Worldwide: Changing Climate: What The Paris Accord Means For Africa

Last Updated: 5 April 2016
Article by Helen Bowdren

In December 2015, 195 countries adopted the Paris agreement on climate change — a landmark deal hailed as a diplomatic triumph and a real game changer in the world's response to climate change.

For African negotiators, climate change is not just an academic issue. The fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented strong evidence that warming in Africa has increased significantly over the past 50 to 100 years, with clear effects on the health, livelihoods and food security of people in Africa. The panel expects extreme weather events, including droughts, floods and heat waves, to become more frequent and estimates that agricultural yield losses could reach 22 percent across sub-Saharan Africa. Across the continent, Africa faces significant environmental challenges, including deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, as well as rising sea levels and depleting fish stocks.

African agriculture is particularly vulnerable to climate change because its agriculture is mainly rain fed (rather than irrigated) and because most African farmers are smallholders, making them less able to deal with changing weather systems.

Climate change is real and urgent for many on the continent.

What the African Negotiating Bloc Sought from Paris

The Africa group is one of the largest negotiating blocs within the United Nations climate negotiations framework. It has been instrumental in calls to keep temperature change below 2 degrees Celsius, and in pushing for developed countries to limit their greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and make resources available for countries on the front line of climate change. Many African countries are also part of the least developed countries (LDC) group — 48 countries that are extremely vulnerable to climate change because of their poverty, economic vulnerability and lack of relevant capacity to respond effectively to climate change impacts.

So does the Paris agreement deliver for Africa?

Paris Agreement

The agreement is open for signature from April 22, 2016, for one year, and will come into force after 55 countries that account for at least 55 percent of global emissions have ratified.

The deal is more substantial and, by aiming to limit warming to 1.5 C, more ambitious than many expected. The 1.5 C goal was a particularly emotive topic during the two-week summit, and is an important issue for the LDCs. However, the agreement itself functions as a framework agreement, with much work to be done to implement its provisions in practice. The signatory states must now implement its provisions in their home countries — which is where the real work begins. In this article we analyze some of the key aspects of the Paris agreement, and how it will affect Africa.

Nationally Determined Contributions

The Paris agreement is a bottom-up framework — each party to the agreement will make, and communicate, "nationally determined contributions" (NDCs) (articles 3 and 4). These are national climate action plans setting out the country's objectives to address climate change. The plans must be renewed every five years. Developing country parties are encouraged to move toward economywide emission reduction or limitation targets, taking into account their national circumstances. One hundred and eighty-eight countries presented intended NDCs in advance of the Paris conference and now, in theory at least, they are treated as fully fledged NDCs. However, many of these are high level, light on detail and often conditional on enough finance being available for implementation.

For example, South Africa's intended NDC (submitted before the Paris conference) highlights that South Africa is a developing country, whose overriding priority is to end poverty and inequality. It still relies heavily on coal, with a fleet of old and inefficient coal-fired power plants near the end of their operational life. South Africa's National Development Plan provides a "2030 vision" for transforming South Africa's energy mix — replacing coal with new clean technology — and this provides the context for the NDC. However, the NDC states that in the short term (up to 2025), any plan to transition to a low-carbon economy must have regard to the overriding priority to address poverty and inequality. This is likely to be the case for many countries on the continent — climate change goals have to fit within the development needs of the countries.

Nigeria, whose annual GHG emissions surpassed 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) in 2012, was one of the last big emitters to submit its climate plan to the U.N., just the day before the U.N. talks in Paris began. Nigeria's NDC estimated its emissions would grow to around 900 million tonnes of CO2e in 2030 under a "business as usual" scenario — more if the country achieves high economic growth — as a larger share of the population gets access to electricity and more people are brought out of poverty.

Nigeria's NDC pledges to keep 2030 emissions 20 percent below that "business as usual" level. That target could rise to 45 percent with international funding and technology transfer, it said. It proposes to use various tools to achieve this — including improving energy efficiency by 20 percent, providing 13 gigawatts of renewable electricity to rural communities currently off-grid, and ending gas flaring. The plan also outlines opportunities to reduce emissions from agriculture, land use, transport and manufacturing.

Many NDCs for African countries promise to support investment in renewables and other low-carbon infrastructure. If all the NDCs currently in circulation are implemented, this would lead in practice to a major shift in financial flows toward low-carbon development.

Now that the dust has settled on the Paris agreement, many African countries are grappling with the practical realities of implementing their NDCs — and reducing emissions — whether through environmental taxation, encouraging renewables, introducing emission limits, or cap-and-trade programs.

Sustainable Development Mechanism

Article 6 may assist with this. Parties may cooperate on a voluntary basis in implementing their NDCs, for example, by "internationally transferred mitigation outcomes" (Article 6). In effect, this means that countries can trade emissions. Article 6 also establishes a new sustainable development mechanism — similar to the existing Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) — under which mitigation activities by public or private entities authorized by a party will contribute to the reduction of emission levels in the host party. The emission reductions can also be used by another state party toward meeting its NDC.

The Article 6 framework is sufficiently broad that these collaborations could be on a project-by-project basis, or through a system that operates across an entire NDC or within a sector covered by an NDC. This is hugely significant for Africa — as it could provide a means for private sector finance to contribute to low-carbon development. We will watch closely to see how this develops in practice.


Article 5 of the Paris agreement includes specific support for REDD+ (reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation of forests). It encourages the parties to support the sustainable management of forests and enhancement and conservation of forest carbon stocks in developing countries. This could be extremely significant for countries such as Uganda and Kenya with extensive forested areas. The U.N.'s REDD+ program already supports 26 partner countries in Africa. Six countries (Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Zambia) have benefited from full national REDD+ programs. The agreement go quite as far as a REDD+ market mechanism (sought by some) but it does allow for results-based payments and leaves the door open for REDD+ market-based finance in the future.

Climate Change Adaptation

Parties must strengthen their cooperation on adaptation (Article 7), and plan to adapt their infrastructure and economies to the new challenges of climate change. This will necessarily be specific to particular countries and the unique challenges they face. Most national governments are initiating governance systems for adaptation — for example, disaster risk management, early warning systems, flood defenses and basic public health measures. For example, 26 countries have now signed up to an African Union-led facility, the African Risk Capacity (ARC), which offers insurance against extreme climate events, quickly disbursing money to help governments to finance emergency response. The ARC is also looking at ways to finance longer-term projects to adapt and build resilience.

Financial Support

As ever, finance is critical. For many years developing countries have been arguing that developed countries have obligations to provide additional financial resources, including the transfer of technology. The Paris agreement does not go as far as many hoped for — and the provisions on finance are light on detail.

Developed-country parties must provide financial support to developing-country parties for mitigation and adaptation, continuing existing obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Other parties (i.e., the emerging economies) are encouraged to provide voluntary financial support (Article 9).

The preamble urges developed countries to jointly provide $100 billion annually by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation, with that collective goal rising by 2025. Developed countries should report on this climate finance every two years.

One vehicle for this funding is the Green Climate Fund (GCF), established as part of the Cancun Agreements. Through it, developed countries plan to mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to support developing countries' efforts to cut emissions and tackle climate change. The GCF is administered by a small team in Incheon, South Korea, and approved its first aid commitments — $168 million for eight climate projects — in November 2016. The approved proposals include an early warning system in Malawi, a wetlands resilience program in Peru, climate-resilient infrastructure in Bangladesh, and a scheme of "green bonds" to finance sustainable energy ventures in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Technology Transfer and Capacity Building

The parties are required to work more closely together on technology development and transfer (Article 10), and on capacity building. These obligations are light in terms of concrete obligations but both these issues are hugely challenging for many African countries. A new Paris committee on capacity building will oversee a work plan to enhance capacity building.

Developed vs. Developing?

The Paris agreement was significant in that for the first time, all countries agree to take on binding commitments to address climate change. However, the Paris agreement still includes multiple references to developed- and developing-country parties, and specific references to the special circumstance of LDCs and small island developing states (SIDS). It remains to be seen whether the divisions have truly been broken down.

Next Stop – Morocco

The Moroccan city of Marrakech will host the next convention of the parties (COP22) in November 2016. COP22 will be an opportunity to develop operational tools for the Paris agreement — for example, detailing how the Article 6 sustainable development mechanism may work in practice, and how countries can access support for capacity building. This promises to keep African negotiators at the heart of the discussions.

This article was first published in Law360.

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