Environmental Law and Policy in Namibia: Towards Making Africa the Tree of Life (Third Edition)


Nicole Bogott and Lesley-Anne van Wyk

1 Introduction

The purpose of this sub-chapter1 is to shed light on Africa’s participation in the international climate negotiations. Some of the challenges and asymmetries are noted regarding African climate policy-making within a complex and constantly changing global climate change political system.

Climate change is considered as one of the major challenges of the 21st century, posing threats to humankind, and undermining efforts to achieve key development goals including poverty reduction. It is one of the severe impediments to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and sustainable development aspirations globally, regionally and nationally for many countries. There is now sufficient scientific evidence and consensus that climate change is caused and particularly exacerbated by human activities. This is mainly through the burning of fossil fuels and changes in land use patterns due to rapid economic growth, related changes in lifestyles, rapid increases in human population, and the growing fuel and resource needs to meet these development imperatives. In addition, these may also be compounded by natural climate variability.

Climate change has and will have profound impacts on peoples’ livelihoods, economic growth, and ecosystems. However, the effects and impacts of climate change on economies and societies will vary greatly over the world, and each country’s circumstances, such as initial climate, socio-economic situation, and growth prospects, will define and shape the extent of climate change effects on societies, both in economic and environmental terms.2 The global average (land and ocean) surface temperature shows a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C in the period 1880 to 2012, based on multiple independently produced datasets.3 The global average temperature increase exceeded 0.7°C in eleven of the last twelve years (1995-2006) ranking among the 12 warmest years of global surface temperature since 1850.4

Developing countries are most vulnerable, particularly those in Africa, largely because of their geographic exposure, relatively small economies (meaning low adaptive capacity to climate change impacts), prevailing low levels of household incomes, and greater reliance on climate sensitive sectors such as rain-fed agriculture and ecosystem or nature based production activities (e.g. tourism).

The African continent is particularly exposed and vulnerable to adverse shifts in climatic patterns, with a dry climate in many areas and populations highly dependent on agriculture and natural resources. Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate variability and change because of multiple existing stresses and low adaptive capacity. Existing stresses include poverty, political conflicts, and ecosystem degradation. Some effects are already felt in some countries (reduced and irregular rainfall, soil degradation and degradation of other environmental assets).

The risks and the vulnerabilities of populations to climate change impacts vary across regions of the continent. Considering the generally high levels of vulnerability of many African countries (notably with regards to agriculture, food security, water security and social cohesion), Africa has a major interest in an international regime that curbs Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions.

The first section of this paper will provide a background on international climate negotiations. The section thereafter will summarise how the African continent has positioned itself in these deliberations in the recent past and the asymmetries of power that characterise the climate change negotiation floor. Section four of this paper offers insight into how a vast continent with diverse countries facing a variety of different challenges are making progress to unite and speak with one voice on the international climate change negotiation floor.

2 Background

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an international environmental treaty (also known as a multilateral environmental agreement) that was opened for signature at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and came into force in 1994. The ultimate objective of the Convention is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. It states that such a level should be achieved within a time-frame sufficient to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner. To date, the UNFCCC counts 196 parties “showing near universal agreement that there is a problem and that action is required against climate change”.5

Countries normally negotiate as blocks of countries to strengthen their positions. It is challenging, however, to obtain a single view among the developing nations given the vast differences in circumstance, resources and potential impacts of climate change. All decisions resulting from the negotiation process, such as the Kyoto Protocol, are consensual decisions. In other words, every single word, sentence and table in the documents that constitute the Convention has been agreed by all parties. This goes some way to explaining why these decisions take years to negotiate as each country pushes its national interests.

The climate negotiations are a superb example of the way international relations are at work. Many aspects of the negotiations highlight how power is distributed and negotiated in the world. By analysing the way the international discussions were conducted in the past it becomes quite clear what kind of interests and alliances different participating parties have. At times it appears that economic and political self-interests that go beyond the issue of a clean climate are at the forefront of negotiations pushing aside the common global goal of reaching consensus for the sake of a clean environment that would benefit everyone. Numerous climate policy analysts think that more than three decades of climate negotiations show that narratives of present costs and future benefits of climate policy simply do not produce the political-will for serious emissions reductions.6

The world is split. On the one hand there are countries that are industrialised. The regions referred to are mainly Western nations such as European countries, the US as well as Australia.

These have been and still are heavily polluting the planet in the course of their industrialisation. Their advantage is that it easy for them to adapt to changes in the atmosphere. On the other hand there are industrialising countries of the global South. Some of them have the means to adapt to climate change, while others are particularly vulnerable. African countries contribute marginally towards climate change while at the same time carrying the biggest burden. This is why African negotiators emphasise their right to industrialise in negotiations. They do not want the issue of climate change to hamper their own economies to emerge.7 This points to one of the fundamental issues within the negotiations which is that political tensions persist between economic growth and development on the one hand, and environmental sustainability on the other.8

As these tensions show, more than technical solutions are required. Reaching an effective international agreement requires trade-offs between competing policy objectives. 9 In formulating climate policies, countries face trade-offs between short-term economic objectives and long-term social and environmental sustainability goals. Developing countries in particular face such trade-offs, although in their case economic development and poverty reduction remain paramount objectives. The international community faces trade-offs between investing in mitigation and adaptation. On the basis of historical responsibilities for GHG emissions and current capabilities, countries have to determine their respective contributions to climate change mitigation, the amount of resources transferred from developed to developing countries, and the role that emerging economies should play in reducing GHG emissions and assisting poorer countries. In other words, international climate policy hinges on trade-offs and has distributional consequences that have to be negotiated.

Rapidly evolving geopolitical and economic circumstances pose challenges to the negotiating parties. The steady rebalancing of economic activity from the West to Asia and the financial and economic crises that have affected the United States (US) and European Union (EU) economies have altered the landscape of the international climate negotiations and somewhat diminished the capabilities of many developed countries to lead a global green growth policy agenda. In these circumstances, to make ambitious commitments to reduce GHG emissions, parties have to be confident that other nations will act upon their commitments and assume their fair shares of the burden. Strong, consensus-based institutions are needed to establish mutual confidence.

3 Parallels and Asymmetries: Africa in the Global Climate Change Arena

An important aspect to consider when assessing the African position in the international climate negotiations is the international framework itself the different states are operating in. The internal makeup of the negotiations can have an effect on the way the negotiations take place and what impact negotiations may have. Often the negotiations process has been completely ignored, as well as “...significant characteristics like information asymmetry, countries heterogeneity, or even the possibilities of renegotiation.”10 International negotiations, especially climate change negotiations, take a great deal of time to conclude and these delays in negotiations have often been used to take advantage and to gain better knowledge of the characteristics of the opponent.11

The initial situation many African countries find themselves in is an asymmetrical one. One such asymmetry pointed out by Caparros et al. that characterises the negotiations is the presence of asymmetry of information about the capacities of the South to reduce their emissions.12 While many African countries are still industrialising, their contribution to climate change is as a matter of fact marginal compared to industrialised countries. At the same time, African nations carry the biggest burden when it comes to climate change because African nations are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures.

An unanswered question for many African nations is the one of financial compensation for natural, economic and social resources that have been lost and the historical responsibility of developed countries with regard to climate change has been of emphasis by the African Union (AU) in particular.13 According to Caparros et al., it is fortunate that the Global North, led by the European Union, “has recognized its historical responsibility … and should be ready to compensate the South in some way for accepting limitations to their urgently needed development.”14 According to Klinsky, fairness is essential in climate policy, as “parties’ ideas of fairness are likely to be rooted in geopolitical and economic desires and concerns, historical narratives, and experiences of both interdependence with and independence from others.”15

Another important factor depicting asymmetries and parallels is the way negotiating delegations from African countries are composed. According to Deressa, Africa needs to invest in increasing the number and capacity of its delegates involved in the negotiations to effectively address and represent African priorities. He suggests that African governments should organise a training and capacity-building forum for the current and potential future delegates / negotiators of the Africa Group of Negotiators (AGN).16

At the negotiations, African nations are often prone to international pressures on them that are tied to foreign aid. These tensions between domestic and collective interests at international climate negotiations are not only common to African parties but are especially reflected in African nations that focus on their own national and regional political and economic agendas rather than on the content of negotiations themselves. Hoste and Anderson exposed that “leaked diplomatic documents show American and European political and financial pressure on Africa.”17 The way in which this is done is by linking the official agreement or treaty to come of that year’s negotiation process to development efforts. As a response to international pressures, the African position at COP15 was to make sure that funds would be made available for Africa to deal with the consequences of climate change largely caused by Western nations.18 Furthermore, it has been shown that in general, Africa’s voice in international negotiations has been very limited.19 The continent has struggled to actually influence global policies to tackle challenges particular to the continent.20 One of the main reasons for that is an internal fragmentation that becomes visible at the negotiations. Due to differentiated implications of climate change within the continent consolidation becomes more difficult. Fragmentation can be dealt with in various ways. The principle of subsidiarity could be a way forward in that all programmes and activities are undertaken at levels where they can be best handled as well as ensuring regional or transboundary initiatives add value to member states’ individual interventions and actions. In this way tackling the challenge to allocate environmental issues towards the correct level of governance, as these issues are inherently complex and overlap ecological, geopolitical and sectoral boundaries.

There is a direct link between poverty and the ability to respond to climate change. When populations are extremely poor they lack the capacities to shield themselves from powerful effects of climate change such as extreme drought and flooding. The groups of people that are generally most marginalised in all societies are children, the elderly and women. Social safety nets and a greater empowerment of the poor could serve as a basis for these members of society to reduce vulnerability to climate change. One way forward as proposed by Deressa, is the integration of the poor into national or regional commodity value chains.21

In addition to the crippling impact of poverty on the continent, there is a strong link between addressing climate change and having existing economic development and innovation to do so. That is why the other great need for Africa is to strengthen adaptation efforts by the Convention. Madziwa calls for Africa to lobby much stronger for “enhanced support for adaptation finance, technology support and including the issue of establishing mechanisms to address the current loss and damage from extreme climatic events.”22 It is therefore imperative for African countries to turn available economic pathways into sustainable ones with the assistance of developed countries.

4 Consolidating the ‘African Voice’

The Africa Group of Negotiators (AGN), also known as the ‘Africa Group’, is a coalition of African states that works through the G7723 in order to negotiate the best possible decisions for the continent. It is the only active regional group that participates in international environmental negotiations. It has been highlighted by experts that developing country negotiators often enter meetings and forums without clear political directives from their relevant governments.24 This was a challenge until recently, when the continent strengthened its climate change architecture with positive results for the Africa group.25 So typically in the current set up, countries first develop their national positions through cross-sectoral consultations and these positions are what feed up into the AGN who then consolidate positions from African parties to all Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

The African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) is the current structure that guides the group and is a permanent forum where African Ministers of Environment discuss matters of relevance to the environmental affairs of the continent. The conference is convened every second year and the mandate and priorities of AMCEN are translated into a continental position which is presented to international environmental meetings by the AGN.26 This group of people is tasked with representing their own country positions, the continental position, and of course that of the G77. The position known as the African Common Position on Environment and Development (Common Position) was initially adopted in 1989 and focused on poverty eradication and environment as two intertwined issues but more recently, the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC) was formed. It is important to note that 2009 was the first time the African union (AU) presented a clear signal to the continent and the world that it had reached an African consensus on the issues of climate change, an important step given that the mandate to all representatives was now clear.27

To deal with a wide range of technical matters, the Chair of the AGN (which rotates every two years) relies on ‘lead coordinators’ who represent the AGN in the various work streams of the UNFCCC (mitigation, adaptation, climate finance, technology, and so forth). 28 These coordinators provide guidance to the country delegations and try to harmonise their views so as to reach clear, common positions, which is a challenging task given the diversity of African countries in terms of exposure to climate change, vulnerability, culture, achieving developmental objectives.29 The task of reviewing the many submissions of parties in all work streams and obtaining input from AGN members is particularly burdensome for the Chair and the lead coordinators. High staff turnover in country delegations, the lack of available experts, and language barriers further complicate the work of the AGN.30

As mentioned, having to reach consensus with all the stakeholders present can pose a serious challenge in the speed and efficiency of the negotiations themselves. It can be very difficult to get consensus from all 196 parties. This leads to further fragmentation in negotiation groups, in which certain states again gain a greater leverage by being part of many sub-negotiations. Abusing the notion of reaching consensus is luckily not the case for African nations, who have not exploited these diplomatic opportunities as other nation-states have. Yet African nations are also impacted by the behaviours of other nations.

Another challenge towards successful negotiations is the absence of an international enforcement body. “The absence of an international enforcement body has left promises made in most of these international agreements largely unfulfilled.”31 Equally, the absence of binding targets for developing countries was one of the main arguments used by President Bush to reject the Kyoto Protocol.32 “… The US was not supportive of Ethiopia’s proposal for a panel to monitor financial pledges regarding climate change.”33

Another issue when it comes to the international framework is that the negotiations are led by states only. Yet there are other transnational polluters such as transnational corporations (TNCs), which have to be taken into account in any serious effort towards a cleaner environment. Jaeger suggests the establishment of green growth clubs, which includes a formal status for transnational clusters of heterogeneous agents (governments, businesses, trade unions, NGOs, universities etc.) jointly pursuing a non-climate goals in such a way as to reduce GHG emissions.34

5 Conclusion

Given the complexities of international climate negotiations and the interacting continental dynamics in Africa, a multi-level focus that incorporates national level analysis of the policy context within which climate change responses are enacted is needed.


1 A shorter version of this sub-chapter was originally published in AMEZ / Arguments and Materials for Development Cooperation No. 16, Climate Change – Political Implications And Social Distorsions.

2 Stern (2006).

3 IPCC (2013:5)

4 Ibid.

5 See https://www.wmo.int/pages/themes/climate/international_unfccc.php; accessed 27 October 2015.

6 Jaeger (2014:6).

7 Hoste / Anderson (2011).

8 De Coninck / Sagar (2014:3).

9 Tondel et al. (2015).

10 Caparros et al. (2004:4).

11 Ibid:3.

12 Ibid:19.

13 Hoste / Anderson (2011).

14 Caparros et al. (2004:2).

15 Klinsky (2014:11).

16 Deressa (2014).

17 Hoste / Anderson (2011:2).

18 Ibid.

19 Tondel et al. (2015).

20 Deressa (2014).

21 Deressa (2014).

22 Madziwa (undated:2).

23 Negotiations take place among 196 parties making it impossible for countries to negotiate individually Coalitions come together in various ways. They can be power-based such as the G77+China, which is actually 130 countries, issue-specific such as the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), institutionalised or formal such as the European Union (EU), or constructed. There is no formal process for establishing these groups. Parties decide to form them, and inform the Conference of Parties (COP) Bureau, the Subsidiary Bodies (SBs) or the secretariat. They meet informally during sessions of the COP or the SBs. Their purpose is to exchange information on common issues and in some instances develop and agree on common positions.

24 Richards (2001).

25 Makina (2013).

26 UNEP (2009).

27 Hoste (2009); AU / AMCEN (2009).

28 Tondel et al. (2015:12).

29 Ibid.

30 Makina (2013).

31 Madziwa (undated:4).

32 Caparros et al. (2004).

33 Hoste / Anderson (2011:2).

34 Jaeger (2014).