COP28 and climate change: will China’s balancing act and Africa’s demands align?

COP28 is the most important international topic today as participants from 197 nations and the European Union converge to discuss one of the world’s greatest fears, climate change. Discussing climate change is not an easy thing. Though the world’s leaders often say the words as blankly as possible, sincerity and resoluteness cannot always be traced in those utterances.

Africa’s vulnerabilities; the worst yet to come?

Africa has long been a back player in climate matters. The irony; Africa contributes 4 per cent of global emissions yet is the hardest hit by the horrors of climate change. Recent examples of Africa’s bad fortunes with climate include the drought that rocked the Horn of Africa in 2023 with the countries of Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya experiencing their sixth straight year without rain during the rainy season of March-May. The result is the internal displacement of about 1.75 million people in Somalia and Ethiopia with about 180,000 others moving to Kenya and Ethiopia from Somalia and South Sudan, according to the UNCHR.

Having suffered droughts, the Horn of Africa has also suffered from floods in recent days that have claimed the lives of about 300 people in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia forcing the Somali authorities to declare a state of emergency over the catastrophic flood described as “once in a century” by the United Nations. About 2 million people have been affected by the floods with estimates that nearly 1.5 million children under the age of 5 years are likely to suffer from malnutrition between August and July 2024.

Notably, of the eight regions and countries identified as highly vulnerable to global warming, six are in Africa. Somalia, Madagascar, South Sudan, Chad, Sudan and the Sahel Region are featured in that bleach list. Neither China nor the United States, two of the world’s largest sources of carbon emissions are featured.

The above is not a narration of sympathy for Africa but a glimpse of what prompts Africa’s strong push to be heard in climate discussions. While the continent does not have the financial wherewithal to fund green climate initiatives, the continent can contribute in other areas.

What is Africa demanding at COP28?

African countries convened in Kenya in September for the Africa Climate Summit which was on the theme: “Driving Green Growth and Climate Finance Solutions for Africa and the World”. Championed by Kenya’s President William Ruto, the summit underscored as part of its declarations, the need to “Accelerate all efforts to reduce emissions to align with goals of the Paris Agreement”.

One of the key declarations at the summit was the “call for climate-positive investments that catalyse a growth trajectory anchored in the industries poised to transform our planet and enable African countries to achieve stable middle-income status by 2050”. It was a bold call that put Africa’s needs at the front while taking on the richer countries on their commitment to the responsibilities of helping the countries that are worst hit by their voluminous emissions.

Unapologetically, the continent is demanding increased responsibility and contribution from the world’s superpowers, the countries that are the richest and largest contributors to global carbon emissions. Of the 10 largest economies in the world, nine are among the top 10 fossil fuel emissions in history, a fact that supports Africa’s call for increased responsibility.

Leaders after the ACS in Kenya among other things demand that global leaders:

  • To align technical and financial support to Africa for sustainable 8 utilization of Africa’s natural assets for low-carbon development that contributes to global decarbonization.
  • Support Africa to increase its renewable energy generation capacity from 56 gigawatts (GW) in 2022 to at least 300 GW by 2030.
  • Support the proposal for a global carbon taxation regime, augmented by a global financial transaction tax (FTT).

These may portray Africa as acting entitled but the continent just has arrived at a space where it needs to be vocal about its pain that has been managed for decades. At least 600 million Africans are without access to electricity and approximately 900 million are without access to clean cooking methods. These are not problems beyond the continent but with things continuing to remain as they are, Africa cannot solve these basic problems. The time of aid coming from the West should be phasing out in exchange for support for a resilient Africa that is capable of producing enough to feed its people. So the demand for responsibility in this light is a right not a matter of perceived entitlement.

What is China’s role?

The role of China in climate matters cannot be understated, at least from the side of being an active contributor to what the world faces today; climate crises. The Asian powerhouse is the world’s leading source of carbon emissions and its figures almost always double that of the next two or three top contributors combined.

In 2022, global carbon emissions saw a marginal yet important increase of 0.9% (321 Mt) to peg the total figure at 36.8 Gt. China though saw a decline of 0.2% or 23 Mt with the cause being a decline in industrial processes including the construction industry and COVID-19 restrictions that limited emissions from industry and transport. Also according to 2021 data, China alone produced more carbon emissions than the combined four of the remaining top 5 countries, the United States, India, Russia and Japan. China contributed 11.47 billion tonnes with the others contributing 5 billion, 2.7 billion, 1.75 billion and 1.07 billion tonnes respectively. All African countries combined only contributed 1.45 billion tonnes, a testament to how Africa contributes less to the pain it suffers from climate change.

Global carbon emissions report
Source: Al Jazeera

As high as  27 per cent of global carbon dioxide and a third of the world’s greenhouse gases are from China. This places a higher responsibility on the country to act fast both for its benefit and that of the countries of Africa with whom it seeks to establish and foster long-term cooperation.

The 2022 World Bank Group’s Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR) for China said the country has ’54 million “green jobs”, with over 4 million jobs in renewable energy’. Also, the report added that if China fails to act on its climate change stressors thus resulting in continuous exposure to climate change, the country could lose GDP values of between “0.5 and 2.3 per cent as early as 2030”. This may not be anything considering that China is the world’s second-largest economy but if you also consider the fact that the Chinese economy is currently struggling then you will appreciate that the Asian superpower is not immune to the harm of climate change.

Another lightening concern that may have China needing to act fast is its desire to be seen as the big “brother” of Africa. Chinese investment in Africa has dwarfed France and the United States which were once the darlings of Africa. Between 2014 and 2018, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in Africa was 16 per cent of the total FDI in Africa. The total Chinese FDI in the continent was US$40.9 billion in 2022. So crisis in Africa may indirectly mean losses for China as some of these investments may be at risk though the majority of Chinese investment in Africa is in the transport sector, not agriculture.

China thus has a mounting responsibility to commit to the green climate causes. The country has committed to peak its carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, a decision the EU says is laudable but expressed trust concerns. A pledge by Beijing to reduce emissions by 65 per cent by 2030 and achieve neutrality by 2060 is still on track. Special Climate Envoy to the UN, Xie Zhenhua, said the country has reduced its carbon intensity (CO2 emissions per Yuan of GDP) by 51 per cent from the 2005 levels. Xie added that  50.9% of the country’s power generation mix was non-fossil fuel-based while adding that plans are underway to increase non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption by at least 1,200 GW or 25% by 2030, SP Global reported.

Where the tension will arise from?

Though these efforts from China are commendable, China is failing the world and most especially Africa in its core commitments that directly impact the African people. China’s President Xi Jinping in 2015 pledged to make available 20 billion yuan (approximately US$3.1 billion) for developing countries to tackle climate issues. However, no timeline was given and after eight years, only about 10% of the fund has been made available. Chinese authorities blame institutional challenges for the failed delivery, a Climate Home News report revealed.

It must be noted that the promise-and-fail attitude in funding climate change activities is not only peculiar to China. The deadline for the US$100 billion pledge is fast approaching in 2025. While developing countries need about US$1 trillion every year for climate action, the pledge by the wealthy nations to commit a century billion every year has so far failed. The United States which is expected to fund about 43% of the figure in 2020 sent just US$2 billion, a ridiculous mark of a failed promise.

A report by the OECD which covers contributions from 2013 to 2021 showed that there has not been a single year that the figure was met, the closest being in 2021 when contributions peaked at US$89.6.

While China is not part of the developed countries as per the UNFCCC and thus wasn’t part of the countries that pledged in 2003, China has not done much in supporting the cause even outside the borders of the pledge considering its contribution to the climate change. China overtook the United States in 2006 as the world’s leading emitter of greenhouse gases, a shift which should come with increased responsibility but that may not be happening any time soon outside its domestic efforts.

Contributions to the $100 billion climate action pledge by developed countries
Source: OECD

What is in the future?

The future looks interesting as Africa takes centre stage in climate matters, demanding increased responsibility from the wealthy nations and support for Africa’s domestic efforts to tackle the issue. It is too extreme to think Africa may decide to severe certain cooperative engagements with China and Western countries for their negligence of the continent in its most needful moments but that cannot be thrown out of the door.

A shift in thinking is passing through Africa as witnessed in recent events such as the BRICS forum in South Africa and the Africa Climate Summit. The ACS particularly provides African leaders with the opportunity to always adopt a unified voice before heading to the United Nations’s COP. And that promises to be a form of a narrative changer in the long-term when African leaders finally see the greater reason for internal cooperation over external one-sided affairs with the West of China.

Africa has demanded increased responsibility from the likes of China, the United States and those in their league though that is yet to result in anything significant. So they might then be forced to look back at home for internal funding solutions that would help them implement climate change solutions to help their citizens. Topping the list of Africa’s needs is energy; electricity and clean cooking. But perhaps the immediate and pressing one is agriculture and food security. Stopping droughts and floods resulting from climate change should be a core priority and inform support for projects like the Great Green Wall and similar initiatives.

So where does it end for Africa after COP28 and what would Africa head to COP29 with would be vital signs in the next 1 to 12 months from now?

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