For nearly 40 years, the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment has served as a guiding light in perilous environmental times.
It has helped this diverse continent forge consensus around the most pressing threats to our planet – and it has given Africa a powerful voice on the global stage.
That has never been more important than it is right now.
Africa’s 1.4 billion people are facing the prospect of environmental calamity in the form of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste.
To tackle these crises we need nothing short of a new economic model for Africa, one that supports growth while protecting biodiversity, one that ends pollution while respecting the most vulnerable and one that creates jobs while limiting greenhouse gas emissions and helping the people of Africa adapt to climate change.
The million-dollar question we face is this: in a time of food shortages, of inflation, of economic pain, how do we forge a more sustainable future?
I will try to answer that.
Let us deal first with what is arguably the biggest threat to this continent: climate change.
Africa is especially vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. Surface temperatures here are climbing faster than the global average. Sea levels are rising more rapidly. The continent has been hammered by disasters, from the three-year drought in the Horn of Africa, to Cyclone Freddy, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the southern hemisphere.
Despite all that, Africa has only a fraction of the money it needs to contend with climate change.
In the years to come, the climate change tab will only grow. By 2030, Africa will require nearly $US3 trillion in climate financing.
To marshal that kind of capital, countries must unlock more domestic private sector financing for climate-related projects.
Right now, just 14 per cent of all climate financing in Africa comes from private businesses. More than 80 per cent comes from international public sources.
To attract more private capital, countries will need to improve their investment regimens, making it easier for money to move around their economies.
They will also need to weave their climate targets into national investment plans and spell out for investors the many opportunities that will come with the green transition.
Finally, countries must find ways to de-risk projects and forge partnerships with the private sector, which often has the capital and expertise to make major infrastructure projects a reality.
At the same time, international debt relief is crucial.
It is a great injustice that Africa, which has contributed the least to climate change, is poised to suffer the most.
The global community has a duty to lighten Africa’s debt load, which is vital if this continent is to finance the transition to a climate-resilient future.
Distinguished delegates, as Africa contends with climate change, we cannot forget about the need to protect biodiversity.
This continent’s natural bounty, which directly supports more than 60 per cent of Africa’s people, is under threat from climate change, pollution, poaching, over-harvesting and habitat conversion.
I was happy to see African countries declare last year, during CBD COP15 in Montreal, that biodiversity is foundational for economic and social development.
It was a message that we, at the United Nations, heard loud and clear.
At next month’s Sustainable Development Goals Summit, UNEP and eight other UN agencies will showcase how nature can be a driver of economic transformation and prosperity.
We also stand ready to provide tailored support to African countries that want to forge biodiversity-friendly economies.
Many of your ministries have started the review process so crucial to achieving the goals of the Montreal-Kunming Global Biodiversity Framework.
As you move forward, I urge you to reach out to your colleagues in other ministries and see how biodiversity can be infused into national programmes and policies.
If we are to succeed in safeguarding Africa’s natural heritage, we must take a whole-of-government approach.
We must also work to restore damaged landscapes, especially those that have fallen prey to desertification. We all now, Africa’s economy is based on its natural resources, in particular, agriculture, livestock and minerals. In other words, Africa’s prosperity is on land, water and healthy ecosystems.
During the last 70 years, Africa has lost two-thirds of its productive land while its population has increased six-folds.
Droughts and land degradation are already claiming lives, devastating economies and destabilizing peace and security of the countries.
The good news is that there is still time to beat back deserts and return land to productive use.
Look no further than the Great Green Wall, which is steadily working its way across the continent.
We need more success stories like that because restoration helps protect biodiversity, conserve water, combat poverty and slow climate change.
As we’re restoring land, we must also work to limit the damage done by the extraction of minerals critical to the transition to clean energy.
Too often harvesting these minerals – which include lithium, nickel and cobalt – means uprooting forests and ravaging sensitive landscapes.
These actions are ultimately self-defeating.
Distinguished delegates, I would like to talk briefly now about the mounting problem that is plastic pollution.
Humanity produces more than 430 million tonnes of plastic annually, two-thirds of which is contained in short-lived products that soon become waste.
The reality is that Africa must find a way to start weening itself off of plastic.
It is clogging the continent’s rivers.
It is polluting its air.
And it is worming its way into the human food chain.
In November, states will gather in Nairobi for the third session of the International Negotiating Committee, which is developing a legally binding global instrument on plastic pollution.
I encourage African leaders to be a vocal part of those talks. Share your opinions – and most importantly share your innovations.
Because in many parts of this continent, governments and businesses are pioneering novel ways to reduce plastic’s impact on the environment while creating jobs and fostering sustainability.
Distinguished delegates, we have a packed environmental calendar ahead of us in the next few months.
On the agenda is the Africa Climate Summit, the International Conference on Chemicals Management, the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee and the UN Climate Change Conference.
I urge African governments to be active participants at these gatherings. Yours is a voice the world needs to hear. And for the upcoming Africa Climate Summit organized and led by Africa is an opportunity to be bold and endorse its outcomes so as to influence and feed into the global negotiations that follow during the year.
That holds true for the UN Environment Assembly - UNEA - which will take place in Nairobi at the end of February next year.
Just last month, the joint bureaus of UNEA and the Committee of Permanent Representatives approved UNEA’s agenda and began considering an outcome document, namely, ministerial declaration.
To effectively and actively engage in the preparations for UNEA which is a milestone for the environment, it is important to note that 18 December has been set as the soft deadline for the submissions of draft resolutions. Their early submission will accord all delegations ample time to prepare before hand and be ready to negotiate.
Finally, I would like to reiterate UNEP’s commitment to helping Africa address the triple planetary crisis.
We are here to support your vision for a more sustainable, more prosperous future in which Africa’s potential is fully unlocked.
By Elizabeth Maruma Mrema
Elizabeth Maruma Mrema is a Tanzanian biodiversity leader and lawyer, living in Montreal, Canada, who has been serving as Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme since 2023,