Why African countries are boycotting climate change talks

UN climate change talks in Barcelona have stalled as African countries say the world's rich nations must do more to cut emissions.

Manu Fernandez/AP
Members of the African Group board from left to right: Pa Ousman Jarju of Gambia, Grace Adhiambo of Kenya, Kamel Djemouai from Algeria and Bruno Sekoli of Lesotho attend a press conference during the Climate Change Talks in Barcelona Tuesday.

Talks over how to cut back global carbon emissions to ease the effects of climate change have broken down, with African nations arguing that rich nations are not doing their fair share.

The latest round of talks, scheduled for Nov. 2-6 in Barcelona, are aimed at looking into a number of natural remedies that might help manage the rise in global emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the main by products from the burning of oil, coal, and other fossil fuels in electrical power plants and heavy industries.

Richer nations (except the United States) agreed at a 1997 United Nations-sponsored forum in Kyoto, Japan, to reduce their industrial emissions by 11 percent to 15 percent from their 1990 levels by the year 2020. But a growing number of developing nations, many of them in Africa, argue that richer nations such as Japan, Britain, Germany, and the US (which did not sign the Kyoto Protocol) should cut emissions by as much as 40 percent in order to slow down climate change.

"They’re saying let’s focus on the real issues, which is targets for developed countries," South African delegation head Alf Wills told Reuters news agency in Barcelona. Richer nations are using "delaying tactics" rather than talking about how Europe and the industrial nations can share the burden more fairly in cutting back on carbon emissions, he said.

Why climate change hits Africa the hardest
For Africa, a continent identified as the most vulnerable to climate change because of its vast arid areas and its poorer population's reliance on subsistence farming, climate change is an incredibly powerful issue with an immediate impact on people’s lives. Severe droughts across the semi-arid mid-section of Africa – from Senegal to Somalia – have forced hundreds of thousands of nomadic livestock herders and pastoral farmers to give up their once-fertile lands in search of food and survival. Climate change may have even been the tinder for the brutal war in Darfur, as nomads and farmers competed for dwindling water supplies. (Read our in-depth report on that here.)

"Africa is heavily impacted by climate change," says Christian Lambrechts, a policy coordinator for the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi. Africa has experienced some of the world’s highest warming trends, and its relatively poor citizens are living so close to the very edge of subsistence that when major climate changes occur, large numbers are unable to adapt, and must simply move to other areas, he says. "Put all this together, and you can understand why this is an important issue."
What are the solutions?
Identifying the problem is one thing. Coming up with a solution is quite another. Addressing climate change requires that both developing and developed nations give something up by cutting back on electricity produced with “dirty” fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal and switching to more expensive but environmentally friendly methods such as wind power, solar, and geothermal.

It is the richer nations that have been producing greenhouse gases for decades, African leaders argue. It is richer nations, too, that have the financial resources to clean up their acts, and it is the richer nations that need to make greater sacrifices.

The Kyoto Protocol, signed by some 184 nations to date, bound all nations to reduce their carbon emissions up to 2012, and current talks aim to extend the cutback in emissions until 2020 and beyond. At the time the Kyoto Protocol was being debated, the United States accounted for a staggering 36 percent of all the world’s carbon emissions. But the US itself, which signed the Kyoto Protocol but has not ratified it, is not bound by the commitments other nations face in cutting carbon emissions. Many US economists and politicians argue that emission targets will hurt the American economy and eliminate jobs and will be meaningless as long as fast-developing nations such as India, China and Brazil continue to increase their own emissions.

"On the one hand, you have richer nations that want to maintain profligate lifestyles, and nobody wants to change their habits, and they want us to remain poor by regulating our emissions and telling us we can’t industrialize," says Alex Alusa, the climate change coordinator for the Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga. "That is not fair."

"Every country needs to develop, to improve the lot of their own people, and that means we have to industrialize, and then to consume, and consumption leads to emissions," says Mr. Alusa. The richer nations need to recognize that poorer nations will increase their emissions, he adds, and that it is the richer nations who must bear the greater burden for switching to cleaner and more expensive energies.

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