The global climate talks have returned to Africa this week. Egypt is hosting COP27 in the beautiful Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Political leaders, business executives and civil society groups from all corners of the world have gathered to push for more diplomatic efforts, business deals and creating coalitions of the willing to fight global warming.
Sharm el-Sheikh will put the limelight on those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis while they have suffered the most from it. African emissions account for three to four percent of global emissions worldwide. The U.S. alone, with a quarter of the African population, has polluted the atmosphere many times more.
Still Africa will see severe human impacts of the crisis. Both in Somalia and in Sudan I have witnessed how very dry places have become even dryer; exacerbating conflicts and terrorism, along with setting back populations already living on the margins. Mozambique last year had endured a devastating flood. Last week the UN issued a global warning on glaciers with the most beautiful snowcap of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is near the Kenyan border, will disappear by 2050.
The Sahel region appears headed for a perfect storm of climate change, coinciding with very weak states, rapid population growth patterns, few job opportunities and looming jihadist terrorist forces. Agriculture is already marginal and water is in short supply.
In Sharm el-Sheikh, Africa will call for climate justice and demand reparations for the harm committed by developed countries. The demands are justified and should receive broad support from the international community. Yet, Africa is unlikely to achieve anything but small symbolic gains; if any at all without global cooperation. The West is more preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis. The underlying geopolitical tensions make progress much harder.
This is why Africa can focus on how to learn from Asia and place diplomatic efforts as secondary. While Asia a few decades ago was seen as the epicenter of global poverty, the continent has emerged far ahead of Africa. China has embarked upon the journey of the reform and opening-up in 1978 and made tremendous economic achievements. South Korea and Singapore were once desperately poor countries, but now they are standing at the top of the world. Vietnam, Indonesia, India and many other Asian nations are surging ahead too.
The Asian miracle was not based on receiving handouts from the rich, but on developing domestic conditions for growth. Aid played a distant secondary role to good domestic leadership and business investments. Additionally, climate aid, tends to be slow, bureaucratic and providing small money. Not one African nation is receiving foreign aid today that is above five percent of their GDP (gross domestic product).
The two biggest developing nations, China and India, see climate change both as a severe global threat and opportunity. China has leapfrogged into electric mobility. China accounts for half the market of electric cars and dominates global production of electric batteries, helping to save the planet while providing jobs and prosperity to the country.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees solar energy and green hydrogen as huge economic opportunities. New solar projects are emerging by the day and Indian tycoons have made incredible pledges for a green India based on renewable energy.
Accordingly, Africa can jump ahead over old technologies in finance, IT and green energy. The continent has become a pioneer of digital finance through Kenya’s M-Pesa. Solar energy opportunities are abundant. A continent, where most people are not linked to the grid can develop village- or company-size solar, harvesting the most reliable African resource: the sun. Solar is the cheapest energy on the continent, but upfront costs are prohibitive for the poor. Pay-as-you-go schemes integrating renewable and information high technology are solutions. Nearly all Africans have a mobile phone.
Asian investments, particularly from China, can play a major role. China has helped African connectivity through green railroads from Djibouti to Addis Ababa and from Mombasa to Nairobi. I traveled in high comfort through magnificent landscapes while sitting in Chinese-built coaches on Chinese-built tracks. Trams in Addis Ababa and light rail in Kano, Nigeria are other impressive projects. President Xi Jinping’s decision to halt all Chinese overseas coal investment was a significant factor. Beijing has also designated the Belt and Road Initiative as a major vehicle for solar, wind, hydro and green hydrogen investments. Chinese high tech companies such as Huawei and Tencent can help Africa integrate renewable and information technology.
Meanwhile, M Auto from Chennai, India is one of the largest electric vehicle companies in Africa opening up factories in Togo, Benin and other places soon.
There are amazing conservation stories from African countries as well. Botswana and Kenya have benefitted economically from protecting their national parks. Land-locked Rwanda supports increasing the gorilla population by creating a tourist economy and encouraging the locals to become the gorillas’ frontline defenders.
In regards to nature conservation, Africa can learn more from Asia. China is the world’s biggest tree planter and has succeeded with its conservation of giant pandas. The major rainforest nation Indonesia last year achieved record-low deforestation. Indonesian companies including RGE, one of the world’s largest paper and palm oil companies, has supported a deforestation-free value chain.
Africa can review how Asia drove development through good policies and private investment. Asian countries offer a role model for rapid growth and offer Africa chances to partner up with Asian governments and companies amid the green transformation. In the 21st century, Africa has become the fastest growing continent in population. Meanwhile, rapid green economic development is very visible. This will move much faster if Africa moves from 54 separate markets to one huge unified market. Therefore, the entire world should support African economic integration.
The African green transformation can be supercharged by learning lessons from the Asian success story and by forming deeper partnerships and investments with Asia.
Erik Solheim is the former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of The Southern African Times.