Climate “sustainability” for whom?

Sustainability cannot be dealt with in the same way in Africa and in the industrialized North. Hence the need to decolonize the sustainability discourse in Africa

Over the past years, there has been a rising narrative about climate and sustainability in Africa and the continent’s role in environmental protection and the net zero transition. This narrative, which is supported by international organizations, Western governments and big consulting firms, promotes certain guidelines and policies that are inadequate for Africa given the continent’s socio-economic and environmental realities, its insignificant contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions (only 3%) and its particular vulnerability to the effects of climate change (floods, cyclones, rainfall deficits, droughts, etc.). Considering the potential negative impacts such guidelines and policies can have on the continent, it is critical to redefine sustainability in Africa.

No sustainable development in Africa without industrialization

Sustainability and climate change are global issues. But in Africa, these questions are to be handled in light of the continent’s socio-economic development challenges. These need to be addressed urgently so that Africa finally leverages its enormous potential and breaks away from the vicious circle of aid dependence and poverty. Clearly, the sustainability question in Africa cannot be separated from this broader perspective. In other words, sustainability cannot be dealt with in the same way in Africa and in the industrialized North.

So, what do we mean by sustainability in Africa, and how does it relate to the continent’s much-needed industrial development? What kind of sustainability agendas truly serve the interests of African populations? And to what extent can the dominant discourse around sustainability in Africa, if not considered through an African lens, be harmful to Africa’s interests and priorities?

While Africa will be the world’s largest labor pool by 2050, home to 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, and to the world’s largest arable landmass, Africa has also a reality of widespread poverty and serious under-industrialization, even in resource-rich countries. According to Africa Industrialization Index 2022 (AfDB), the share of the African manufacturing industry in global production is less than 2%.

The very low industrialization in many African countries, that comes with excessive imports of finished products, very little local processing, and exportations with no or low added value, results in economic aberrations and is clearly one of the key causes of poverty and inequalities. No sustainable development in the continent is achievable without industrial development first.

Common sense says that the historical polluters in our world – mainly developed nations, that are still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, urgently need to transition to clean energy and more frugal patterns of consumption and production, before it’s too late to stay within a habitable temperature on Earth (1.5°C). Clearly, these industrialized nations are not in a position to dictate to Africa how or when to transition.

Africa’s energy transition should be based on African models. It is up to African countries to decide how to manage their energy mix. While it is true that many of them have a big renewable energy potential, the gradual phase-out from fossil fuels that pushed on the continent should be considered in a just and equitable manner depending on the energy needs and context of each country, as this is critical to African populations’ access to electricity – a universal human right -, and to Africa’s much-needed industrialization.

“Pursuing climate ambitions on the backs of the poorest people in the world is not just hypocritical – it is immoral, unjust, and green colonialism at its worst.”, wrote Vijaya Ramachandran, director for energy and development at the Breakthrough Institute.

African sovereignty in the fight against the environmental crisis

In this sense, public sectors in Africa have the role to work towards sustainability visions that serve the interests of African populations. Any sustainability agenda in Africa which does not take into account the realities of the continent, or does not go, first and foremost, in the direction of job creation, human development, promoting innovation and entrepreneurship, among other ways to eliminate exploitation and impoverishment, can hardly be considered as sustainable. It is perhaps for others, but not for Africans.

Recently, over 500 civil society organizations expressed their concerns about the direction of the last Africa Climate Summit held in early September 2023 in Kenya, worried that some international entities involved in the organization of the summit may be “pushing a pro-West agenda and interests at the expense of Africa”, and warning of “[false solutions that] will embolden wealthy nations and large corporations to continue polluting the world, much to Africa’s detriment.” It is, similarly, regrettable that, at Africa’s first Climate Summit, discussions in favor of South-South cooperation and technology transfers for the benefit of developing countries were not given the place they deserved.

On another note, how can a country with weak institutions build and maintain the socio-economic infrastructure required for sustainable development? For instance, only strong sovereign nations have the necessary systems to protect their citizens from the devastating effects of natural disasters and climate crises.

The world has witnessed a tragic example in Libya, with the recent horrific floods whose link to the climate crisis has been proven by scientists. A once prosperous country (Libyan Arab Jamahiriya ranked 53rd highest in the world in human development by the UN in 2010), ruled by its own governance model which made it the richest in the region (cf. evolution of GDP per capita), has turned, after the war launched by NATO in 2011, into a bruised, subjugated country, torn apart by civil war. A failed state incapable of providing safety to its citizens, much less sustainable development, or climate adaptation strategies.

The recent Libyan history, worth remembering, is also a call for pan-African alliances to advance regional objectives for sustainable development, especially in the field of climate adaptation. African nations need to unite and combine their efforts in building resilience, as this is a common threat that knows no borders.

Another example showing the essential role that public institutions must play when it comes to sustainability is the arbitration needed when international organizations, in the name of so-called environmental protection in Africa, try to impose a unilateral way of relating to nature, often at the expense of populations, and to the benefit of elite tourism, among others.

How can foreign institutions recommend through “international expertise” the eviction of local and indigenous populations from their ancestral lands, under the pretext of nature conservation – an ever-wild African nature, as inherited from the colonial vision –? This is one of the facets of green colonialism explored by Guillaume Blanc in his book “The Invention of Green Colonialism – Putting an end to the myth of the African Eden”, 2020.

It is somewhat ironic when one compares the impact of the local people on their environment with that of private multinational companies which use considerable means, rake in profits and usually leave behind significant social and environmental damage. But instead of blaming the capitalist and extractivist model of society, whose main mechanisms are against the very basics of sustainable development, some narratives prefer to blame the poor communities, seeing them as a threat to their own environment, while they are very often, on the contrary, inspiring models of frugal way of living in symbiosis with nature, and, in fact, victims of environmental destruction.

Hence the importance of strong national institutions and frameworks in ensuring fair and balanced approaches to social and environmental issues. Efforts are already underway in many African countries and course corrections always possible.

New winds of emancipation 

Beyond sustainability, we are witnessing the impulse of a new Africa on the world stage, with sovereignty as an indisputable principle, rejecting all forms of neo-colonialism and increasingly working for the development of African-specific models, focused on African priorities. This is illustrated by speeches of some African leaders at the 78th United Nations General Assembly earlier in September 2023. In particular, West Africa today is the scene of major transformations. These are complex and will not take place overnight, but they emanate from a deep-rooted, shared desire for real emancipation and development, driven by the young generation.

An African hero, Thomas Sankara once said: “The most important thing, I think, is to have brought the people to have confidence in themselves, to understand that, finally, they can sit down and write their development; they can sit down and write their happiness, they can say what they want. And at the same time, feel what the price is for that happiness.”

In the same way, it is up to Africans to write their definitions of sustainable development, the ones that fit their contexts and advance their own interests. The examples provided in this article show that in any case, the meaning of sustainability, especially in the continent, cannot be dissociated from social, environmental, and climate justice. It is not about naively advocating for a “green Africa”, by limiting oneself to reductionist or even erroneous conceptions of sustainability. It is about decolonizing the sustainability discourse first, then exploring ways in which youth ingenuity combined with ancestral local knowledge can help Africans forge their own destiny.


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