Are Africa’s climate negotiators ready for COP24?

Delegates from the Least Developed Countries discuss the revised Ad-hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement at the Bonn climate conference in May 2017. (IISD/ENB/Kiara Worth)

Africa’s efficacy in global climate negotiations may only have been the subject of a short session during a two-day workshop on climate change in Africa held by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in Zanzibar earlier this year, but the questions it threw up continue to reverberate, particularly as the 24th session of the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP24), taking place between 3-14 December in Katowice, Poland, nears.

Equal Times has spoken to some of the continent’s climate negotiators and institutions, and they are disputing the perception that they lack the ability to negotiate favourable climate deals for Africa at international climate talks. Despite being the continent that contributes the least to global emissions, Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, with tens of millions of people adversely affected by droughts, floods, landslides, water stress, food insecurity and other side effects of climate change every year. As a result, observers say that Africa should receive much more in terms of concessions and financial support for climate mitigation and adaptation than it currently does.

Annually, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) holds international negotiations on climate change where decisions that inform international climate policy frameworks and strategies are made. But every year, Africa seems to come back with very little.

The continent’s position is at times hampered by limited finances, limited capacity, a lack of political will at a national and continental level and the fact that Africa’s negotiating position is sometimes submerged by the wider concerns of the G-77 & China Group, amongst other challenges.

The latest criticism of the continent’s capacity to counter the challenges of global warming came from Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the CSE, an India-based environmental think-tank. In a session at the May workshop titled “An Un-fair Playing Field – Africa and Global Negotiations”, Bhushan said: “Africa’s biggest weakness in climate talks is the low capacity and skills of her team of negotiators.” During the workshop he shared his view that the continent’s negotiating position is undermined by negotiators that are not well-prepared with fact-based research and that sometimes focus on general development challenges, many of which are unrelated to climate change.

The African Group of Negotiators (AGN), which involves delegates from every country on the continent, represents Africa’s interests at global climate talks under the guidance of the African Union Assembly, the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC) and the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN), with financial and technical support from agencies such as the African Climate Policy Centre (ACPC), Climate for Development in Africa (Clim-Dev Africa) and the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Bhushan criticised the continent for allegedly presenting the same negotiators for the last 20 years, leaving little space for people with new thinking and ideas to take talks to the next level. “To strengthen her position Africa must train a new set of brilliant students who can inject new thinking and approaches to the talks and energise the continent’s negotiating advantage,” he said during the session.

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Despite the asymmetrical nature of Africa’s negotiation position, Bhushan also suggested that Africa should stop negotiating as a bloc and split into groups: “When a continent with so many countries negotiates as a single unit you look at the minimum common denominator among all of you and that common weakness is what you go to the talks with as opposed to taking advantage of strengths of each individual countries,” he opined.

He also said that African countries, like other least-developed countries, tended to approach the COPs as an opportunity to ask for money for climate mitigation, rather than demand action to halt a further rise in global temperatures or call for cuts in pollution from the Global North. For Bhushan, Africa’s negotiators walk into multilateral talks as if they were “trade negotiations where “deals and exemptions” were the end products.

Africa is ready

Unsurprisingly, Africa’s climate negotiators don’t share these views. While Harsen Nyambe, head of the AU’s environment and climate change division, agrees that Africa needs bigger and stronger negotiating teams, he maintains that the negotiators representing the continent have both the capacity and skills to do so, and often set an example for other developing countries. “Africa has been initiating and submitting views, which are used by the G77. We have been influencing and setting the pace for negotiations,” the AU official told Equal Times.

Nyambe also strongly disagrees with Bhushan’s assertion that African countries would be better off negotiating as smaller blocs or even as individual countries “as there would be divergent positions, and we would not be able to push collectively and speak with one voice, which is stronger, respected and heard,” the official added.

“We also need more lead negotiators on the different themes so that there are many negotiators on a theme, which would allow for space to properly prepare prior to negotiations,” he observed.

Currently, Africa sends an average of 10 negotiators including a lead negotiator for each of the 30 themes discussed at the COPs, meaning that about 300 experts speak for the continent at different forums, according to AGN spokesperson and former chief negotiator, Seyni Nafo.

He also disagrees with the notion that the African team comprises of ageing experts or that unskilled negotiators are leaving Africa gazumped at global climate talks.

“The truth is that the current group of African negotiators is made up of a much younger, diverse crowd whose average age is less than 40 years. They combine the advantages of both age and gender, and they are also Africa-based,” he toldEqual Times during an interview in Nairobi.

African representatives, he says, have managed to obtain favourable deals to help in climate mitigation and adaptation, such as the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI)which was hammered out at COP21 in Paris in 2015. The AREI deal aims to support the continent with a US$10 billion grant facility to help set up decentralised renewable energy projects that will provide electricity for some of the 600 million people living in Africa off-grid.

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For Nafo, the real challenge is financial, particularly in helping African countries to invest in science-based, climate-robust mitigation and adaptation programmes. “It is not true at all that we present a weak team to represent Africa. We have the skills and we do a good job. However, there is a gap between what we gain in the talks and what we see on the ground, and that’s where the main challenge lies,” he offers. “The truth is that we always win during negotiations but lose on implementation.”

Bureaucratic challenges remain

For its part, the AfDB acknowledges that some of the negotiators lack the “requisite institutional capacity” to ensure that the interests of their countries are advanced through the negotiations. It counsels that there is urgent need to equip negotiators with adequate data backed by research on different dynamics of climate in Africa to help them advance solid arguments backed by evidence.

“Climate change is not only physical science, it is also a social science and there are millions of people in Africa struggling with climate related socio-economic challenges,” says Justus Kabyeruka, the head of AfDB’s Climate Development Fund (ClimDev-Africa).

Bureaucracy in transmitting the African position from the country to the regional to the continental level via institutions such as national government and AU organs also presents a huge challenge to African negotiators.

But Kabyeruka says that ClimDev-Africa has been giving technical assistance to the AGN before and during each annual COP, and hosts mid-year meetings where priority support needs for the AGN are identified.

The AU has also been engaging in similar initiatives to sharpen the AGN which include providing technical support to strengthen their negotiating position on different themes, and to ensure that the key messages on climate adopted by the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change are used as a basis for negotiations, notes Nyambe. The AU also provides the AGN with media and communications support during the COP to ensure that the African voice is heard the world over.

“This is done by supporting African and international media houses through designing dedicated media platforms, and creating opportunities for interaction with the AGN, member state representatives and other relevant stakeholders,” says Nyambe.

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