“At the time of Covid-19, Africa’s recovery must be focused on climate action”

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A coal-fired power plant in Mpumalanga province, South Africa, in 2018.

Tribune. The climate crisis is hitting Africa with relentless severity. While Europe and North America are only beginning to see its impacts, we Africans have suffered for years from waves of drought, flooding and desertification.

But an opportunity to tackle it could emerge from another global crisis: that of Covid-19. As Africa recovers from the ravages of the pandemic, putting climate change action at the heart of our recovery plans is indeed the surest way to create lasting prosperity. As leaders of organizations based in Nigeria and Kenya, we are used to hearing people make assumptions about what is best for our countries. This time, hear us out: Africa’s recovery must focus on climate action.

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The Covid-19 crisis has been catastrophic for African economies. It interrupted a long period of steady economic growth: African economies saw their GDP grow by around 3% on average before the pandemic. But this has already caused a recession of 2.1% last year, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB), and widened public deficits. A recession in Africa is not the same as a recession in Europe: social safety nets are weak, and support systems are scarce or nonexistent. About 30 million Africans fell into extreme poverty in 2020 as a result of the health crisis, and another 39 million are at risk of the same fate in 2021.

A more secure and resilient future

In this context, the only thing worse than a pandemic is a pandemic coupled with climate change. Before Covid-19, many parts of Africa were already on the front lines. Hurricanes, floods, droughts, locust invasions, poor harvests, not to mention the forced migrations due to these disasters: these phenomena were at the origin of great human suffering and slowed down development. Today, the economic losses linked to Covid-19 are drastically reducing the budgetary capacity of many African countries to adapt to climate change and cushion its impacts.

But these twin crises also offer an opportunity: by integrating climate change measures into their post-Covid-19 economic recovery plans, African countries can ensure a more secure, carbon neutral and resilient future.

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There is a real risk that old-fashioned stimulus measures – supporting fossil fuels, distributing money to polluting industries – could cause some kind of headlong rush into the carbon economy. Africa would then end up with “stranded assets” : expensive but obsolete infrastructures, in a world in transition towards clean energies. A situation which would further weaken its ability to invest and attract private investment.

For oil-dependent economies, such as Nigeria, the prospect of declining investment in the fossil fuel sector could have significant social and economic consequences. And regulatory regimes such as « Green Deal » European Union will confront countries that trade heavily with Europe, such as Morocco and Tunisia, with new trade barriers if they do not step up their climate game.

Green recovery plans

We can see it clearly: neglecting climate action would make our economies ever more vulnerable to shocks. On the contrary, investments in this area, as part of the stimulus packages, can ensure our recovery. Research shows that stimulus efforts that integrate climate action and broader sustainability goals are more likely to generate a long-term resilient recovery.

As the global economy shifts – albeit still too slowly – capital towards climate-friendly investments, we can harness the growing volume of climate finance to accelerate our investments in clean energy, green infrastructure and technological innovation.

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African countries are already starting to plan green recovery plans. Thus, that of Nigeria aims to install solar home systems and mini-grids for 5 million households that are not connected to the national grid. If successful, the project will create an additional 250,000 jobs, which will help alleviate the unprecedented unemployment rate resulting from the Covid-19 crisis.

But to achieve this and finance these investments, we will need the solidarity of the North. It is therefore essential that developed countries make real efforts to ease the burden of sovereign and commercial debts. We call for the swift implementation of a credit facility to support African countries facing the economic impacts of the pandemic. But public and private investors in the North will also have to make concerted efforts to redirect their investments towards sustainable investments.

A largely untapped potential

Only such a mobilization can allow Africa to realize its potential, gigantic but still largely untapped, in terms of green economy and in particular renewable energies. The African continent has some of the most abundant natural resources on the planet: a powerful sun, strong winds, rough oceans. Due to the legacy of colonialism and the poverty it engendered, our stock of infrastructure is still limited – so we are not trapped in carbon-intensive lifestyles.

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We Africans understand climate change because we are already experiencing it. We are ready to roll up our sleeves to make the most of the massive investments needed to revive our economies after the pandemic.

The Covid-19 has sent a tragic shock wave across Africa. Most of us will remember this forever. But the way out of the crisis could be the starting point for a new future, fair, green and sustainable – if we turn our backs on fossil fuels and invest resolutely in the technologies and infrastructure of the future.

Mohamed Adow is director of the Power Shift Africa climate and energy think tank in Kenya; Chukumwerije Okereke is president of the Society for Planet and Prosperity (SPP) in Nigeria.