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Adow: The West Must Pay Its Debt If the World Is to Win the Climate Fight


Writing with “a clarity born not from abstract understandings but from visceral experience,” Mohamed Adow, founder and director of Power Shift Africa, urges the West to act with integrity and deep compassion, and pay the profound and ever-growing “climate debt” it owes the developing world. 

“In northern Kenya, droughts used to occur once every 10 years,” but “now occur once every two to three years, and they will likely become even more frequent,” Adow writes [1] in a recent analysis for Foreign Affairs. With that shift, a way of life for more than five million pastoralists “could soon evaporate thanks to climate change.”

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These goat, cow, and camel herders are not alone, he adds. “Climate change has imperiled or disrupted the lives of millions of people in developing countries around the world.” And the overwhelming burden of responsibility can be placed at the door of the West.

“The average American is responsible for the emission of as much carbon dioxide per year as are 581 Burundians, 51 Mozambicans (who last year were buffeted by cyclones [3] that scientists attribute to the warming of the Indian Ocean), or 35 Bangladeshis (who are threatened by both rising sea levels [4] and increasingly erratic rain),” writes Adow. Where the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa—one billion people—emits a total of 823 million tonnes of CO2 annually, the U.S., with less than a third the population, emits over 5.3 billion.

And then there is the ledger of historical emissions. Citing former NASA scientist James Hansen, Adow notes that Europe, North America, Australia, and Japan generated 77% of CO2 emissions between 1751 and 2006, with the U.S. alone “producing 28% of carbon dioxide emissions in that period.” While “well-meaning officials” in these countries are beginning to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis, very few seek to honestly address “the fundamental injustice of climate change, the fact that those least responsible for its cause now bear the brunt of its consequences.” Meanwhile, emissions, temperatures, and sea levels still rise.

“The most straightforward way that developed nations can address that inequity is through financial transfers and technological support to developing nations,” Adow writes. He chronicles just how badly the West has failed, and continues to fail, in pursuing the cause of climate justice—a cause it would do well to champion for its own good, he observes. The agreement in principle for wealthy countries to provide US$100 billion annually to “their poor counterparts” as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—less than is currently earmarked for a single local rail line under development between London to Manchester—is “hardly enough to help developing nations adjust to the effects of climate change, receive compensation for loss and damage as a result of extreme weather, and transition to low-carbon economies.” 

And then there are the profoundly unequal and unjust “burdens of adaptation,” he notes. Despite accounting for a fraction of the world population and even less of its emissions, “sub-Saharan African countries currently shoulder nearly 50% of global adaptation costs.” Extreme weather alone is already absorbing 2 to 9% of GDP for African countries, while adequate adaptation costs are pegged at “over $180 billion annually today (and even more as time goes on).” 

Yet it’s not at all certain that wealthy countries will reach their current, modest climate finance target of $100 billion. Australia and the U.S., in fact, have already reneged on their promises, offering a “motley” patchwork of loans and private sector financing, with little earmarked for adaptation measures. 

And then there is the matter of loss and damage [5]. In accordance with the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage, formally accepted in 2013, wealthy high-emitter countries are “morally bound” to compensate poor countries for damage from climate change—some of which is permanent, devastating, and beyond anyone’s capacity for adaptation.

“It’s not possible, for instance, to adapt if rising sea levels have submerged your entire island or if you have permanently lost your farmland to desertification,” writes Adow. Shamefully, at COP 25 in Madrid last year, the U.S., Australia, Japan, and other rich countries refused to support a concrete plan for such compensation, he says. Meanwhile, wealthy nations “continue to funnel taxpayer money to fossil fuel industries” and devote up to 60% international public aid for energy projects in Africa to fossil fuel projects—all while urging mitigation. 

“Global subsidies for fossil fuels amounted to as much as $5.2 trillion in 2017, up from $4.7 trillion in 2015,” writes Adow, when a fraction of that funding could “transform the fortunes” of vulnerable nations. “As China, the United States, and countries in Europe increasingly turn to cleaner energy at home, they remain content to condemn countries in Africa and elsewhere to a fossil fuel future.”

Adow does point to some hope: “Societies may finally be breaking the link between energy and growth,” he notes. Energy-related carbon emissions lag far behind global economic growth, and Africa itself “has more wind, sun, and geothermal energy than anywhere else in the world.” But developing countries “need the financial and technological support from those who sickened the climate in the first place” if they are to harness the resources available to them. 

“There is still time for the world to avoid dropping off the cliff,” Adow concludes. But avoiding that climate crash “will require establishing fairness in a global system that has trampled the poor at every turn.”