Common but Different: Africa and Europe’s climate responsibilities


When it comes to climate change, Africa and Europe have one thing in common: countries in both regions are either signatories or parties to the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in 2016. This is not a trivial matter. It means that the 2017 Abidjan AU-EU Summit climate ambitions were based on a firm and approved framework. The EU, Africa’s main trading partner, has demonstrated its ambition to lead the climate transition with its European Green Deal. Africans should commend these policy goals and emulate them as much as possible, while at the same time warning their Northern partners about the possible negative impact of several Green Deal related EU legislations on the continent.

Countries’ commitments to the Paris Agreement are a legally binding process recognising that the climate challenge transcends borders. The Agreement captures several principles, which are important for Africa to reaffirm, such as the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities; and, with it, respective capabilities. Accounting for only 2–3 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industrial sources and with a population leaving a carbon footprint of 0.8 metric tons per person compared to the 3.9 tons per person of the global average, Africa certainly cannot be considered a major polluter. 

The Paris Agreement recognises that the climate challenge transcends borders. It captures several principles, which are important for Africa, such as the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities; and, with it, respective capabilities @LopesInsights

The Paris Agreement recognises the centrality of the financing and technology transfer to facilitate the necessary transition in developing countries. In the aforementioned Abidjan Summit (2017), leaders agreed to the “full implementation” of the Agreement, “taking into account the commitments on climate finance made in Copenhagen (2009) with a target of reaching USD 100 billion per year by 2020 [extended to 2025], to support developing countries in responding to climate change.” 

Nobody should doubt that the implementation of these agreements will be challenging, even more so in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. The slow pace in accessing vaccines will delay the recovery and put more pressure on the fiscal space of African countries, already trapped by a myriad of macroeconomic limitations. There are many impediments in the way of a forceful green transition.  One of them is the clear withdrawal of OECD countries from financing commitments towards developing countries in general, as well as a drastic repurposing of programmed ODA to subsidise vaccines and offer humanitarian relief and medical support.

Current discussions around Intellectual Property and vaccines may point to how international players will engage on green-related technologies: Is it going to be a “me first” or a “global public goods” approach? @LopesInsights

The attention to climate justice, enshrined in the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, is getting further and further away. As major economies propagate the idea of “building back better”, African countries wonder whether the need of some to just “build” has been forgotten in the process. 

The industrial transformation process – facilitated by the AfCTA – is certainly perceived in Africa as the structural response the continent needs to speed up. Given the current context it also offers opportunities for industrialising differently, but convincingly, with a much lower carbon footprint; enhanced by renewable energies and sustainable infrastructure.  These choices were made by African countries before the slogan “building back” came into being.  Africa, therefore, does not need patronizing about whether it is hesitating on climate concerns but rather calls for a policy space to carve out its own climate and development policy choices.

Current discussions around Intellectual Property and vaccine access may be a precursor as to how international players will engage on green-related technologies. Is it going to be a demonstration of “me first”, responding to domestic political pressures and electoral cycles or a more robust “global public goods” approach, based on solidarity and long-term gains? For the moment, the balance is clearly tilting in one worrisome direction.

If Africa remains dependent on good will and leftovers that are packaged as the only viable response for it to deal with the current pandemic, the odds are its structural transformation will be compromised. To illustrate the point, we can either wait for the COVAX vaccination scheme to help Africans attain herd immunity and remain a recipient of the  technologies and products of others or accept the waiving of patents – resulting from research amply funded by public resources – and enhance the established pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity, allowing Africa to manufacture its own vaccines. Therefore, measures introduced by partners, including those with whom Africa trades, can contribute positively if well-crafted, or negatively, if they fail to consider their structural impact. 

Africa’s partners can contribute positively if measures are well-crafted, or negatively, if they fail to consider their structural impact. One worrisome measure is the EU’s proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM). Another is the Farm-to-Fork initiative @LopesInsights

One possible worrisome spillover is the proposed Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), which foresees the introduction of a tax on imports entering the EU from third countries. The recent resolution of the European Parliament backing the tax gives an indication of potential risks. While the Parliament agrees that the “Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States should be given special treatment in order to take account of their specificities and the potential negative impacts of the CBAM on their development”, it excludes several African countries whose economies, albeit graduated to the Middle-Income category, cannot afford the shock generated by the introduction of such tax. And this right at the moment they are recovering from a pandemic. It just so happens that the African countries with the highest trading value with the EU are precisely the latter. 

Similar concerns exist in terms of the impact of some measures, such as the Farm-to-Fork initiative on access of agricultural goods to the EU market. It is well-known that African farmers have always faced a plethora of conditionalities in their attempts to access the EU’s agricultural market. Additional measures are only likely to exacerbate this challenge. This is very different from the nice-to-hear story about allowing Africans full market access. The trade problem Africa has is not because of lack of market access on principle, but rather the battery of other dimensions that eventually impede that same access, not known or understood by its leaders. 

It is evident that both continents are committed to climate change. But beyond that broad commitment, additional dialogue is required to flesh out the details of a common agenda that should enshrine the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. Such dialogue should take place within the framework of a continent-to-continent partnership. It is therefore urgent to now move towards establishing an adequate instrument for the partnership where dialogue can truly help both continents move towards a win-win relationship. 

Carlos Lopes, Professor, Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town and African Union High Representative for Partnerships with Europe.

Article by:

Carlos Lopes
Carlos Lopes
Professor at the Mandela School of Public Governance, UCT

ACCORD recognizes its longstanding partnerships with the European Union, and the Governments of Canada, Finland, Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, UK, and USA.