Africa has enormous natural resource wealth. At the same time it is extremely vulnerable to the impact of environmental degradation, including climate change. These are two good reasons, one might assume, for prioritising the environment in development efforts. Yet the continent has a woefully inadequate structure for the governance of the environment.
This predicament is partly due to obvious constraints on national governments. These include a lack of finances, expertise, and data with which to design, implement and monitor effective environmental policies. But much of the blame can also be laid at the door of regional organisations like the African Union.
Environmental issues like climate change, air pollution and water scarcity do not stop at national borders. The AU is ideally positioned to coordinate a pan-African approach for dealing with cross border environmental problems. It certainly has made a number of longstanding commitments to safeguard the environment.
One of the earliest conventions adopted by the AU's predecessor - the Organisation of African Unity - was the 1968 African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
And in 2000, when the AU was set up, sustainable development was made one of its underlying objectives. So, the executive council - consisting of the ministers of foreign affairs of member states - could take decisions relating to the environment.
The New Partnership for Africa's Development or NEPAD, an official programme of the AU, also highlights the environment as one of its priorities. The AU's latest Strategic Plan also places importance on environment and natural resources management.
The challenge is to move beyond the rhetoric and translate these high level commitments and plans into action. There must be robust institutions to ensure that regional and international decisions can be translated into policy changes at a national level and then into on action on the ground.
The institutional arrangements for implementation, monitoring and enforcement of environmental commitments are generally weak or absent. For example, until 2003, the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources - an African wide agreement on the environment - had no provision for a Conference of the Parties or a Secretariat. Both are central to the implementation of the convention.
The Convention was amended in 2003 to include these but they haven't come into force. This is because too few member states have ratified it. Fifteen AU countries need to ratify it for it to come into effect. But so far, only 12 have done so. This means countries that are not abiding by the Convention cannot be brought to task.
Integration across all sectors is needed for regional environmental governance to work. Many environmental agreements require cooperation between several different ministries and agencies. These must span across multiple sectors like water, transport, energy, agriculture and the environment. If not, then competing and conflicting sectoral strategies towards human and natural development are inevitable.
This kind of policy coordination has been the eternal quest of governments around the world. But it poses a particular challenge in Africa. This is because institutions can be unstable, scattered and lacking in trained personnel and capacity.
The AU has a colossal task in promoting effective environmental governance infrastructure across the continent. But Africa will suffer more acutely than other regions if the AU fails to act. Africa is more dependent on renewable natural resources and ecosystem services than other regions. It also has fewer resources than other regions of the world to adapt to environmental change.
What more can the AU do?
The African Peer Review Mechanism can play a role. This self-monitoring initiative promotes good governance and helps the attainment of NEPAD goals. It can be expanded to include reporting on progress towards effective regulatory environmental frameworks.
Environmental policy objectives also need to be integrated throughout the AU's entire mandate. This includes activities towards social and economic development. The AU should encourage member states to do the same.
Africa led research and knowledge is essential and currently insufficient to develop sound environmental policies. The AU can play an important role in promoting and supporting such research. This is already beginning to happen under the NEPAD initiative to establish regional networks of centres of excellence throughout the continent.
The AU should also urgently step up its efforts toward climate change. It can:
institutionalise climate change as a security issue and develop a climate security policy
establish a climate change commission and climate change directorate
develop a general framework and plan of action on climate change and
improve public awareness and civil society involvement
Many African countries are still rich in natural resources. They have an opportunity to avoid many of the resource intensive and environmentally harmful development pathways of most developed countries. But to do so, a more robust environmental governance structure is essential. The AU should reflect on how it can show greater leadership in this crucial area - especially as Africa environment day approaches in early March.
Camilla Adelle does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.