As efforts to reduce global emissions become more urgent, the mobilization of African climate initiatives is a beacon of hope. Through a combination of multinational and hyperlocal programs, African nations and their citizens showcase a unique action plan to combat climate change.
The Population With the Most At Stake
Nothing illustrates the current international community’s attitude towards African voices on climate change more than the case of Ugandan Climate Change Activist Vanessa Nakate. In January 2020, Nakate was invited to the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, and appeared in a picture along with other youth activists such as Greta Thunberg. When news coverage broke of this event, Nakate had been cropped out, leaving the four white activists in the frame. While this shows a clear act of racism and discrimination, Nakate’s experience is not unique. Historically, African voices have been cropped out of the climate conversation, in this case quite literally, and it is time for a change.
Africans will be among the world’s most affected by the impacts of climate change, therefore they should be at the center of the conversation. While it pollutes the least, Africa holds some of the world’s fastest rates of urbanization and has the largest percentage of youth with a quickly expanding population. Changing weather patterns mean an increase of uninhabitable heat, changes in rainfall patterns leading to increased rates of food insecurity, and even border conflicts. In West Africa, the desertification of once lush regions as the Sahara Desert expands south has pushed nomadic peoples into sometimes violent conflict with landowners in countries like Mali and Burkina Faso. Based on current emission standards, the children born in sub-Saharan Africa since 2016 will face nearly 6 times the amount of extreme weather events, and 50 times as many heat waves as previous generations. For Africans, climate change is more than just an abstract discussion, it is tangibly impacting their way of life every day.
According to the United Nations, Africa’s share of the global population is projected to grow from 17 percent in 2017, to around 26 percent in 2050. Climate change and global emission caps do not respect borders. If we focus only on targeting the biggest polluters in the present day, an opportunity may be missed to ensure developing African nations do not surpass these nations in the future. Currently, Africa’s 54 countries contribute only 2-3 percent of global carbon emissions, but at the same time, they are economically dependent on fossil fuels. While this is negligible now, as the population of Africa expands and develops more urban cities, its carbon footprint will grow. Through a mixture of large-scale international initiatives and grassroots youth engagement, Africa is evolving to be at the forefront of many innovative climate initiatives.
Uniquely Multinational Initiatives
International climate initiatives in Africa are both a necessity and an innovation. Due to the drastically different conditions in each nation, and varying degrees of government support for climate initiatives, the most effective projects rely on a unique web of private actors, state organizations, and independent individuals. One such project is known as the Great Green Wall Initiative which was launched by the African Union in 2007. The Wall aims to establish an 8000km barrier of vegetation along the border of the Sahara Desert to combat desertification. The Sahara Desert is “expanding southward at a rate of 48 kilometers a year.” The Great Green Wall plans to stretch across the Sahel-Sahara region —Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Senegal— and seeks to replant and grow a living barrier of trees and vegetation to stop the expansion of the desert. This initiative seeks to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land and create 10 million green jobs by 2030. The initiative has entered a new phase with partners pledging more than USD 14 billion in international finance over the next five years.
The Great Green Wall serves two agendas, environmental preservation, and community building. The BBC has reported that improvements in land quality and economic opportunity in Mali may help curb terrorism in the country. In Northern Cameroon where there has been fighting and bloodshed for years due to Boko Haram and other separatist groups, a group of nearly 70,000 refugees in the Minawao Refugee camp have planted over 360,000 seedlings on more than 100 hectares of land with the support of the Great Green Wall initiative. Not only have these refugees been able to reverse any burden they may have put on the environment by settling in the region, but they have also planted enough vegetation to completely transform the soil. This allows them to be able to grow their own food and sustain themselves. This project’s ability to allow people fleeing from conflict to provide for themselves on their own terms, while simultaneously repairing the environment sets an example for future projects.
African Youth Driving the Conversation
Just as Vanessa Nakate was inspired to engage in climate activism after experiencing unusually frequent heatwaves within her own country of Uganda, other African youths are actively becoming engaged in the discussion. In September, there was a multi-country environmental justice movement calling for a more unified response to climate change. In the region containing the east and west African drylands, youth activists such as Charity Lanoi in Kenya are running grass seed banks to restore perennial grasses so pasture animals can graze. In the unusually hot temperatures, the naturally regrowing grasses have struggled to root, thus making Lanoi’s work critical. In Ghana, Portia Adu-Mensah rallied her community against a proposed coal plant in Ghana’s central region. Portia is a founding member of the activism group “350 Ghana – Reducing Our Carbon.” To oppose the coal plant, she wrote letters, reached out to community members, and worked with journalists to combat the development of the plant. Eventually, the government agreed to look at more renewable energy and stopped the construction of the plant. After considering the cases of these individuals, what becomes abundantly clear is that there is a growing wave of youth involvement in African nations. These activists represent more than just isolated cases of excellence, but a new wave of hope in the climate change conversation.
Normalizing Civic Engagement
Initiatives like the Great Green Wall and grassroots youth movements represent far more than a few success stories, they represent the normalization of civic engagement and discourse. In the same country of Cameroon that refugees are carving out a path to sustain themselves, all civil protests are essentially outlawed. In September 2020, Cameroonian forces used military force to break up peaceful political protests and arrested over 500 people. Climate action initiatives are important to support in Africa because, in countries with varying degrees of political freedom, climate movements are rarely viewed as a direct challenge to government authority. This type of civic engagement serves as a model that can encourage other social and political movements to gain momentum. In a broader sense, the existence of broadly multinational but uniquely localized environmental projects also represents a blueprint for multi-state climate collaboration in the future. Whether the Great Green Wall gets officially completed or not is not what is important. Truly collaborative international climate action initiatives symbolize humanity treating the climate crisis for what it really is, an emergency. If we are to succeed in securing a safe and sustainable climate for future generations, we can not afford to have any voices cropped out of the conversation.
Photo by: Ainhoa Goma/ Oxfam International, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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