Despite contributing a mere 4% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Africa disproportionately bears the brunt of climate change’s devasting impacts. In fact, Just Transition Africa emphasises that Africa is especially vulnerable owing to its debt burden, high levels of poverty and absence of food, water and energy security.
With Africa’s key role in the net zero transition, the just transition’s tenets of environmental, social and climate justice ought to be firmly embedded within international and national policy mechanisms for net zero. However, even coming to a consensus on what exactly the just transition means for the continent has proven to be a roadblock for African leaders and the international community.
In September 2023, the inaugural African Climate Summit saw the conspicuous absence of leaders from South Africa, Nigeria and Uganda over how the low-carbon transition ought to proceed. Where some in the international community have argued that a low-carbon transition has no room for fossil fuels, some African leaders believe that the immediate energy and economic needs of the African people need to be met first.
At the heart of these tensions seems to lie a disagreement over what is considered ‘just’, and how that justice ought to be delivered. How then do we move Africa’s urgently needed just transition forward?
An opportunity and not a burden
Currently, the World Economic Forum estimates that between 2022 and 2030, Africa alone will need US$2.8 trillion to fulfil its nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. However, global climate finance flows were only at US$ 1.3 trillion for 2021/2022, illustrating a significant investment gap across climate mitigation and adaptation.
This investment gap has been one of the largest roadblocks in Africa’s just transition. On the one hand, Africa faces calls from the international community to rapidly decarbonise and phase out fossil fuels completely. On the other hand, Africa requires significant pools of affordable energy to meet economic and social needs but often find that renewable energy is more expensive and less secure than traditional fossil fuels.
African nations are often not averse to a low-carbon transition. However, without the right financial incentives and technical assistance, premature commitments to phase out fossil fuels only leave African leaders frustrated at their inability to exploit at-hand resources while having no financially viable alternative.
Moving forward requires the ‘just transition’ to be framed as an opportunity – not an undue burden. Commitments to the transition need to be backed with the necessary international green financing, knowledge sharing and institutional capacity building. Ultimately, an approach that restricts rather than incentivises will only exacerbate existing political tensions and draw the global community further away from its ‘just’ goal.
There is no just transition without a just economic system
The just transition not only pays attention to net zero but also demands the establishment of a globally just economic system. As Kenyan President William Ruto notes, the global financial system is “outdated, dysfunctional and unjust” and Africa has suffered as a result.
Fossil fuels extracted from Africa are largely planned for export, resulting in the removal of resource and the repatriation of profits to foreign lands, leaving little behind to support Africa’s economic development. Similarly, voluntary carbon markets that have been promoted as sources of green income have been subjected to profit repatriation. International brokers and verification bodies operating outside of Africa but within Africa’s carbon markets can charge up to 70% of the value of an offset credit, severely reducing the revenue that reaches local communities. Moreover, credits verified by the same standards generate US$7–9/credit in Africa, while credits generated in the EU and Japan are fetching more than $100/credit.
Enhanced national, regional and international governance measures need to be in place to ensure that Africa’s resources are valued fairly and that profits remain with the African people. International institutions such as the World Trade Organisation must advocate for trade that firmly incorporates just principles. If any value is truly to be derived from the low-carbon transition for Africa, the global value chain must be addressed.
Justice must not be an afterthought
Africa’s just transition and its dignified and prosperous future will not be achieved without significant change. The just transition must be led by a firm commitment to rethink, remedy and repatriate. Justice must sit firmly at the heart of all climate action.