I WAS afforded a glimpse into the world of climate change last week at the 2011 African Economic Conference in Addis Ababa and observed how the debate has taken on almost religious proportions.
The event, on the theme of Green Economy and Structural Transformation, and hosted by the African Development Bank (ADB), the United Nations (UN) Development Programme and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, looked at what African countries should be doing to get in step with the global green trend to counter climate change.
Africa faces particular challenges, given that it suffers from so many development challenges already, which some fear may be made worse by trying to keep pace with the global “green” drive.
The sheer weight of funding and initiatives are good reason to believe something positive may emerge from the hysteria about the world’s condition. The expectation is that Africa will benefit from new investment in technologies and infrastructure that will improve the quality and sustainability of growth.
Global action on climate change also offers an opportunity for a new engagement with African governments and policy makers on improving economic efficiency. This is all good but perhaps unrealistic given that a lack of political will to improve the economic environment has been a brake on development in the past.
The fact that all African countries are confronting challenges as a result of climate change is not a sufficient driver of change in Africa. Countries have always faced climate challenges. In a key affected sector — agriculture — issues of land tenure and associated lack of collateral and access to credit still hamper Africans’ ability to have food security .
Two of the most serious problems attributed to climate change, deforestation and land degradation, are caused largely by unchecked commercial exploitation, rural energy needs and poor farming practices.
In short, neglect and policy failure are perhaps the greatest obstacles to the development of African agriculture. The question is whether the weight brought to bear on governments to tackle climate change will get them to be more proactive about improving the way this and other sectors are managed.
We would all like to live in a greener world so there are many upsides to the focus on greener economies. African analyst and author Paul Collier told the gathering that solar power would be the next big thing in Africa, leapfrogging current energy sources in the way that mobile phones had done, as the cost of the technology came down.
But there are also many unknowns. For example, what will the effect be of climate-change initiatives on growth on a continent where the biggest new investment is in the areas that climate change proponents suggest is causing the problem — resources.
ADB chief economist Mthuli Ncube says there is no tension between a green economy and resources investment. The focus, he says, will not be on discouraging new investment but rather encouraging companies to be more aware of the environmental implications of their operations.
With all the hype about climate change, it is easy to forget the size and complexity of the challenges and the effect all of this may have on growth.
A continent already hobbled by capacity constraints now faces a future filled with more complex policy challenges as countries are pushed to restructure their economies to fall in line with this global trend.
There are also concerns about other consequences of creating green economies, such as trade barriers, deindustrialisation and rising costs of doing business. And there is a lack of consensus on what a green economy actually is, which will compromise policy formulation.
But Africa is already on this fast- moving train. African ministers recently signed an agreement recognising the benefits to the continent of green economies. But it will be interesting to see if the political will to make this work matches the enthusiasm expressed in public forums.