Resources & Climate

An African Union? The Shortcomings of Africa’s Strategy in Copenhagen

in Program

By Corey Sobel – Leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa adopted a unified negotiating stance at the recently-completed climate change talks in Copenhagen. Before the talks began, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki said that “[w]e have to speak with one voice on climate change because the rest of the world should be made to understand what we want.”[1] This stance was built around a single, irrefutable tenet: Africa has contributed the least to the rise in global temperatures (responsible for only 3.8% of worldwide green house gas emissions) and yet stands to suffer climate change’s worst effects.

This strategy was understandable for several reasons. African countries can indeed claim, across the board, that they are not responsible for the various climate calamities that have already befallen them. Further, as a negotiating tactic, speaking with a single voice allowed many poor, politically weak countries to pair up with stronger countries such as South Africa. Before the talks began, a Kenyan MP said that “in the past, we have been negotiating separately…our voices were in the process drowned and nobody was taking us seriously. This time, things are very different.”[2]  Simultaneously, those stronger countries which are already serious emitters-again, South Africa-were able to claim they have development demands that make their priorities more in line with other African countries than developed ones.

Copenhagen proved to be chaotic at best: the U.S. and China spent the majority of the conference haggling over monitoring emissions while many developing countries complained that their voices were being ignored. The result of years of negotiations was a paltry three-page document called the Copenhagen Accord. Article 8 of the agreement outlines a plan to give the neediest countries $30 billion in adaptation and mitigation aid by 2012 and $100 billion in annual aid by 2020-this despite the fact that African leaders have estimated their continent alone requires $67 billion in annual funding. [3] 

The West is not solely to blame: Africa’s unified stance has led industrialized countries to treat it as a single entity that can be aided en masse. This over-generalization is evident in the language of the Accord: the promised $100 billion will be prioritized for “least developed countries, small island developing states, and Africa.”[4]

To refer to Africa in this way is to gloss over the complexity of the continent’s climate problems. Africa’s small island and littoral states are already grappling with the damage caused by Sea Level Rise and will face harsher and more unpredictable weather. East African nations have already endured drought-linked food and water shortages as well as the converse problem of heavier, more unpredictable El Nino rains. And deforestation, though a problem throughout Africa, poses especially significant threats to countries that depend on forests for water catchments and livelihoods, including Kenya’s Mau Forest.

Further, the Accord does not explain how the billions of dollars of aid will be raised-this is a complex issue that will require strong, sustained oversight. If Africa continues to encourage funders to treat it as a monolithic place, then it runs the risk of encouraging unfocused, scattershot support from the international community. The UN’s Least Developed Countries Fund should serve as a warning about the West’s short attention span: though created in 2001, the Fund has only managed to raise $176 million of the needed $1.5 billion for climate change support in the world’s 49 Least Developed Countries.[5] 

As the next round of negotiations begins, African leaders need to seriously rethink the way in which they frame their needs. They must provide developed countries with a clear agenda that will ensure climate-related African problems won’t transform into international crises.

In short, a kind of triage needs to be performed that identifies those issues that are both pressing for the African continent and crucial to international security. By providing a relatively short and focused list of such issues, African and international leaders can come up with more exact funding figures that can ensure the most pressing issues are indeed addressed.

One important place to start is to better protect The Congo River Basin, home to the world’s second-largest rainforest. The Congo Basin serves as a crucial carbon sink (i.e. the forest’s trees store carbon that would, if cut down, release massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.) The basin is also a major shaper of global weather patterns and a source of sustenance for millions of Africans. Paradoxically, the war and instability that has marred countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for the past ten years also helped to preserve the forest by keeping it relatively uninhabited. But the prospect of peace in much of DRC means that agriculture will expand-and, with it, the potential for deforestation and environmental degradation.[6]

Perhaps the single best outcome of Copenhagen is that the Accord specifically identifies the UN Program for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD-plus) as needing immediate funding.[7] REDD-plus will set up a system by which countries are compensated for protecting important carbon sinks. But it will take several more rounds of negotiations to hammer out how REDD will work in practice-African leaders need to devote significant energy to selling and gaining support for this project.[8]

Another urgent issue is providing support to Sub-Saharan Africa’s most developed country, which is also the continent’s biggest carbon emitter: South Africa. As Copenhagen began, South Africa announced it would attempt to reduce 34% of its emissions by 2020.[9] This is not an insignificant commitment, given that South Africa now emits as much CO2 as many European countries.[10] But the pervasive poverty that the South African government is struggling to address is sapping the resources also needed for fighting climate change. Pretoria will need substantial money and expertise to make sure it can mitigate its emissions and help its 50 million citizens adapt to the effects of global warming. Given South Africa’s vital role as an economic and political stabilizer for the continent, the U.S. would do well to help ensure South Africa’s environmental stability.

These salient examples illustrate how both African and US negotiators should conceptualize climate aid to Africa-start with specific cases and tailor funding to specific strategies.[11]  

In many ways, Africa’s unified strategy has been heartening, and shows that a politically fractious continent can indeed rally around a single, crucial cause. But the fact also is that Africa’s stance began to show fissures toward the end of Copenhagen. South Africa had an important role in shaping the Accord while small African nations accused its larger neighbors of kowtowing to Western interests.  As the negotiations wear on, this coalition will continue to break down according to issue and political strength. This inevitable fracturing is natural, but the problem being addressed is too urgent for African leaders to continue making unspecified demands for the sake of seeming unified.

[1] Afrol News, “Kibaki appeals for unity ahead of global summit”, October 15 2009.

[2] Dave Opiyo, “Kenya MP says climate deal unlikely”, December 8 2009.

[3] Servaas van den Bosch, “Climate Change: Jockeying for Position in Copenhagen” Inter Press Service, November 2 2009.

[4] United Nations, Copenhagen Accord, December 18 2009.

[5] See IRIN, “Not much money to help many poor adapt”, December 6 2009.

[6] For a discussion of the negative aspects of peace in DRC, see Tony Gambino, “Congo: Securing Peace, Sustaining Progress” Council on Foreign Relations, October 2008.

[7] See Elizabeth Rosenthal “Climate Talks Near Deal to Save Forests” The New York Times, December 16 2009.

[8] For an overview of the Congo Basin Forests Partnership, see William Minter, “Africa: Copenhagen 2009 – Averting Dangers of Climate Change in Africa”, November 20 2009 ( and African Development Bank, “Interview with Anthony Okon Nyong…” July 12 2009 ( For an overview of the need for protecting “intact ecosystems” such as the Congo Basin, see Nikita Lopoukhine, “Act Naturally” The New York Times, November 8 2009.

[9] See BBC News, “South Africa to cut carbon by 34%”, December 7 2009.

[10] For statistics on South Africa’s emissions relative to other countries, see The New York Times, “Copenhagen: Treaties, Emissions and Impacts” retrieved November 20 2009.

[11] Of course, there are myriad other, smaller issues that also need to be addressed so that they don’t themselves turn into large disasters (an example is improving the adaptive capacities of East African governments as they grapple with increased drought.)

photo credit: Oxfam International via Flickr,


Corey Sobel is a Research Associate with the Stimson Center’s Environmental Security program.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices