In just three weeks, starting 30 November, negotiators from around the world will gather at the Paris Climate Change Conference , aiming to finalize a new global climate agreement. On 28–30 October in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, policy-makers and experts gathered at the fifth annual Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA ) conference, “Africa, Climate Change and Sustainable Development:  What is at Stake at Paris and Beyond?”

SEI Senior Research Fellow Francis X. Johnson, who attended the conference with ESPA Fellow Anne Nyambane, offered his perspective on the discussions. Both are based in SEI’s Africa Centre in Nairobi.

Q: How are Africans looking at the Paris climate talks? Do they have high expectations?
FXJ: The CCDA is held in October as a way of creating a forum for inputting ideas to the COP. This year there were also consultations in Tanzania and Senegal to prepare for the COP by bringing together different voices and fostering interaction across the different groups – researchers, NGOs, civil society, government – including some climate negotiators.

The COP is definitely seen as important, but not because Africans expect to get much from developed countries. Indeed, most felt that developed countries will never live up to their obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Instead, they hope the COP will either clarify some of the ways forward, or at least reduce the uncertainty about what developed countries are willing to commit to. There was recognition that national-level measures will be needed, and that although adaptation is extremely important for Africa, it cannot fully occupy the agenda. Mitigation is also needed because African economies have to find lower-carbon pathways to keep growing and developing. The “dirty” pathway is no longer a real option.

Q: Your own expertise is energy, and you and Anne presented on different energy topics. How big of a priority were energy access and expanded energy supply in the discussions?
FXJ: The energy sector issues were not debated as strongly as adaptation, finance, agriculture and land use, which are seen as most crucial for Africa. For example, access to information about climate impacts is seen as crucial, especially for farmers and agricultural planners. Those who live in developed countries often don’t realize that access to such information can be literally a life-or-death situation in a changing climate in areas that are poor and food-insecure.

But there is recognition of the high priority for energy access, through whatever means necessary, both large-scale and small-scale. You could say that energy, along with agricultural productivity and infrastructure (overall, not just energy) are seen as a holy trinity for development. For this reason, the presentation we made on infrastructure was seen as very relevant and timely. We emphasized the need to think about sustainable infrastructure, and not let infrastructure choices be dictated by growth ambitions alone.

Q: How did conference participants talk about energy access?
FXJ: Energy access is placed on par with climate justice in the sense that the lack of energy access hinders development just as badly as climate change impacts. Electricity provision is seen as particularly important, as it directly affects economic productivity. Household energy was not really addressed much, as it is not seen as primarily a climate issue, though clean cookstoves, for example, are seen as important for social, health and environmental reasons. Of course there are also economic productivity issues associated with household energy, but their impacts on growth and development are not as prominent or direct.

Q: Climate finance was high on the conference agenda, and the subject of another SEI presentation. How are African governments looking at climate finance, particularly in the context of clean energy and mitigation?
FXJ: Many seem to be resigned that developed countries will never deliver what has been promised or what has been seen as appropriate an equitable from a polluter-pays principles applied to the climate regime. Another concern is that development aid will be relabelled as climate finance, instead of truly additional funds being provided. Thus, African countries recognize they will need to put their own resources into climate change finance. Ethiopia, for example, is making substantial efforts, even though their investments might not always be viewed or counted internationally as having primarily climate dimensions.

Q: Much of your work focuses on bioenergy as a path for development. How are African leaders thinking about bioenergy? Do they see it as an opportunity, or more as a threat to food security? Are attitudes changing about who fuels should be produced for – e.g. EU markets vs. Africa?
FXJ: There is a recognition that the big powers are always eyeing Africa’s resources but this was not tied to bioenergy at this conference, like it was to a small extent at last year’s CCDA. There was some feeling that modern bioenergy and biofuels can help to attract investment. Delegates felt that as long as poverty reduction is in focus, then such investments are fine, and they don’t necessarily see any food conflicts, especially considering that many African countries have plenty of land.

Our presentation on an ecosystem services approach to biofuels was thus well received, because it showed the link between degrading ecosystems and poverty, and how replacing traditional biomass with modern bioenergy can address the poverty trap created by reliance on traditional biomass in combination with subsistence farming and slash-and-burn practices. Otherwise, the issue of exporting bioenergy did not really come up, since it is not considered primarily a climate issue, whereas land degradation from charcoal is a climate issue that also negatively affects local development options.

Learn more about the CCDA »

Read IISD coverage of CCDA-V »