interviewBy Cindy Shiner
A three-day climate change conference being held in Accra, Ghana, ends on Thursday. It was organized by the Pan-African Climate Justice Alliance and representatives from more than 30 countries are attending, according to the Ghana News Agency. Despite many meetings on the issue, African nations need to better coordinate their efforts to combat climate change, says Youba Sokona, executive secretary of the Sahara and Sahel Observatory based in Tunis. In an interview with AllAfrica's Cindy Shiner, Sokona says that only by being proactive can Africa hope to deal effectively with the fallout from global warming.
Climate change is predicted to have devastating effects across Africa and erode already fragile livelihoods. How do you see the impact?
It's a bit difficult to give a clear and precise response to this question because there are limited studies in the region related to climate. There is a general view… that the continent will be affected because of the level of poverty of the people – that is the social element. And then we also have a large fragile ecosystem in the region … If you combine the two different aspects – the fragility of most of the agro-ecosystem in the region and the poverty and the level of development – there is general agreement and consensus that the region will be heavily affected by climate [change].
Can you talk about any ideas or solutions coming out of Africa to confront climate change and avert a disaster?
If something happens we are reacting rather than having a proactive attitude, particularly in the case of the Sahel. We can deal with those issues only if we have in place operational infrastructure and that will help us to anticipate. With technology and knowledge we can have a clear indication when certain events will occur and it will be possible to take urgent action.
Unfortunately, the concentration is not on those different aspects. It's a bit difficult to say what needs to be done because we are also lacking adequate institutional infrastructure at the national or regional level. I believe those are the kind of problems we are facing.
Maybe [by focusing on] a more specific aspect we can outline what needs to be done. Then in the region also we have a lot of plans and initiatives that are completely disconnected. I'm just reviewing [now] an adaptation plan for West Africa that [is being] discussed in Accra for West African countries, which is completely disconnected with the plans adopted by the African ministers of environment in Nairobi last year. There's no reference [to] that document. We can go on and go on and go on about those different aspects.
So why is there a disconnection? Are the problems somehow different?
No, it's not because the problems are different. It's because of the fragmentation of initiatives and because also those initiatives have been [taken] by different entities. Maybe in the case of West Africa they have been taken by some of the donors who wanted to have some connection with West Africa but who don't know what has already been done at the regional level. This is common. [Within] the same countries we've found the same thing.
And then we are not building on what has already been done or what already exists. And each initiative is disconnected [from] the others so that will not help [us to find]… an adequate solution to the problem. We know the problems and they are clear and then you take any document, any report, you will find exactly the same – it's written differently. But we know the problems, and we have some indication what needs to be done but how that can be done – this is a critical issue and a critical element.
And so you're saying this is counterproductive.
For sure it's to a large extent counterproductive.
But I thought one of the positive things is that Africa had a unified position going into the Copenhagen climate change talks?
This is a completely different level of action because negotiation is a policy and political aspect. Negotiation is one aspect and then actions are another aspect. This is where the problem lies and this is also reflected at the global level.
Copenhagen has been exceptional because for the first time we had 119 heads of state. But in terms of actions nothing is happening really at the global level as well as on the continent. The unified position has to be backed by a concise and clear action plan, a clear indication of what needs to be done, how that needs to be done and how much that will cost.
So how do you reach that point?
This is the homework that is not yet done. We have a number of talk shows, seminars in Africa but if you want to know what has been done concretely, what documents exist, what work has been done by institutions you will find that very limited. My point is to insist more on concrete action and then to have adequate institutions rather than conferences, seminars and talks on different aspects.
What is happening in West Africa this week?
They will adopt the Action Plan for Adaptation [to climate change]. A comprehensive framework for adaptation was defined by the African ministers of environment in Johannesburg in 2008. There's no reference [to] this [West African] document. And then if you look at all issues related to the costing of adaptation it's broad. We have no clear indication and no clear idea how much money we need for adaptation and how that will be spent, on which aspect that will be spent.
So what would you suggest?
I would suggest that there is a need for starting some homework and then doing an adequate analysis of those aspects. We have a clear indication of the problems, the magnitude of those problems. Then we have to… say, ok, if we think that we have to move from reaction to much more proactive and anticipatory action… do we have those different elements in place? If yes, let us work on [them], if not, let us try to put them in place.
And then to have some sort of sequential approach. If there is some urgent element [that] needs to be done within the next five years, [let us] have adequate planning and then pull the resources together … all kinds of resources. We are really lacking adequate institutions in the region to take on board those various challenges, which will be ongoing, which cannot be adequately addressed in a piecemeal approach.
Is there any particular country or region that has started to build these institutions you speak of or taken steps forward?
I have heard now for three years UNECA [United Nations Economic Commission for Africa] talking about the African climate policy center. It has not yet come as a reality. It's not in place. Those kinds of initiatives should have been taken long ago in the different regions. If we do have a number of those centers, that will help to support the key policymakers who are actually convinced that climate is a real problem…
In the [1970s] we had some key institutions. None of those institutions have been operational. The African Center for Renewable Energy – that was located in Burundi – a continent-wide institution. In West Africa we used to have a regional center for renewable energy in Bamako. Four billion CFA invested for infrastructure, eight billion for equipment. The institution never functioned.
Is there a way of integrating climate change adaptation with the development agenda?
You cannot disconnect climate issues and development… Let us start with development and how we will make our development agenda resilient to climate first and then what are the preconditions for that? And then being at local, national and regional level, I think this will be for me the adequate approach.
And we have more opportunity than other regions because we have limited investment that needs to be protected. Our future is open to absorb any new ideas.
You mean, for example, clean energy?
Yes, because our energy infrastructure is not yet in place. We are not locked into any energy system. That means that we [in Africa] have many more options than others have. Because [developed]… countries, they cannot renew their infrastructure until the end of the lifecycle of those infrastructures, while in Africa the infrastructure is not yet in place. It could be a clean energy pathway. In order to put it in place you need some basic and adequate infrastructure and policy. Regarding energy, particularly renewable [energy], we need to have implementable policies.