PLACARDS, BANNERS AND POSTERS of protesters may or may not be obvious or ubiquitous in November in Egypt in a manner reminiscent of the Battle of Seattle, a series of protests that marred the November 1999 World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Washington State in the US. Rather, there may be protests right within the event venue from among the participants at this year’s climate conference, known as Conference of Parties (COP) 27. The reasons may not be far-fetched. One of them could be circumstantial; another could be temporal, spatial or ideological. The success and the prospects of globalisation after the fall of Berlin Wall appeared to have caused a stir and apprehension in the camp of climate-conscious actors, culminating in the Seattle debacle. More attention was being focused on environmental and economic injustice as parts of the effects of the expanding global trade then. They have not even seen global trade in practice the way it later turned out to be 20 years afterwards. The protesters, numbering between 50,000 and 70,000, made up of a coalition of environmentalists, labour unions, indigenous groups, civil society, politicians, international NGOs, and students succeeded in shutting down the WTO conference, especially when their peaceful protest turned violent. Their fear then was on the anticipated ill effects of ascendant corporate-led globalisation in the new millennium.
Circumstantially, those who went away dissatisfied that their expectations were not met at Glasgow should be expected to come to Sharm El Sheikh with greater force, passion and determination, including – if need be – of protesters that may come and heckle, dance and play the roles of disrupters. With the relative quiescence of the WTO over the past years, it was not surprising that its 12th Ministerial Conference in Geneva earlier this year in June – to review the functioning of the multilateral trading system – was hardly noticed and went without ruffling feathers, unlike the one held 23 years earlier in 1999 in Seattle, intended to kick off global trade negotiations for the new millennium. On the temporal and spatial consideration, the location for this year’s COP27 may have been deliberately chosen as a secluded place, to avoid interference from non-participants and disrupters. However, the location – for its proximity to Suez Canal – turns out to be a quick reminder of the six-day maritime hitch of March 2021 in which the canal was blocked for six days after the grounding of a 20,000 twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) container ship. The choice of Sharm El Sheik is, therefore, bound to spark off renewed conversation about global trade, logistics, supply chain, maritime industry and environmental pollution, including the sea ecosystem. How well the maritime industry has adapted to the climate ideals currently being pursued will be a focus for discussion – albeit at the sidelines – as participants view ship after ship passing through one of the world’s busiest maritime routes’ chokepoints – one that connects Asia to Europe through the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.
While the discussions on “phasing out” or “phasing down” of fossil fuel will take a centre stage, those with corporate “greenwashing” or “green sheen” missions will likely make their own appearances, ensure their voices are heard and pursue their agenda there. They are expected to come under the guise of eco-friendliness, organic products, sustainable products or services, or any other description that sounds environmentally correct, even if only merely for convenience. They are likely to be in the mainstream because of the need to swell the ranks of climate-conscious advocates. Groups like the Extinction Rebellion, a global environmental movement established October 2018, may find their ways to Sharm El Sheik, urging others to embark on nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse. The infiltration of the ranks of climate activists and advocates by other unrelated interests is now an issue of interest and concern. Gender activists, political activists and critical race theorists are among the growing number of such opportunistic groups, latching upon the trending sentiments on the environment. It is hoped that the divergent – but sometimes hidden – agenda of some of these tangential groups would not overshadow or detract from the main purpose of achieving net-zero pollution in years ahead.
While voices in favour of all-or-none demand on clean energy will grow more strident at Sharm El Sheikh, any protest from Africa should be how the continent ought to shift more emphasis from jeopardy to lives, livelihoods, and the entire humanity in what appears like a reframing of what has been called people, planet and profit. For Africa, it should be about the brazen and unabated exploitation of the continent’s natural and human resources to the benefits of developed countries of Europe, Americas, the Oceania and some parts of Asia. It should be about limiting the uncontrolled exploitation of these resources by those developed countries, while leaving destruction and degradation in their trail. Carbon footprints alone will not be enough in any climate inventory effort. It should be about re-defining the flow of various forms of pollutants from the West to the continent of Africa, especially by air and by the ocean in what constitutes borderless transfer of pollution. It should also be about the Rotterdam Convention that entered into force in 2004, which aims to promote shared responsibility and cooperation among parties in respect of the international trade of certain hazardous chemicals, so as to protect human health and the environment from potential harm. It should be about safeguarding Niger Republic, the source of uranium exported to generate 50 percent of France’s electricity supply. It should be about rescuing DR Congo from the stranglehold of China in the extraction, processing and export of cobalt for powering electric vehicles in China.
We now know that fossil fuel will not go away too soon but will still supply most of the world’s energy needs as it still presently does. While coal consumption may be phased out much earlier, the reality is that oil and gas will outlast it and linger much longer. Fossil fuel will still largely remain the limiting factor for – and a major determinant of – the swing in global economy; the US government under Joe Biden that hurriedly cancelled the XL Keystone pipeline project in its first few days in power is now having to embark on diplomatic shuttles on oil supplies and pricing for the benefit of his country. The EU bloc is making spirited efforts at finding alternatives to Russia in the supply of gas that is desperately needed, at least in the short term, in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU needed alternative gas replacements after it imposed oil embargo on Russia. Coincidentally, Egypt – the host of COP27 – is one major source with which the EU is signing a deal for gas supply as it did last June when Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission, visited. Hasty decisions on energy transition may therefore cause major dislocation in global economy and even result in greater environmental disruption. In the US and Germany, some environmental groups have been pressurising policymakers to shut down nuclear reactors as an energy source. Last year, on December 31, Germany closed half its remaining nuclear power plants. In reality, Europe’s biggest economy, muddling through ambitious climate targets and rising power prices, might have been embarking on a wrongheaded and hasty decision. The shutdowns of three plants took place as part of the country’s phase-out of nuclear energy just as Europe experiences one of its worst-ever energy crises. This was at a time the support for nuclear as a low carbon energy began to pick up once again after the 2011 phase-out decision by former German Chancellor Angela Markle following the tsunami-induced accident at the Fukushima coastal atomic power plant in Japan in the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl 25 years earlier.
It is now known that not every German government official is in support of a hasty shutdown of the nuclear plants as it has been argued that it would make sense “economically and ecologically” to delay the shutdown. However, the final phase-out has been officially scheduled for the end of 2022 as Germany moves towards completing its withdrawal from nuclear power and turns its focus to renewables. The World Nuclear Association has reportedly affirmed that nuclear produces no greenhouse gas emissions during operation and, over its life cycle, has similar carbon emissions as wind power. But the phase-out of an energy source deemed clean and cheap by some is now an irrevocable step for Germany as the last three nuclear power plants will be turned off by the end of 2022. This is happening when climate change is already negatively affecting hydropower generation – which is now down – in Europe, with the Rhine River decreasing in level and its capacity to support hydropower generation and the persistent shortage of water to cool nuclear power plants. In Portugal, the worst drought in 100 years has led to water reservoirs dropping to 29 percent capacity. Hydropower in Italy is reportedly down by 40 percent and production in France is down by 30 percent. Some Spanish hydro companies are producing 51 percent less electricity now compared to 2021. According to the European Drought Observatory, water shortages have been observed in about half of Europe as of this year as rivers dry up in parts of Europe. Rhine river level has been reduced, thus impairing shipping into Germany’s inland waterways and ships thus have to carry lighter weights. The effects on shipping affect the economy and have been devastating to the economy, as in 2018 when Rhine river reduction affected the economy via maritime, with billions of dollars in losses. The same type of impact has been felt in France and in the UK as drought declared in parts of the UK has been attributed to shortage of rain, resulting in crop failures and record high temperatures. Authorities in some parts of the UK have already imposed water restrictions. These look set to remain perennial in occurrence.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine will disrupt clean energy directly in many significant ways. The larger Europe may suffer more from the energy crisis following Russia’s missile attack on Ukraine’s Chernobyl plant and the threat it poses to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in southeastern Ukraine, which is the largest nuclear power plant in Europe and among the 10 largest in the world. It could be asked at this point whether “phasing out” or “phasing down” of some fossil fuel energy sources is the most appropriate or pragmatic step right now. The plights of Africans are very peculiar. African countries are yet to define and have a consensus on clear pathways for resolving climate crises within the continent, from intellectual, economic, social and political standpoints. This is problematic since, most of what is known so far about climate change and efforts toward mitigation and adaptation have emanated from outside the continent, as tools the thinkers, financiers, actors, advocates and activists adopt as templates or guidelines for their various intervention operations. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the impacts of climate change, and the vulnerability of poor communities vary greatly. Generally, climate change is superimposed on existing vulnerabilities and will further reduce access to drinking water, negatively affect the health of poor people, and will pose a real threat to food security in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In some areas where livelihood choices are limited, decreasing crop yields threaten famines, or where loss of landmass in coastal areas is anticipated, migration might be the only solution.
In OECD’s observation, some erroneously argue that there is no clear causal link between climate change and conflict or tensions, choosing rather to fit it into political, social, and environmental factors. Taken in isolation, conflict and climate change present immense challenges for poverty reduction – made even worse when they overlap. In fragile settings where governments have limited resources to manage crises and help their populations adapt, the adverse consequences associated with climate change – water scarcity, crop failure, food insecurity, economic shocks, migration, and displacement – can aggravate risks of conflict and violence. Thus, climate change can act as a threat multiplier both in the immediate and long term by intensifying contestation over scarce resources. A study on two local governments of Benue State in Nigeria from 110 farming households in Guma and Logo local government areas (LGA) revealed that over 90 percent experienced a high degree of exposure to conflict incidences such as destruction of properties, homelessness, and poor access to the market. In 2019, weather-related disasters were the key drivers of acute food insecurity for 34 million people in 25 countries. Eight of the worst food crises in 2019 were linked to climate shocks and conflict. Climate-related impacts on food security are especially acute in Africa and the Middle East.
Institutions and infrastructure for coping with climate change need to be in place in Africa. Coping with climate change cannot happen by wishful thinking. A stronger focus must be placed on poverty reduction and sustainable development as climate change can strain public institutions and trust in the state. Where Africa stands now will determine where it will sit in the future as the climate crisis gets worse. Is Africa truly prepared?
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