Africa in the Global Climate Change Politics


Kola Ibrahim



Africa’s place in the global climate change scenario is contradictory and abysmal. While Africa’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is low, the continent is witnessing huge and possibly the worst impacts of climate change. Worse still, future impacts on the continent in case of continuous global warming are expected to be far more catastrophic. Yet, the continent as a political and economic entity has little or no say in global policy-making on climate change; it has no coercive or persuasive power to compel major emitters to limit or stop emitting. All the major global policy-making institutions are controlled by the big emitters, who also control the global economy, trade, military force, science and technology. Furthermore, the continent’s political classes are so dependent on expertise and dictates of major powers. Many, if not most, African countries are also dependent on aid from major powers and emitters.


While African leaders and governments’ representatives participate in global forums and even host summits on global policymaking on climate change, the reality is that this is more of a diplomatic niceties than any serious engagement or involvement in global policymaking on climate change. More than this, Africa has little scientific, technological, and economic capacity to contain the impact of climate change. As previous analysis has shown, the continent is already witnessing the unraveling of climate catastrophe, yet while the big emitters continue to emit, they are also building capacity and infrastructure to contain the worst impacts of climate change. On the other hand, Africa receives little technological and economic support to absorb current and worsening future impacts, even on the basis of existing donor-beggar arrangements.


Global climate politics has become another avenue to turn Africa into a green market and source of raw materials for global production of climate (green) products. With Africa’s limited contribution to global economy and trade, coupled with its low capacity to participate in global green production, the continent has become a market for the global green economy. On the other hand, Africa’s huge mineral and agricultural resources, as well as natural capital (e.g. rainforests), are being eyed by global capitalist markets. Turning Africa into a green market will deepen its existing debt-ridden dependence and thus tighten the noose around its neck, which will compel the continent to open up its resources for global finance capital to exploit cheaply. The wealth the continent will receive from its natural resources will be lost through usurious debt servicing and repayment, with new green debt piling up on existing debts.


 The history of Africa’s gains from high prices and volumes of natural resources, turning to curse due to Africa’s economic subservience and debt-driven, technology-deficient, import-driven economic relations with the rest of the world, is instructive. Africa’s rising decade of the 2000s subsequently turned into Africa’s nightmarish decade. It is the same path the global green economy, driven by existing imperialist capitalist relations, is taking, and there is no other signal for this than the way Africa as a continent is being treated in global climate change policymaking and climate funding.


Africa in Global Climate Change Research and Development


Nothing exemplified the neo-colonialist nature of global climate change governance more than the negligible role of Africa in climate research and development. According to Overland et al (2022)[i], out of the over $4.46 billion in research funding by 521 funding organizations in the 30 years up to 2020, only 3.8% (about $1.26 billion) was committed to research on Africa. This is despite the enormous impacts climate change is having on the continent and the fact that the continent will become a focal point as a natural capital for addressing climate change. The continent, having as much as 17% of global population, which is expected to increase to over 40% by 2100, is not considered a priority for serious research. The insignificance of Africa is further exemplified by the fact that as much as 78% of the climate-related research funds on Africa ($1.26 billion) is given to European and American institutions, while only 14.5% ($183 million or $6.1 million per year) go to African institutions.


It is therefore not strange that no single African author from 42 African countries is among the authors of 12,000 research publications on climate change in Africa! Worse still, the research publications are priced out of the reach of many African researchers (Pasgaard et al., 2015)[ii]. With this approach, much of the research undertaken on Africa, especially on climate impacts and adaptation, can only come from the perspective of outsiders and at best reflect a limited understanding of the real situation. Of course, African researchers may be co-opted into foreign-based research in Africa, but this still will not address the lack of African control of theme, focus, extent, and requirements of such research.


This approach to research funding in Africa further underscores the colonialist orientation of global climate change governance. What this mean is that African academic and research institutions will not have the capacity to conduct sustainable research on climate change based on actual, existing realities. Obviously, the terms and conditions for accessing funding are skewed in a manner that ensures that only institutions in foreign regions can meet such conditions. While it is true that most African research and academic institutions lack adequate infrastructure to undertake research requiring advanced technology, the fact is that a proportion of these research funds, more than 95% of which come from foreign governments with only about 1% coming from the private sector (Overland, et al, 2022), could have been used to develop research infrastructure and capacity in the last 30 years.


However, it seems the western governments are actually interested in research that will maintain the status quo while furthering their national interests. Given that 80% of the climate research in Africa are for climate impacts and adaptation (Overland et al, 2022), it is expected that the research funding will prioritize African-based researchers with support for capacity and infrastructure, given that impacts are better and more accurately measured locally, which will also inform the nature adaptation measures will take. Yet the funds were tied to conditions that favour only foreign-based institutions. Moreover, most of the countries being impacted and susceptible to the worst impacts of climate change received little research funding for impacts and adaptation, with South Africa and Kenya alone taking 41% of all research funding. How then will Africa be capable of making headway in adaptation when funding of research on climate impacts and adaptation is not only meager but also exported to western countries where the funding comes from, while the little retained in Africa is also concentrated in a few countries of interest to donor governments?


While it is true that the failure of African governments to fund local research and education is a major factor for the low research output by African researchers on climate change, the global political economy also shows that Africa’s low capacity to develop its research and development infrastructure is both a product of historical underdevelopment and insignificant economic capacity, as well as continuous implementation of market fundamentalist policies promoted by developed capitalist countries and their western-controlled multilateral pro-capitalist institutions. In addition, the condemnation of Africa into the periphery of global capitalist arrangement, with its resources being mindlessly exploited by multinational corporations and their local accomplices while Africa is bedevilled with debt burden, all contributed in no small measure to the parlous state of Africa, where it cannot fund its own research. The local politicians in Africa have only served as puppets for the implementation of these policies.


 However, the skewed nature of developed countries’ funding of climate-related research in Africa, aside helping to maintain the neo-colonial and imperialist status quo, also whitewash their role in the continuous emission that threaten human and nature’s existence, especially in Africa. The funding, some of which does not necessarily directly address the climate crisis in Africa, is presented as developed countries’ support and funding for climate action in Africa. Yet, most of the money actually returns to the West, where they come from, with very little given to Africa.


[i] Overland, I., Sagbakken, H. S., Isataeva, A., Kolodzinskaia, G., Simpson, N. P., Trisos, C. and Vakulchuk, R. (2022). Funding flows for climate change research on Africa: where do they come from and where do they go?, Climate and DevelopmentVol. 14, No. 8, pp. 705-724, DOI: 10.1080/17565529.2021.197660

[ii] Pasgaard, M., Dalsgaard, B., Maruyama, P. K., Sandel, B., & Strange, N. (2015). Geographical imbalances and divides in the scientific production of climate change knowledge. Global Environmental ChangeVol. 35pp. 279–288