A Blueprint for Environmental Action in Africa: The Road Ahead

Published on 19th November 2019

Africa today has an exciting blueprint for environmental action. The path to a more prosperous Africa is indeed well lit.

“I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment.” Those are the words of Nelson Mandela. Never have they sounded more urgent.

We are in trouble. Our world is rapidly heating up, biodiversity is being destroyed at an alarming rate and we are consuming more resources than the planet can sustain. “Humanity faces an existential crisis,” as the UN secretary general puts it.

We know that the solutions are in our hand – whether it to halve emissions by 2030; craft out a new relationship with nature; or transform the way we live, produce and consume. We also know that time is of the essence. The window for environmental action is shrinking. Africa which bears the least responsibility for the climate emergency will be amongst the worst affected.

When we train a laser focus on the environmental challenges on the region, we will be writing a new chapter in the continent’s history, one where overcoming environmental challenges will bring prosperity to the continent.

We are already seeing great strides towards this future. From wildlife conservation, forest regeneration and conservation, pollution control and legislation on single-use plastic, adoption of green economy approaches, Africa has much success to report. More than 90 percent of countries have ratified their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – the most of any region in the world. Governments across the continent have established policy frameworks for ambitious climate action.

It is why AMCEN is right to identify global warming and biodiversity loss as the main problems facing Africa. And why it is right to see the blue economy and the circular economy as the tools to overcome these challenges. AMCEN’s ability to set the environmental agenda for Africa is so crucial to the social and economic health of the continent. Wherever AMCEN’s decisions are implemented we see success. Bio-waste facilities in Uganda, solar driers in Cameroon, a bio-digester in Abidjan’s biggest slaughterhouse that provides thousands of farmers with organic fertiliser.

In South Africa, the Environment Ministry is creating jobs by growing the wildlife economy. It is encouraging investment in products and services that benefit both nature and people. Nature-based tourism, plant and animal products, bio-pharmaceuticals and payments for ecosystem services across the country are generating cash and improving lives.

These initiatives prove that it is possible to grow our economies sustainably, creating jobs and boosting well-being for our people without destroying the environment. And yet we need many more successes, we need them quickly, we need them at scale, and we need to ensure they are just.

Whether we achieve this will depend largely on our ability to tap into two of the continent’s greatest strengths – its young people and its natural riches.

There are more young people in Africa today than any other region on earth but one in three of them are without a job. And yet in these worrying numbers I see hope. I see a massive workforce whose energy and dynamism could transform the continent in the coming decades.

If the continent’s strength lies in its people, then it is Africa’s natural wealth that holds the key to unlocking it. In the forests and wildernesses that Mandela spoke of; in the oceans and wetlands and rivers lies the future prosperity of the continent. We simply cannot achieve well-being and prosperity for Africa and its people without a healthy environment.

To harness Africa’s natural wealth sustainably we need to shift away from a linear model of economic growth to a more circular one, replacing “make, use and throw” with “recycle, reuse and repair”, a model that recognises that the growth of our economies are constrained by the ecological limits of our planet.

The beauty of a circular economy is that it mitigates many of the major environmental crises we face today. Studies suggest that adopting circular principles could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 99 percent in some sectors, making the Paris targets cheaper to achieve. The circular economy provides a path to achieving the goals laid down in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Africa’s Agenda 2063.

The environmental crises we face today are global in scale. We cannot achieve the future we want if we go it alone. We have a saying in my native language Kiswahili, Chombo hakiendi ikiwa kila mtu anapiga makasia yake: A boat doesn't go forward if each one is rowing his or her own way. Collective action is needed. At the Climate Action Summit, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Equatorial Guinea committed to maintaining their forest cover, allowing the Central African rainforest to continue to provide livelihoods to 60 million people and maintain regional rainfall patterns. And through UNEP’s Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), we support 28 countries including the Republic of Congo (ROC), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Peru and Indonesia to help sustainably manage their peatland resources.

Pan-African co-operation is vital for what is ultimately a shared future on this planet. I am confident that we will continue to see strong African leadership as we build on the momentum of the Climate Action Summit, as we move towards the Climate summit in Madrid, at the end of the year, and in China in 2020.

Africa holds roughly one-quarter of the world’s biodiversity and I see a great role for the continent is pushing us towards clear, measurable and actionable targets to halt biodiversity loss through the post-2020 biodiversity framework, by elevating the true value of biodiversity to life, culture, well-being and health for all.

In designing and implementing policy we also need to reach out to leaders from other sectors like finance, industry, urban planning and agriculture. We will need all the help we can get. Because at the end of the day, young people are holding us to account and we are seeing them on the streets of our cities, from Nairobi to Accra. They know what’s at stake, and we simply cannot fail them.

The scale of the challenge may seem daunting. But we come armed with the knowledge, tools and commitment to rise to the challenge. I have absolutely no doubt that success will be ours

Joyce Msuya

Deputy Executive Director, UN Environment Programme.

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