with access to basic drinking water services is 85%. In rural areas, it is only 15%. This number has been decreasing steadily since 2000 due to rainfall disruptions and coastal erosion caused by rising temperatures and sea levels. Without clean water, illnesses such as malaria and diarrhea, the potential for crop failure, and the disproportionate burdens placed on women and girls significantly increase among communities and exacerbate rural poverty. Cote d’Ivoire’s National Development Plan’s fourth strategic pillar, Developing infrastructure across the economy as a whole, while protecting the environment, does address climate concerns. But it takes a government view of big-picture infrastructure projects, while rural water sanitation projects will be impossible to finance without private sector investments and other outside partners.
While important for increasing national standards, rural communities are often mistrustful of national or regional development measures that they cannot see in their communities when the burdens they face are so heavy. As such, the deployment of innovative technologies and private sector financing towards wastewater treatment facilities, community water systems, desalination projects, and other community needs must be considered when assessing where the most impact will be seen and how effective broader climate solutions will be long-term.
Differentiated Energy Supply: The need for a phased energy transition and innovative power sources
In many African nations, energy security is national security. Major energy deficiencies like the load shedding caused by South Africa’s Eskom crisis have a cascading impact on other countries. The COP27 final agreement, the Sharm el-Sheikh Implementation Plan, updated the COP26 climate pact with recommendations rather than strict policy prescriptions for countries to accelerate “efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” This shift opens the door for longer timelines for energy transition.
This notion is highlighted by energy historian Daniel Yergin, who writes, “Energy transition is a plural word, not a single word.” There must be various sources of energy supply, including wind, hydro and solar, and even natural gas to offset indoor air pollution and the burning of wood and waste. National energy transition plans, such as those recently put forward by Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana also highlight an important model that other African countries are looking to replicate as a solution. These nations are looking at gas as the baseload fuel source in their energy transition plans. They also highlight two other major focus areas: Expanding electricity access as quickly as possible and ensuring net-zero objectives allow for an achievable transition period before gas is fully decoupled.
Through innovative energy technologies, we can meet current energy demand while abiding by the Paris Agreement, which is foundationally built on "common but differentiated responsibilities…in light of different national circumstances." This approach offers a feasible timeline for implementation.
As we commemorate Earth Day, we also celebrate the exciting opportunity to innovate in sustainability in Africa at an unprecedented scale. New technologies in nature-based solutions are available like never before, including weather and drought-resistant crops, water desalination, plant-based fuel sources, outdoor and indoor air quality monitoring, and the use of existing resources to meet demand. By reconceptualizing our differentiated realities around financing, scope, and energy supply to identify key areas of need, we can coordinate global, national, regional, and local priorities to target assistance to the areas that need it most. This way, we can help the continent sustainably grow and flourish--and protect the natural beauty and diversity of one of the most incredible continents on Earth.