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Paris agreement: What does the US pullout mean for Africa?

Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth im
June 2, 2017

President Trump's controversial decision isn't all bad news for the African continent, as many countries seek to be self-reliant in terms of climate change adaptation and move closer towards a clean energy industry.

Washington Anti Trump Protest
Image: Reuters/J. Roberts

Following US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the landmark Paris agreement, questions are being askedabout how the US's absence will impact other countries' attempts to tackle climate change.

DW spoke with Professor Bob Scholes, a South African climate scientist and one of the lead authors on the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), about how the decision will affect Africa.

DW: We know that Africa's contribution to carbon emissions is minimal yet the continent suffers the effects of climate change the most. The western world has committed to supporting Africa combat climate change. How is President Trump's decision going to affect this commitment?

Professor Bob Scholes: The main impact is twofold. Firstly, it's the symbolic impact of the world uniting to address a common problem which cannot be solved by any one country going it alone. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) agreement was incredibly important and so to withdraw from that is avery damaging act in terms of global solidarity and moral leadership. In terms of an actual impact on the development of climate change over the next couple of decades, it will be quite small for three reasons. The first reason is that climate change is cumulative and there would not have been that much bending of the climate curve anyway within the next two decades or so. As a result of COP 21 the real impact would be towards the end of the century. The second reason is that while the US is the second biggest emitter in the world, it only counts for 20 percent of the global total. It's not going to suddenly double or halve that contribution, so that puts an upper limit on how much effect it can have on the global climate. The third reason is that most American emitters are going to change their behavior towards reduced emissions anyway for a variety of reasons. There are a whole lot of direct benefits from doing so in terms of reduced pollution and increased energy efficiency and many of them actually see this as an important global problem, regardless of what their president or federal government says. So we already see a huge amount of action taking place in America, in industries, cities and some states. Also, if America wishes to remain economically competitive on the world stage, it actually has to get with the program, otherwise it won't be able to sell its goods which have a high carbon content and won't be able to penetrate the new and emerging market for renewable energy. So those are all compelling reasons why America will probably reduce its emissions quite in line with what was proposed under COP 21, but is declining to be in any way accountable. 

Does this announcement have any direct impact on Africa as a continent?

Yes, it does. Obviously in the long term we are extremely vulnerable to climate change – as, incidentally, is the US. The long-term consequences of a failed climate agreement for Africa would be dire. In the shorter term, I think the big impact really is on the continental belief in social justice and in the emergence of a world order which they wish to be part of. If one of the countries who has always stood as a beacon in that area suddenly decides that it's going to behave in an extremely inward looking and selfish way, what incentive is there for African countries on both this matter and other international issues to behave differently?

Are African governments implementing any independent initiatives towards fighting climate change?

Yes, we have always been quite self-reliant in terms of adaptation, because it's very clear that if you don't adapt you will carry the full burden of consequences. So African governments have been really quite proactive around adapting to climate change. But what they have been able to do in terms of mitigation is much more limited because their emissions – with the exception of a few countries like South Africa – are relatively small, so that hasn't really been a key issue. They are of course thinking about their developmental trajectory and in general African governments are looking forward to moving on to a new energy trajectory which doesn't go through the high emission phase but proceeds directly to a much cleaner and greener way of doing business.

Since the continent relies heavily on US support, how best can Africa now position itself in the Paris agreement alongside other major players, such as the European Union and China?

I don't wish to over-emphasize the role which aid plays in Africa. Yes, it is important for some governments in terms of development. But overall it's more relative to trade interactions. So we should not suggest that the loss of a fraction of official development aid which is associated with climate change and the US is going to cripple the development of Africa. In some ways it might focus them on looking for domestic solutions rather than international solutions, which often come with many hidden conditions. So it's not necessarily a desperate situation. But it is true that Africa would certainly benefit from a leg-up to get on to a development path which is both globally emissions-friendly and locally more sustainable. We must always remember that many of the driving forces for that economic transition in Africa actually originate outside of Africa, in places like China, Europe and the US, either through demand for Africa resources or through the direct establishment of farming and bio-energy enterprises on the African continent.

China's massive investment in the African continent has the potential to contribute towards industrialization. Are African countries taking any measures to ensure that industrialization does not go the same way it has in China, where emissions are extremely high?

I think the answer to that is probably mixed. I think that there's a general awareness that none of this development comes without environmental costs. I think the degree to which that awareness actually is built into the planning and choices varies greatly between different parts of the continent. So it is certainly something that they need to bear in mind and there's absolutely no reason to follow the exact developmental path that many other parts of the world have followed, into extremely damaging industries and finally climbing out of that hole into much more environmentally responsible industries. We could process directly towards a clean industry. We don't have to go through that valley of despair first.

Interview: Jane Ayeko-Kümmeth 

Professor Bob Scholes is a leading systems ecologist and climate scientist with a focus on the savannas of Africa