Dr Carl Death, Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy, University of Manchester – Written evidence (ZAF0036)



9 April 2020.


Executive Summary:



  1. I have been conducting research on environmental governance and politics in Sub-Saharan Africa since 2004, focusing mainly on South Africa, Tanzania and Nigeria. My most recent major publication, The Green State in Africa, argued that environmental governance is central to state-building in Africa, and that climate change is an important area for international solidarity and campaigns for justice.[1] I am currently working on African long-term climate strategies.
  2. My submission to this inquiry is motivated by the importance of international co-operation in the struggle for climate justice and sustainable development. In the light of the urgent need for far-reaching, international action to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goals, opportunities for international co-operation, solidarity and mutual support should be seized to radically increase the momentum behind initiatives for a (Global) Green New Deal, decarbonisation of the economy, and climate justice. This must be underpinned by far-reaching policy shifts domestically and internationally in order to achieve the scale of ambition needed to avoid the worst manifestations of climate catastrophe. This challenge offers significant opportunities for co-operation between the UK, the African Union and African governments, but the extent of the challenges ahead should not be underestimated.


Main findings in relation to inquiry questions


What will be the major impacts of climate change on Sub-Saharan Africa? How do these differ from the impacts on the West?

  1. The African continent is already experiencing diverse but severe impacts of climate change, ranging across floods in Mozambique, oil pollution in the Niger Delta, and drought in northern Kenya. These have been well-documented by extensive research and are predicted to worsen rapidly in the coming years.[2] According to the IPCC, ‘Africa as a whole is one of the most vulnerable continents due to its high exposure and low adaptive capacity.’ I would like to draw attention to two further areas of impact which are sometimes overlooked.


  1. First, the indirect impacts arising from large scale mitigation initiatives, such as reforestation, biofuels, other forms of carbon sequestration, and shifting political economies of energy, transport, construction and so on, are extensive and not always positive. Reforestation schemes and biofuel plantations have attracted considerable attention in recent years, often pejoratively referred to as ‘Green Grabs’, and the controversies they have caused must be taken seriously in order for development interventions to be regarded as legitimate.[3] Massive re-foresting schemes, such as the Great Green Wall in the Sahel or REDD+ programmes in the DRC, may be important opportunities for carbon sequestration but they also pose huge consequences for local societies, economies and ecologies for generations to come. They involve stringent new controls on land access and use, in regions where food and fuel insecurity are often acute, and benefits for local communities are often non-existent or fail to materialise. The gendered implications of ‘green grabs’ are also serious and have implications for climate justice.[4] There is a widespread perception amongst many communities and climate justice activists that these schemes are seen as attractive options because they are ‘far away’ from the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), with no obligation to change Western lifestyles, and they are regarded as relatively technologically ‘easy’ and popular with Western audienceswho could be opposed to more trees and ‘wilderness’ in Africa? Yet this all helps to conceal some of their negative impacts.


  1. Second, and relatedly, there is a wider cultural or discursive impact of climate change on Africa, which is in effect a deepening of existing (mis)perceptions about African economies and societies. There has been a reversal of recent more progressive ideas around African potential, renaissance and development. As the likelihood of increasing climate catastrophe mounts, and the incidence of climate-related disasters in Africa increases, there is an observable tendency in some commentators and segments of public opinion in the UK and elsewhere to ‘give up’ on the continent. ‘Africa’, in this sense, is increasingly at risk of being relegated to older Afro-pessimist (sometimes explicitly racist) worldviews in which the continent is seen as ‘inhospitable terrain and characterised by a ‘failure of governance. For example, in an influential book by science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in which they imagine a future historian looking back on a past that is our present and (possible) future, Africa merits only brief, in-passing mentions: As social order began to break down in the 2050s, governments were overthrown, particularly in Africa. It goes on to suggest that by the twenty-second century, The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out’.[5]


What is your assessment of the actions being taken by governments in Sub-Saharan Africa and by the African Union to combat climate change?

  1. There are two main parts to this question: the regional response and national-level actions. In terms of the region, it is welcome to see the need for climate action being noted prominently by the African Union, as well as by other continent-wide institutions, programmes and partnerships. The African Development Bank and the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) in the UNFCCC are particularly important for coordinating continental positions and responses. Most assessments of the African Union’s position on climate change are that it is to be welcomed in principle, but that it i) doesn’t go far enough in appreciation of the scale of the challenge ahead; ii) occupies a lower rank in priority relative to issues of development, trade, economic growth and peace and security; and iii) is likely to be stymied by long-running weaknesses of the AU in terms of organisational capacity, budget, and political buy-in from member states. There is potential for climate change to become a unifying campaign for the AU, bringing together member states and becoming the institutional embodiment of a strong continental voice for more robust and radical international action for climate justice. However, there is little sign of this at present.


  1. In terms of the national-level responses, here the greatest danger is assuming uniformity across the continent. As in other regions of the world, levels of action and degrees of ambition, capacity and vulnerability vary markedly from country to country (and within countries). There is no shortcut to understanding this heterogeneity, and no substitute for country-level research, expertise, and working with the relevant experts within countries.[6] In terms of the countries I know best from my research, South Africa has sought to play the role of a ‘climate leader’ since the early 2000s, and has made significant contributions to global climate science, international negotiations, and provides some examples of innovative and proactive adaptation and mitigation actions.[7] Even here, in one of the ‘best cases’ for climate policy in terms of ambition and capacity, there is a widespread sense amongst experts and activists that too little is being done, climate policy is too low as a political priority, and the other economic and social challenges faced in the country threaten to overwhelm the necessary action on climate change. Other continental leaders often singled out include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya and Morocco.[8] Ambition and capacity on climate policy appear to be increasing, slowly in Nigeria, but the particular challenges of reforming a petro-state have so far appeared almost insuperable.[9]


  1. It is important to note here that these comments about ambition and capacity in African states are also true almost everywhere else in the world – even the wealthiest, most democratic, and most technologically advanced countries are generally well short of the necessary actions for avoiding climate catastrophe. In this respect, it is necessary to look for international opportunities to build coalitions of ambition and expertise. The depth of historical experience in Sub-Saharan Africa of living in and governing challenging environmental contexts – weathering droughts, floods, famines and diseases – is one important African contribution to global climate co-operation.


How should governments in Sub-Saharan Africa balance their countries’ need for energy for economic growth and development, which may rely on polluting industries, with the need to reduce emissions globally?

  1. Again, here it is necessary to begin by warning of the dangers of homogenising a vast continent. There are very different challenges and political circumstances across Africa and no single solutions. It is also crucial that the UK – and UK-based experts – avoid lecturing African governments about the need to prioritise emission reduction. To do so would be to invite ridicule and the charge of hypocrisy, given the UK is still engaged in opening new deep coal mines.


  1.                     Beyond these opening points, of course African contributions to gross and historic GHG emissions are tiny. The struggle to decarbonise economies will be won or lost elsewhere. Conversely, there are huge opportunities in terms of renewable energy and alternative development paths in Africa, and ‘leapfrogging’ Western fossil fuelled development is an exciting prospect.[10] Electrifying the continent has to be a primary development goal, and wind/solar power will be an important (and increasing) element of that. This is one area where UK financial support and technical capacity could be most of use in scaling-up African ‘low carbon energy transitions, with huge potential impacts in terms of poverty reduction, education, and human rights, as well as in climate change impacts.[11] The bottom line here, however, is that the UK needs to ‘get its own house in order’ in terms of decarbonising the economy. Progress on this front will outweigh any support offered on poverty or sustainable development in Africa, in terms of the direct impact on GHG emissions and the potential for international climate leadership.


Does Sub-Saharan Africa have sufficient influence in global talks on climate change?

  1.                     The short, blunt answer is of course ‘no’. Who would not want more influence? However, as a region Africa has been well-represented in the UNFCCC process, both in terms of direct mentions in negotiated outcomes, and by prominent negotiators, politicians and as COP hosts (e.g. COP17, Durban, 2011). This has been aided by the formation since 2008-9 of an African Common Position on climate change. Although this has not always been easy to maintain, it has enabled African negotiators to ‘punch above their weight’. The 1.5˚C goal agreed in Paris was a key demand of African negotiators, and seen as a big step forward from the disaster of Copenhagen.


  1.                     Yet the dwindling of momentum since 2015 and the lack of sufficient ambition in Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) is a huge cause for concern. The slow pace of concrete progress on decarbonising economies, financing adaptation, and the non-starter of providing restitution for already existing loss and damage, are all seen as evidence that Africa, and developing countries in general, have been unable to use their fear and frustration about impending climate catastrophe to secure binding and equitable international action on climate change.[12] The finance and technological support needed by Africa (and elsewhere) has not been forthcoming in sufficient quantities, and the wider collapse of the multilateral approach to climate action and governance has been a huge disappointment to many African climate activists.


  1.                     The agreement from the UK and AU ‘to work together to promote and protect an equitable and inclusive rules-based international system’ has to be seen in this light. When it comes to climate change, the international system does not appear to be particularly equitable, inclusive or rules-based. Rather, climate multilateralism is in crisis and the prospects for reviving it seem slim. It is possible to imagine a radically different post-Coronavirus world order, with US, Chinese and EU leaders inspired by a revived vision of multilateral governance, and UK-AU co-operation could play a part in driving towards this prospect. However, post-Brexit UK influence on multilateral governance and international architecture is likely to be diminished.


What is your assessment of UK efforts to address the impact of climate change in the region? Is it appropriate for ODA be used to develop oil and gas infrastructure in low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and for the Government to encourage UK private investment in these sectors?

  1.                     The reputation of the UK in terms of climate-related development assistance is somewhat paradoxical. The UK is seen as a significant donor in terms of providing climate-related development assistance, and there are doubtless many examples of good programmes and projects. Yet, at the same time, UK development assistance in this area is widely regarded as meagre and tokenistic, a mere drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the challenge,[13] and completely undercut by apparently ‘higher’ priorities in terms of promoting UK trade, foreign and security policy, and investment opportunities for firms.


  1.                     In this vein, whatever credibility and good faith the UK might have retained in Sub-Saharan Africa on climate policy and sustainable development is jeopardised by continued funding and encouragement for oil and gas infrastructure. A case in point is the press coverage of the January 2020 UK-Africa investment summit, where it was reported that ‘More than 90% of the £2bn in energy deals struck were for fossil fuels, despite a government commitment to “support African countries in their transition to cleaner energy”’. In theory, a case could be made for UK expertise and funding being used to support ‘carbon neutral’ advanced technologies for oil/gas infrastructure in order to help the poorest countries achieve low carbon energy transitions, but I see little evidence of this happening in a sustained way. Rather, the perception is that any talk of climate policy or sustainable development evaporates, and is little more than ‘hot air’, when lucrative opportunities to promote UK companies investing in oil and gas infrastructure are spotted. In advance of the January Summit a range of UK civil society voices warned that it seemed that UK policy was ‘less about effective development and more about promoting British business interests’, and this was born out by the summit itself, with climate campaigners urging the government to ‘pull the plug on UK funding for oil and gas projects abroad too.’ Again, the perception is that it is believed that these opportunities can be pursued with little accountability or controversy by virtue of being ‘far away’, or cloaked with (sometimes dubious) platitudes about poverty reduction and economic development.


  1.                     To reiterate and develop a point made above: in terms of climate policy the overwhelming priority in the UK must be ‘to get our own house in order’, and decarbonise our energy, transport, and construction systems. This is the best the UK could do for the rest of the world, including Africa, in terms of reducing GHG emissions and providing an example of climate leadership. It is crucial that this is not achieved at the expense of poorer countries, and that equal attention is paid to decarbonising UK supply chains and energy imports.


Are there any other issues you would wish to draw to our attention?

  1.                     My recommendations for the Inquiry are that the UK’s approach to development, trade and investment with African countries should be informed by a climate justice agenda. Specifically:


    1. Avoid lecturing African governments about their responsibilities, instead focussing on the challenges of decarbonising the UK economy, meeting obligations under the Paris Agreement, and recognise the historic responsibility of Anglo-European nations for existing climate-related loss and damage by facilitating financial and technological transfers to the global south in support of a just transition to a zero carbon world.
    2. Address the negative social, economic and ecological impacts of large scale mitigation initiatives, such as reforestation programmes.
    3. Challenge Afro-pessimist discourses that Africa cannot survive climate change, e.g. by recognising the extent of historical experience in Sub-Saharan Africa in living in and governing challenging environments.
    4. Invest time and energy in country-level research, expertise, and working with the relevant experts within countries, to counter the risk of homogenising policy approaches to the continent.
    5. Build coalitions of ambition and expertise with governments who are committed to decarbonising economies and achieving a just transition, demonstrating solidarity in the form of financial and technical support, and ending investment in oil and gas infrastructure in the vast majority of cases (at home and abroad).
    6. Actively promote and protect an equitable and inclusive rules-based international system, based on the principles of climate justice and multilateralism.


Received 9 April 2020

[1] This book was the recipient of the 2018 Harold and Margaret Spout award for best monograph, awarded by the Environmental Studies Section of the International Studies Association. See https://www.isanet.org/Programs/Awards/Harold-Margaret-Sprout/Past-Recipients

[2] AfDB and WWF, African Ecological Futures 2015 (Abidjan; AfDB and WWF, 2015).

[3] Joanes O. Atela, The Politics of Agricultural Carbon Finance: The Case of the Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project (Brighton: STEPS Centre, 2012); Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher, ‘Accumulation by Conservation’, New Political Economy, 20, 2 (2015), pp. 273-298; Matias E. Margulis, Nora McKeon and Saturnino M. Borras Jr, ‘Land Grabbing and Global Governance: Critical Perspectives’, Globalizations, 10, 1 (2013), pp. 1-23.

[4] Vincent Tanyanyiwa and Esther Mufunda, ‘Gendered impacts of climate change: The Zimbabwe perspective’, in W. Leal Filho et al (eds) Climate Action (Basel; Springer, 2020), pp. 543-564; Melissa Leach, James Fairhead, and James Fraser, ‘Green grabs and biochar: Revaluing African soils and farming in the new carbon economy’, Journal of Peasant Studies, 39, 2 (2012), pp. 285-307.

[5] Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The collapse of western civilisation: A view from the future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 25 and 33.

[6] Cullen S. Hendrix, ‘The streetlight effect in climate change research on Africa’, Global Environmental Change, 43 (2017), pp. 137-147.

[7] Also, Harald Winkler, Cleaner Energy, Cooler Climate: Developing Sustainable Energy Solutions for South Africa (Cape Town; HSRC, 2009); Carl Death, ‘The Green Economy in South Africa: Global Discourses and Local Politics’, Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies, 41, 1 (2014), pp. 1-22; Carl Death, ‘Leading By Example: South African Foreign Policy and Global Environmental Politics’, International Relations, 25, 4 (2011), pp. 453-476.

[8] On Ethiopia, see Chukwumerije Okereke, Alexia Coke, Mulu Geebreyesus, Tsegaye Ginbo, Jeremy J. Wakeford and Yacob Mulugetta, ‘Governing green industrialisation in Africa: Assessing key parameters for a sustainable socio-technical transition in the context of Ethiopia’, World Development, 115 (2019), pp. 279-290. See also Carl Death, The Green State in Africa (New Haven; Yale University Press, 2016); Carl Death, ‘Green states in Africa: Going beyond the usual suspects’, Environmental Politics, 25, 1 (2016), pp. 116-135.

[9] Adeniyi P. Asiyanbi, ‘“I don’t get this climate stuff!” Making sense of climate change among the corporate middle class in Lagos’, Public Understanding of Science, 24, 8 (2015), pp. 1007-1024; Carl Death, ‘Gatekeeping practices in global environmental politics: African biopolitics and oil assemblages in Nigeria’, Third World Thematics 3, (2018), pp. 419-438.

[10] Yacob Mulugetta and Frauke Urban, ‘Deliberating on low carbon development’, Energy Policy, 38 (2010), pp. 7546-7549.

[11] Peter Newell & Harriet Bulkeley, ‘Landscape for change? International climate policy and energy transitions: Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa’, Climate Policy, 17, 5 (2017), pp. 650-663.

[12] Simon Chin-yee, ‘Briefing: Africa and the Paris Climate Agreement’, African Affairs, 115, 459 (2016), pp. 359-368.

[13] I note the exchange between Lord Hannay of Chiswick and Andrew Mitchell MP in regard to the volume of aid spent on climate change, Evidence Session #1, Select Committee on International Relations and Defence, 22 January 2020, p. 11.