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African leaders must remember who they serve at this week's climate talks

by Mohamed Adow | Christian Aid - UK
Wednesday, 11 April 2018 11:19 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A cargo ship is seen crossing through the New Suez Canal, Ismailia, Egypt, July 25, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer/File Photo

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Silence is not an option for African leaders at this week's climate talks on shipping

Silence is not an option for African leaders at global climate change talks. The stakes are too high. The risks rising fast. The lack of global efforts palpable. Africans across the continent need their governments to take a stand when there are opportunities to do so and say: "Not on our watch". There’s such a moment this week in London, where more than 170 countries are meeting at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to work out a climate deal for shipping. 

The sector accounts for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly equal to Germany.

Of more concern it’s a share projected to rise to a fifth of the global total by mid century unless action is taken. That would wipe out hopes of limiting warming to below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, a key demand by African leaders that became a core tenet of the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

Yet how many African countries can really say they are pulling their weight at the IMO talks?

Last week only six African countries had delegates in the room: Angola, Ghana, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa. Of those only Liberia came out in support of a widely supported proposal to support at least a cut of 50 percent in shipping CO2 by 2050 (on 2008 levels) - and even that is well off a 1.5C pathway.

The question must be why are African nations showing a very serious lack of awareness and engagement?

Climate change represents an existential threat to our continent, as the U.N.’s IPCC Fifth Assessment Report report made clear in 2014. Evidence of warming over land regions across Africa was already clear, it said. Further warming will “amplify existing stress on water availability” and “multiply existing threats to human security including food, health, and economic insecurity”. 

Later this year African leaders will be at the U.N. climate talks in Poland pushing countries to engage in the Talanoa Dialogue, the process of strengthening the pledges contained in the Paris Agreement to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Yet if African leaders don’t act at this week’s meeting in London, achieving that goal will be much more difficult. 

The costs of attending a global conference are high - we know this at the U.N.’s main set of climate talks, where African participation has always been an issue.

The costs of taking action and cleaning up the shipping sector are also high - incoming regulations governing air pollution from ships will cost the sector billions of dollars.

And yes, there are valid fears that tougher rules on shipping pollution may disadvantage the developing world making exports of commodities bound for the United States and Europe more expensive.

These are precisely the reasons why those African delegates who are at the IMO need to stand up for their continent and ensure that a deal struck later this week is right for Africa. 

We know climate change will hurt our port facilities. A recent study by HSBC estimated that Asian ports will have to invest billions of dollars to upgrade facilities to cope with rising seas and storms.

We know - as a recent study by the rich nations OECD think tank ITF shows - that investment in new marine technologies will need to be immense to keep emissions in line with 1.5C.

That’s why our envoys need to be in London this week demanding that the IMO offers answers in the form of finance and investment packages. It’s why they need to be fighting for the rights of African businesses to be able to access foreign markets as cheaply as possible. 

But they need to be heard in the same way as delegates from other climate vulnerable nations are making themselves heard this week. On Monday, Bangladesh’s delegate spoke of his pain at the risk of breaking the 1.5C temperature goal, warning it would mean “our country will be partially or fully underwater”.

“We urge IMO to align their goal with the Paris Agreement temperature goal. It is challenging but not impossible. Any delay or obstacle in this process will worsen our condition only."

My call to African delegates in London this week is simple.  Remember who you serve, remember why you serve, and fight for the best deal for Africa, not for the shipping sector, not big business and not faceless shipping registries that use developing country flags for fun. 

Mohamed Adow is a Kenyan, and Christian Aid’s International Climate Lead.