COP26: Not a problem for Africa but a problem for Africa

The chilling tale of the apocalypse fills ears to dazzling levels. Its catastrophic impact on life as we know it has been heralded and recycled a multitude of times; the danger of not acting endangers the life of the unborn child, and even humanity itself. I’m talking of course about climate change, pollution, ozone and all that. Teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg rose to fame for the simplest act of rallying schoolchildren to a protest march in her hometown of Stockholm, Sweden, in 2018, which has now become a global phenomenon. The Paris Agreement, United Nations resolutions and other grandiose declarations have been made, yet more is demanded. The “26th Conference of the Parties” (COP26 for short), which takes place in Scotland, the UK is a rallying point for leaders around the world to cajole, castigate and denounce the biggest and lightest polluters in order to encourage them to take more action. However, many people in this part of the world have heard the cacophony of noise around climate change over the past three decades and have wondered what does this have to do with us? Even the smartest and most observant of us felt the issue was quite heavy and, frankly, unrelated to Africa’s immediate priorities. Why should anyone on this continent be worried about a catastrophe that should – maybe, maybe not – happen within the next two centuries, as our people starve to death in this century, here and now ?

We are asked to start thinking about saving the plants and animals of the forest on an empty stomach. Is it realistic? Do we not have a more immediate moral obligation to first improve the lives and livelihoods of the needy and miserable of the earth? Why should Africa, which has the least adverse effects on the climate (less than 3%), be tarred with the same brush and burdens that create most of the pollutants; the industrial giants of the East and the West? As you can guess, this week’s column is written with some reluctance. More like an opportunity to register a protest, albeit a different kind of protest against global protests. Then again, on second thought, there may be a point in the climate change debate for Africa after all. Thus, it is better to educate yourself by reading a lot more on the subject and the scientific argument, far from the anguish, the foam and the draft of the militants who make the headlines, of which a large part aims to awaken (some say blackmail) imprudent to join the circus “save the planet”. Circus? Yes, this is what it feels like if you live in the slums and villages of Africa with no water, no lights, no tarred roads, and certainly no green or manicured western lawns to speak of. The environment to which the majority of the population is exposed, in our own backyard, leaves room for only the darkest pessimism. The logic of climate change forces us to think of the future while the daily need for survival in Africa forces us to think only of the moment. This reality lasts a lifetime, it is set in stone for most of the people around us for eternity. Only a full stomach thinks about tomorrow. There is no consumerism but chronic poverty to be stopped in Africa. That there can never be an African “Greta Thunberg” is not without reason.

In terms of scientific content and breadth of coverage, Rick Steiner’s “Oasis Earth,” Cirque Press, 2020, was one of the most refreshing on the subject that I have come across. The earth is on a rotating tectonic plate. Its axis of rotation is optimal of 23.5 degrees due to its early impact with the planet

Theia about 4.4 billion years ago. This is, we are told, what has given rise to cyclical seasons and prevents the planet’s surface from reaching extreme temperatures. The earth thus has a “stable and optimal period of rotation, preventing one side of the planet from getting too hot and the other too cold”. It is precisely this fragile balance that is threatened today by human activity. And this is also where politics get caught up in the debate. Some influential politicians such as former US President Donald Trump believe that human activity has nothing to do with climate change; everything is happening exactly as nature intended it to be. Most other world leaders couldn’t disagree more.

They, like many scientists around the world, believe that against all odds, life shouldn’t even exist, but it only exists against all odds. Rising temperatures, caused by the use of oil, gas and coal for homes, factories and transportation, threaten aspects of human life. When these fossil fuels burn, they release greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide. The gases then trap the heat of the sun, causing the temperature of the planet to rise. This would make some areas uninhabitable as agricultural land would turn into deserts in the near future. At least 550 species could become extinct this century if no action is taken.

COP26 is asking nearly 200 countries for their emission reduction plans. Many have committed to net zero by around 2060. It is good news that more than 120 world leaders have turned up to announce their commitments and efforts. The irony is that China was absent from the rally. Russia too. The five biggest polluters are China, the United States, the EU, India and Russia. These countries account for over 80% of ozone layer emissions. Dependence on fossil fuels is the primary reduction and ultimately elimination goal. Oil, gas and coal have been the engines of Western industrialization, which other countries have been copying for a century. China has used its highly skilled and massively cheap labor force not only to successfully compete with the West, but also to outperform it to such an extent that it is on the verge of overtaking the United States as a world’s largest economy in less than ten years. Western governments have been busy lecturing the country on its “expansionary agenda” in its “Belt and Road” initiative designed to export Chinese capital and influence around the world. The conference also extends to Russia, but on its “authoritarianism” and its “violations of human rights”. The two nuclear-powered countries would not be lectured on global warming by the same crop of nations that designed it in the first place.

COP26 and other declarations and commitments by major industrial nations cannot be applied consistently, by any stretch of the imagination. Africa cannot stop relying on fossil fuels without having the capacity for financially prohibitive alternatives. Therefore, why not wait for the continent to reach the current standard of living of developed nations, on current resources first, then they too can afford the luxury of a green economy and reduced emissions? of CO2? It’s a decidedly easy argument, of course. The real solution, dare I say it, is the massive transfer of technology from the West to the South. This would catapult the South to the same scientific and technological level to enable it to achieve self-sufficiency, with the concomitant ability to compete on an equal footing henceforth. That would not happen either, for that would be asking for a free lunch in a capitalist market. Africa cannot develop by drawing more on current energy resources without accumulating more man-made damage on an already severely damaged planet. Meanwhile, the planet cannot be saved for future generations with an impoverished Africa – a fifth of humanity – trapped inside.

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