‘Don’t Kill Africa’ ? UN COP21 and the Post-Kyoto World

Following the 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa, —the official meeting of UN COP17— local demonstrators and climate change advocates around the world erupted into protest.[1] Despite initially high hopes that the conference would result in an international agreement regarding the future of the Kyoto Protocol, member parties voted to extend the deadline for action to 2015, thereby delaying progress in the fight against climate change. Dissatisfied with the outcome, protesters held signs that read: ‘Don’t Kill Kyoto’ and ‘Don’t Kill Africa’.

Image Courtesy of Shubert Ciencia © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of Shubert Ciencia © 2011, some rights reserved.

Would the end of the Kyoto Protocol mean the end of Africa? This seems unlikely. The Kyoto Protocol—enacted at the UN COP3 conference in 1992—has been widely criticized for being incompatible with the needs of developing economies and has become an enduring enigma in the discussion about global climate change governance. With UN COP21 and the 2015 deadline for action rapidly approaching, however, many questions remain about the future of the Kyoto Protocol and Africa’s stakes in the negotiations. In the wake of the conference and among conflicting opinions, it seems necessary to put the Kyoto Protocol, UN COP21, and African development challenges into perspective in order to envision the character of climate change governance ‘after’ Kyoto.

The 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, widely referred to as UN COP21, is set to take place in Paris between 30 November and 11 December 2015. The conference is expected to attract up to 40,000 participants from around the world and will be ‘one of the largest climate conferences ever organized.’[2] More specifically, UN COP21 has been tasked with creating a climate change governance framework to follow the Kyoto Protocol, with a successor to be set by 2015 and implemented by 2020.[3]

The climate change conference has also placed notable emphasis on addressing the vulnerabilities of developing economies and facilitating the creation of a sustainable development plan for Africa. The continent faces a diverse range of developmental challenges encompassing poverty, a heavy reliance on agriculture and environmentally degrading industries as well as inconsistent environmental protection standards.[4] Despite these challenges, African economies have the potential to benefit tremendously from sustainable enterprise and regulated climate change reform. UN COP21 has therefore outlined targeted goals for the adaptation of environmental governance reform and the financing of sustainable development across Africa.[5] In recognition of the disproportionate challenges inhibiting African development, UN COP21 will engage African member-states on a more direct level during negotiations and incorporate the needs of developing economies into the post-Kyoto climate governance framework.

Before official discussions resume at UN COP21, it seems relevant to ask: Why has the Kyoto Protocol been ineffective in addressing environmental challenges in Africa and what might this reveal about the future of climate change governance? The Kyoto Protocol operates on the basis of a categorized distinction between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries, requiring ‘developed’ countries to reduce carbon emissions and pay fines under a legally binding agreement while ‘developing’ countries are simply encouraged to foster sustainable growth without any binding obligations. Referring to a set of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries is both impractical and outdated. The Kyoto Protocol largely disregards the needs of developing economies, furthermore excluding them from the practices of environmental law. As a result of its objectives, the Kyoto Protocol is unable to address the imbalance that exists between the relatively low emissions and the high vulnerability of many developing economies. More specifically, Africa contributes least to atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions yet it is considered to be the most susceptible continent to the effects of climate change.

The Kyoto Protocol may also encourage countries with high-carbon production to shift their environmentally degrading industries to Africa.[6] This phenomenon is largely attributed to Chinese investment across Africa in industries such as coal mining, fishing, logging, and oil drilling. Given the economic benefits of foreign investment, however, African governments may be reluctant to criticize Chinese companies that engage in dangerous environmental practices because they do not want to jeopardize economic relations.[6] Consequently, many African economies are constrained by a decision to choose economic growth over environmental protection. Rather than working to address the imbalanced vulnerabilities of climate change, the Kyoto Protocol reifies the dangers and development challenges facing economies like many of those in Africa by failing to consider their needs and perspectives.

Based on the trends of climate change governance, it seems likely that any successor to the Kyoto Protocol will inherit similar constraints and reflect the assymetrical tendencies of international law. Successor frameworks to the Kyoto Protocol should apply regulations to all participating members, without hierarchies of development, and should furthermore seek to promote sustainable enterprise and trade rather than attempting to impose fines on carbon emissions. Indeed, the legacy of the Kyoto Protocol reveals significant room for improvement.

Taking these concerns into consideration, what are Africa’s stakes in the negotiations at UN COP 21? How have African member-states been preparing for the events in Paris and the anticipated reconceptualization of the Kyoto Protocol? Given the targeted focus on promoting sustainable African development at UN COP21, many African member-states, non-governmental organizations, and leaders from the private sector have actively embraced this opportunity to highlight environmental degradation across Africa, using UN COP21 as a platform to promote a more balanced and integrated process of crafting climate change governance. In the months leading up to UN COP21, African leaders have been engaging in an extensive series of climate change talks and conferences around the world in order to raise awareness and prepare a cohesive strategy for the negotiations in Paris.[7] Rather than depending on the creation of a successor framework to the Kyoto Protocol, many African leaders have acknowledged that an array of challenges facing a continent as diverse as Africa cannot be resolved by a single convention of international law. Instead, governments and advocates for sustainable development in Africa are using the conference to engage in dialogue promoting local, national, and regional reform, specific to the needs of developing economies.

While UN COP21 has potential to be a tremendous step in the right direction for African participation and the movement towards a more inclusive framework for climate change governance, the results may once again prove ambiguous and member parties should anticipate an inconclusive outcome. Rather than ‘fighting the system’—one that may be skewed and pulling against the interests of developing economies— African member-states, government leaders, and advocates for sustainable enterprise should continue pursuing targeted reform and self-advocacy. This is not to say that conventions of international cooperation such as UN COP21 are incapable of producing results. Indeed, UN COP21 may prove to be the breakthrough so desperately desired by climate change activists. Regardless of the outcome in Paris, however, Africa will gain strength and momentum if it continues its ‘fight from within’ in the post-Kyoto world.




[1]: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16021217


[2]: http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en/cop21-cmp11/cop21-main-issues


[3]: http://unfccc.int/resource/docs/2011/cop17/eng/09a01.pdf


[4]: http://www.lead-journal.org/content/09107.pdf


[5]: http://www.uneca.org/sites/default/files/uploaded-documents/CoM/com2015/se_africa-in-the-post-2015.pdf


[6]: http://www.internationalpolicydigest.org/2015/04/08/the-environmental-impact-of-china-s-investment-in-africa/


[7]: http://www.climdev-africa.org/cop21/


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