An African perspective on climate change

Next week, world leaders will meet to discuss a post-Kyoto plan to address climate change. Here, Ghana’s high commissioner in London, Annan Cato, urges prompt action — and for African voices to be raised and listened to.

When the United Nations met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to deliberate on and sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, it seemed to delegates that what was being discussed then was relevant only in the dim and the distant future.  Climate change was then seen as an environmental concern with which people perceived to be overly serious like vice president Al Gore need bother with. If only they knew what has just occurred in Mexico, and earlier on in Africa, from west to east.

Well, now the stark consequences of excessive carbon dioxide emissions, the result of mankind’s reckless disregard for the atmosphere and the environment, are only just beginning to tell.  The ice is finally melting in the Arctic Circle. Uncontrollable drought one season in Africa, floods from the whole of Africa — from Ghana to Uganda — the next.  It is now time for serious work on the environment. And we cannot afford to tarry.

The Kyoto Protocol has indeed come into force.  But now how do we enforce it? Those who have contributed the most to global warming seem not to want to take responsibility. Other newly industrialised countries are unwilling to have their phenomenal and impressive development achievement held back. Global negotiations are again under way for a new and more enforceable framework by the end of 2009. The emerging economies, such as China, India and Brazil, are being impressed upon to make the necessary cuts.  But we cannot deny the fact that only 20 countries account for more than 80% of global carbon emissions. This is symptomatic of the world economic imbalance.

The global negotiations for the new agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol are under way, and we look forward to a global framework for action by the end of 2009.

It is pathetic that very little attention is paid to countries such as those in Africa, which have had little or no responsibility for greenhouse-gas emissions but now suffer the consequences. These effects take various forms – from direct impact, such as the droughts and floods of recent months — to the indirect, such as the unintended consequences of action being taken to cut emissions. These include the food-miles issue, as well as pressure to develop biofuels, with the potential loss of agricultural land, as well as possibilities for economic benefits. These are complex issues, with social and economic ramifications. They require long-range policies and detailed planning. And above all, it requires statesmanship and altruism of the highest order.

In the recent floods in east and west Africa, many hundreds of thousands of people were affected. In 12 countries — including Sudan and Ethiopia, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Ghana — some of the world’s poorest people lost their homes and livelihoods. 
The policy of determined self-help was a significant change from the past. Ghana’s National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) estimates that the floods have affected over 275,000 people in the Upper East, Upper West and Northern regions of the country, submerging major food-producing areas. Most of the affected people are displaced, although some are still remaining in what is left of their homes.

As usual, the positive benefits of effective local disaster preparations went unnoticed internationally. It was not recognised that Ghana, among other countries, was able to lead by its own efforts, without waiting for international help. What was put out was the desperation, which the floods occasioned.

All of these [events] make it imperative that the post-Kyoto agreement must advance cogent proposals to promote adaptation to climate change, with an acceptable regime for implementation. This is an issue not only of global justice but of survival. The damage has been done by some of the world’s most powerful countries, but the worst effects are felt by many of the world’s most vulnerable countries.

In Ghana, much of the work towards a comprehensive Environmental Protection Law is still work in progress. Our National Environmental Policy and National Environment Action Plan seek:

• to maintain ecosystems and ecological processes essential for the functioning of the biosphere;

• to ensure sound management of natural resources and the environment;

• to protect human, animal and plant life with respect to biodiversity conservation;

• to minimise pollution and public nuisance arising out of development activities.

The food-miles issue, which has arisen over the last few months, is a case in point, where the British are rightly concerned about the amounts of carbon they emit. British emissions per head are well above the global average and many times those of an average Ghanaian. What is the solution proposed? Reduce sales of air-freighted goods from Africa, thereby shaving a thin slice off UK carbon emissions.

The [UK] Soil Association has even proposed a new policy to remove its stamp certifying organic production from air-freighted fruit and vegetables. The British public, government and press have demonstrated their great sympathy for Africa, but the Soil Association and leading retailers can do much damage with their power to ban imports. Are they well intentioned or simply protecting subsidised British farmers?

This approach, we feel, is grossly unfair and will affect Ghana’s farming communities badly. The emissions saved are miniscule – less than 0.1% of the UK’s emissions relate to this kind of air freight — and there are many other ways for the British shoppers to reduce their carbon footprint, without damaging the livelihoods of thousands of poor African farming families.

A recent Financial Times article showed that the carbon emissions associated with air-freighted food represent less than 1% of emissions associated with food transport in the UK – far, far more carbon is emitted by supermarket lorries [trucks] using the motorway, and from driving our cars to the supermarket.

We do understand, of course, that our friends here are anxious to make a difference. However, the figures simply don’t add up. At what cost to global justice do we shut the door on the economic prospects of small farmers in Africa by refusing to buy their produce? Ghana has been developing a trade in export of our organic and fair-trade produce to Britain and elsewhere. This has grown considerably and is providing incomes and jobs for many people.

Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions must be done in a fair, scientific and rational way –making cuts at the expense of the world’s poorest is not only unjust, it’s a bad basis for building the international consensus needed for a global deal on climate change. We are all extremely worried about the consequences of climate change today, and in the future. The longer we take to reach an effective set of targets, the more damage will be caused.

In addition to the challenges, there are also the increasing opportunities for trade in carbon services. Our forestry experts and scientists point to significant potential, under the Kyoto Protocol, for the sub-Saharan Africa forest industry effectively to manage its natural resources and reduce poverty.

The Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) is one of three mechanisms under the Kyoto Protocol that allows industrialised countries to meet greenhouse-gas reduction obligations by investing in emission-reducing projects in developing countries. Under this plan, countries like Ghana could implement projects to “sink” carbon as an alternative to more costly emission reductions in countries like the UK. To date, however, few sub-Saharan African countries have had access to the CDM due to the highly complex and bureaucratic procedures involved.

In this year of our golden jubilee, Ghana is determined to continue to develop government thinking on this issue and a major aid-effectiveness conference is being planned to take place in Accra in September 2008. These are occasions when African voices can be heard, giving strong leadership and championing excellence in the interests of the world’s poor.

Meetings like this symposium are very important — bringing together, as they have, the best of international thinkers, at home and in the diaspora. Africans must use the abundant talent which we have — in the arts, architecture, science and technology — to lead by example and prepare international strategies to tackle climate change. 


Annan Cato is Ghana’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland. He delivered this address at the Royal African Society’s symposium “Melting the Ice: African Perspectives on Climate Change” on November 7, 2007. The event brought together a cross-disciplinary group of musicians, artists, scientists, architects, planners and politicians to discuss the impact of climate change on Africa.

Homepage photo by Abby Chicken