The Cheated Continent of Africa: Lessons from Climate Negotiations

Published on 10th September 2012

By David-Ngendo Tshimba (
Department of Good Governance and Peace Studies
Uganda Martyrs University


While it is still paramount for Africans’ standards of living to improve, circumstances under which all these improvements are to take place should be given much greater attention. No doubt, it can still be possible for Africans to live for some extra days on malnutrition and/or starvation, but with air which does not qualify as being breathable, one is left to embrace a quick death. That is why a great focus should be given to the weather both globally and (more so) locally, for this is an undeniable condition for the very existence as human beings in the first place, and as Africans in this context.

Ill-designed talks

In December 1997, in the Japanese city of Kyoto, the protocol on the reduction of greenhouse gases emission into the atmosphere was officially signed and came into force in February 2005. Essentially, industrialized nations (the United States of America and China being at the pinnacle) were mandated to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 5.2% compared to the year 1990. The Kyoto Protocol also included three other objectives; namely, emissions trading—an administrative approach to control pollution by providing economic incentives to reduce emissions of pollutants—clean development mechanisms, and joint implementation. The various nations involved did give specific limits of emissions that they would achieve until 2010, when the protocol was set to officially expire.

In the Danish city of Copenhagen, in December 2009, the world leaders assigned themselves the duty to do something about the ever-remarkable climate change so as to reshape humanity’s destiny already at stake. At the opening of the High Level Segment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the 15th Conference of Parties (CoP15) 15 in Copenhagen on 15 December 2009, Kenyan famous environmentalist and Nobel Peace Laureate, the late Professor Wangari Maathai uttered the following words:

…Throughout the world, people’s expectation is that in Copenhagen delegates understand that while they cannot negotiate with the climate, they have to negotiate with each other. The litany of woes have been repeated enough times in conferences and meetings leading to Copenhagen throughout the world. It is not necessary to recite these threats again here because you have all heard them before… but are still arguing over how far the rich industrialized countries are willing to move away from their familiar comfort zone and cut emissions to levels that will save lives of the most vulnerable. Allow me to say that … no delegate leaves the conference with a perfect document and a perfect financial mechanism to implement their dreams; and the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change might not be any different. What we must find is a common ground for partnership that is based on a willingness to be fair, trusting, honest, transparent and responsible, to ourselves and to millions who are following these discussions from home. Indeed to generations yet to be born.

The day after the late Professor Wangari Mathaai’s speech, the then Head of the African Delegation to CoP 15, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia joined the stage and gave his speech in these terms:

Global warming is happening… It is no exaggeration to say that this is our best and perhaps our last chance to save our planet from destructive and unpredictable change.  This is a test as to whether we as a global community are able to rise over our parochial interests to protect our common destiny. That is why all the delegations of African countries participating in the summit are here to support and reinforce the common negotiating team rather than negotiate on behalf of their individual countries… Every one of us knows that Africa has contributed virtually nothing to global warming but has been hit first and hardest.

Africa is indeed paying with the misery and death of its people for the wealth and wellbeing that was created in the developed countries through carbon intensive development.  That is fundamentally unjust. But we are not here as victims nursing our wounds of injustice of the past. We are therefore here not as victims of the past  but as stakeholders of the future reaching out across the continents, so that together we can build a better and fairer future for all of us. Not only has Africa contributed virtually nothing to the current level of carbon emissions, but is unlikely under any scenario to be a significant polluter in the future… We are here to negotiate, to give and take and seal a fair deal however messy such a deal might be. Africa loses more than most if there is no agreement on climate change.  We lose more not only because our ecology is more fragile but also because our best days are ahead and lack of agreement here could murder our future even before it is borne. We are determined to make sure that in Copenhagen we will have an agreement that all of us, Africa included, are happy with or there will be no agreement for anyone. It is meant to be a solemn promise by Africa that we will strive for a fair and just deal, and nothing more or less than that.

On 18 December 2009, the meeting took note of the Copenhagen Accord being guided by the principles and provisions of the Convention (UNFCCC); however, this accord was not adopted. British famous environment journalist, Fred Pearce reported that “much was left undone in Copenhagen, and the many loopholes in the climate accord could lead to rising emissions...” High hopes that many nations would up their promises in Copenhagen turned to nothing. The U.S. would not go beyond its pre-conference promise to cut emissions by 14 to 17 percent from 2005 to 2020; at the same time, China stuck with its pre-conference pledge to cut carbon intensity—emissions per dollar of gross domestic product—by 40 to 45 percent between 2005 and 2020, a compromise actually slightly less than the 46 percent reduction achieved between 1990 and 2005 (Pearce, 2009). In the end, the text of the Copenhagen Accord contains even more loopholes (mainly on hot air, carbon effects, forests, airline, and shipping fuel) than the 1997 Kyoto Protocol itself as the Conference was characterized by repeated clashes on the issue between the U.S. and China.

In his article, Copenhagen: Things Fall Apart and an Uncertain Future Looms reported by the Yale Environment 360 Magazine, Bill McKibbean took a rather radical observation saying that “the Copenhagen Summit turned out to be little more than a charade, as the major nations refused to make firm commitments or even engage in an honest discussion of the consequences of failing to act.” China, it is reported, turned down one reasonable idea after another, unwilling to constrain its ability to burn coal in any meaningful way much as a non-face-saving pact was quickly agreed between China, India and the USA (McKibbean, 2009).

It is only with one loud and persistent voice that Africa can hope to influence any global agreement that ought to materialize from such conferences on a global concern as climate change. The African continent is already suffering the crushing consequences of climate change in numerous life-threatening ways including high temperatures, rising sea levels, food insecurity, water scarcity, increasing migration, extreme weather-related disasters and depleting energy resources among others (ChinAfrica of November 2011).Methods to reward efforts that avoid deforestation are essential; however, alternative sustainable fuel sources must be put in place or else forests will cynically continue to be raped.

Climate justice for climate change: a conclusion

World Bank data shows that, at present rates of electrification, most African countries will not achieve universal access to electricity even by 2050 (ChinAfrica of November 2011). Systems need to be set up to monitor and promote awareness and impacts of climate change and African policymakers do need to recognize the importance for Africa to actively engage in global climate change negotiations. Ultimately, much of the effects of climate change in Africa have been the result of highly industrialized nations such as China somewhat using the continent as a resource reservoir, where so much is being taken away and so little given back. Africa’s rainforests such as those in the Congo basin do make a huge contribution to protecting the global climate yet such environmental benefits still do not translate into economic pay-offs.

Hence, unless the negotiations as well as commitments made at climate change conferences are geared towards authentic climate justice, such commitments could only serve as statements to make newspaper headlines. The notion of climate justice does presuppose an invention of a “climate fund” dedicated to bring about economic returns to those nations (predominantly from the so-called Third World and Africa in particular) which are unfairly hit by the environmental woes of global climate change.     


ChinAfrica, “The Sizzle Factor: Africa feels the heat in combating climate change” Vol.3, November 2011, published by Beijing Review.

McKibben, B., 2009. Copenhagen: things fall apart and an uncertain future looms. Yale Environment 360. [Online]. Available at [Accessed 21 December 2009].

Pearce, F. “Looking for a Silver Lining in the Post-Summit Landscape” in Yale Environment 360. [Online]. Available at [Accessed 21 December 2009].

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