As the UNFCCC’s twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP) gets underway in Paris today to negotiate a post-2020 international climate treaty, it is time to recognize that African countries have come a long way in the global climate negotiations process. In the earlier days, climate change was portrayed as a scientific problem for so-called “developed” countries to debate among themselves; Africa was not seen as a potential actor but rather as a victim, passively bearing the brunt of climatic changes. African countries’ contributions to the yearly COPs were further constrained by insufficient resources and limited institutional capacity. However, over the years, African countries have become increasingly unified on climate change—no small feat, considering the stark differences in relative wealth, vulnerability to climate change, language, emissions, and oil and coal resources across countries.

The path to achieving something approaching an “African Common Position” has required a great deal of behind-the-scenes work. African countries have worked through regional blocs to provide input to the UNFCCC, notably as members of the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) as well as the influential “G77 + China” group, which represents developing countries. (Smaller subsets of African countries are also in the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Least-Developed Countries (LDC) group.) The AGN has become the front-line group by which African countries have represented their climate change interests to the world, bolstered by increased institutional coordination across the continent. For instance, the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment has provided technical input and political oversight to develop an African Common Position on climate change. This Common Position receives a high-level endorsement by the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC), established by the African Union in 2009. Other bodies (like the AfDB) and regional events (like the yearly African climate talks) also feed into this process.

Of course, consensus is not always easy to come by: for instance, in 2009 in Copenhagen, fissures between Sudan and Ethiopia emerged, and certain representatives strayed from the African Common Position at the subsequent Cancun COP. However, thanks both to Africa’s increased prominence globally and the high-caliber technical and financial efforts expended to develop a robust Common Position, the AGN is in a better position than ever to advance African interests at the COP 21 in Paris. Yet African negotiators will be facing challenges in the next few weeks on the following issues:

  • Mitigation. Aside from the still-open question of emissions reduction targets, the issue of how to divide mitigation responsibility across developed and developing countries—and even how to define “developed” and “developing” countries in the first place—is one of the chief hurdles that Paris negotiators face. The Kyoto Protocol featured a static division between “Annex 1” (developed) and “Annex 2” (developing) countries, where only Annex 1 countries were bound to reduce emissions. Since then, developed countries have pushed to break the “firewall” between Annex 1 and Annex 2 countries and spread the mitigation burden across to the wealthier emerging economies, which Annex 2 countries (including African countries) met with resistance. The 2009 Copenhagen talks failed for precisely this reason. (This tension illustrates the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), which holds that all states are responsible for addressing climate change but that the mitigation burden for each country should reflect their level of economic development and their level of contribution to the problem.) However, since 2011, there has been a shift toward recognition that developing countries should also begin controlling emissions. Recent African attitudes toward CBDR also reflect this shift; for instance, the 2015 Africa Progress Report condemned the “sterile deadlock” over CBDR and instead encouraged developing countries to obtain the support they need to transition to a low-carbon economy. Still, adequate reference to CBDR in the final agreement is important to the AGN, yet the current final draft of the text heading into the COP 21 mentions CBDR only in some of its bracketed language.

The new approach to CBDR ahead of the Paris talks is a bottom-up one in which states submitted wholly voluntary, non-binding “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs)—i.e., emissions reduction goals. All African countries other than Libya have submitted INDCs (Nigeria and Angola cut it close, submitting their INDCs only on November 28 and 29, respectively). Because there is no set format or minimum emissions amount, African INDCs vary widely from one another in structure, ambition, and type of commitment (reduction-based versus action-based). Most African INDCs provide an emissions reduction target, typically to be reached by 2030 relative to a business-as-usual baseline; about fourteen African countries—ranging from Burkina Faso and Niger to Ghana and Morocco—specify an unconditional, minimum target (not dependent on receiving external climate finance) and then an additional target contingent on external funding. A number of countries’ targets are wholly contingent on funding, with no unconditional minimum reduction. At a minimum, however, these African INDCs provide a glimpse of each African country’s plan for a low-carbon, climate-resilient development pathway, which climate aid donors can use to guide their future support.

  • Adaptation. The issue of adaptation is an overriding priority for African countries, yet the draft agreement continues to be heavily mitigation-centric, despite Africa’s best efforts. At the COP 20 in Lima last year, the AGN had to fight to keep adequate reference to adaptation in the text. The fact that the current draft’s Article 4 contains language recognizing the importance of adaptation reflects the AGN’s enhanced role in prior negotiations, but the AGN is still said to be disappointed with the lack of focus on adaptation in the current draft.
  • Climate finance. The issue of financial support from wealthy countries to support adaptation and mitigation activities is of paramount importance for Africa, but, to date, the continent has been “poorly served” by climate finance. For one, funding has heavily focused on mitigation. Moreover, funding levels remain too low relative to need: UNEP has estimated that the average annual costs to Africa of adapting to unavoidable climate change would reach somewhere between $7-15 billion by 2020, and $15-18 billion in the following decade. Though estimates vary, Africa has been receiving closer to half a billion to at most $3 billion per year for adaptation; this amount will likely increase in the near future given the World Bank’s recently-announced Africa Climate Business Plan. To address this, some of the options favored by the AGN in the current draft call for a progressive scaling-up from a “floor” annual commitment of $100 billion for climate aid, to be allocated as determined by developing country priorities. While this language may be a tough sell for the AGN at the COP 21, climate finance (especially for adaptation) is another area in which the AGN will have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership.
  • Loss and damage. During COP 19, the AGN pushed the issue of how to address loss and damage caused by adverse climate events. In part as a result, a “Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage” was established. Now, in the run-up to Paris, the AOSIS and LDC blocs have advocated for including a stand-alone “loss and damage” component for the post-Kyoto agreement. Certain developed countries have countered that loss and damage instead falls under “adaptation.” This is not just a matter of categorization: financial commitments could be at stake, as the goal of mobilizing $100 billion yearly by 2020 is supposed to cover both mitigation and adaptation, so stand-alone loss and damage could re-open funding negotiations. This advocacy by AOSIS and LDCs was preliminarily successful—Article 5 of the final draft text is separate from the article on adaptation and sketches the contours of a mechanism on loss and damage. However, the entire article is subject to removal.
  • Technology transfer. The issue of technology transfer remains a contentious one—notably because of intellectual property rights regarding green technologies—but one whose outcome will impact the shape of African countries’ trajectories towards low-carbon economies. While this issue will likely not be one of the main sticking points in the negotiations, the AGN will aim to obtain firm commitments on technology transfer and to boost the existing “Technology Mechanism” for green technology transfer.

The Paris talks represent a critical juncture for Africa. A recent Science article suggests that even if all countries around the world implement their INDCs, the probability that average warming will stay under 2°C is only about 8%. This means that vulnerable African countries and populations will, at a minimum, continue to be confronted with drought, food insecurity, and extreme climate events. So, in this COP 21, the AGN will need to negotiate fiercely to obtain the financial and technical climate assistance deemed necessary to adapt to unavoidable impacts. More than ever, a unified African position will prove crucial.