Former US Ambassador to African Union, John Simon, talks about strategising towards a tolerable climate future for Africa

If African nations want to have any sort of influence in these types of talks, they need to band together behind the AU, as well as behind the countries with which they have shared interests. It used to be the G77 representing the developing world, but now it’s different because different countries have diverse interests, and one voice for the developing world doesn’t quite work. However, you can create communities of interest.

According to John Simon, a former US Ambassador, Africa has a distinct set of interests. Right now, the biggest impediment to Africa’s development is the lack of power- but some of the best power sources for Africa are fossil sources. Fossil sources are a hot topic at the climate talks, based on their natural tendency to cause environmental harm but they are crucial to the continent’s development.

Africa has tremendous renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy. However, rather than prioritising one energy source over the other, it seems a symbiotic approach would be the most useful.

The aforementioned debate is just one of many that underscores the need for African nations to be strategically positioned at the COP-21. As an expert in strategy and public policy, Simon shared his thoughts on what the continent’s leaders should focus on in Paris, with Ventures Africa.

Ventures Africa (VA): You worked with the African Union between 2008 and 2009. Can you give us a brief history on how African nations have handled climate talks in the past?

John Simon (JS): In my experience, climate wasn’t very high up there on the list. Africa faces a lot of consequences of climate change, so there was concern about climate mitigation. But, Africa uses a tiny amount of the greenhouse gases in this world, and so it’s not as if African countries have a significant imperative to reduce their greenhouse gases, it’s really more about how they develop going forward.

Africa was kind of used as a prop in the old formula. Not much was asked of poor Africa, who had nothing to cause these problems, but was bearing a big part of the consequences, and votes were advocates for stronger control in the developed world. Now that there is a chance to get the developing world to share more of the burden, I think that Africa needs to be wary of restrictions on what sources of power they can use that would ultimately inhibit their development. And of course, the best way for countries to become more environmentally responsible is for them to be more developed.

So in the past, Africa didn’t need to have a robust voice at these climate talks, and some countries like Mauritius paid serious consequences of climate change, because, again, we’re held out as props of the impact if we don’t do something.

Now, Africa needs to make sure that it can bring some of the leverage that it has to the world, like significant renewable resources, and say, “look, we have a lot of resource, and you can help us develop it, and we’ll help reduce the growth of greenhouse gases in the future. But that can’t be at the expense of us being able to use other sources of energy where it makes sense.” Most important is for African countries to realise that their voice is stronger if it’s united, and that they need to rally behind a negotiating strategy that should be articulated behind the AU.

VA: What can you say about the 2006 Adaptation Fund that was established for developing nations, following attempts to help them cope with climate change?

JS: If I remember correctly, it was more of an aspirational thing. I don’t know that the fund ever really deployed any capital at all, to tell you the truth. Do you?

VA: Not at all. And after that there was another effort made in form of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in 2011. Do you think that the AU played a strong enough role in ensuring that it was distributed accordingly?

JS: I was no longer at the AU at the time, so I can’t speak about what role that they played. But my view on these funds is that they are usually more of words than action, and they are in some ways a form of ‘guilt money’ from the developed countries, who recognise that they need to address the developmental needs of the poorest countries, and this is the best solution that they can come up with.

I honestly don’t think that those funds have done a lot to make a difference, such as increase renewable energy, or mitigation. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

VA: You’ve just made an interesting point about words being more than action in these situations. There have been comments about how the conference in Paris is already tilting away from the vocal commitments initially made by world leaders. What do you think that African leaders should anticipate as a result?

JS: It’s probably a bit too early to tell, but I can categorically state what they should guard against. They should guard against control over their use of practical power solutions, as while it has a marginal global impact, it also has an impact on the ability of countries to develop.

They should also make alliances that are convenient with other ‘like-minded’ blocs and countries that are also interested in seeing a certain amount of latitude given for them to be able to develop, while at the same time making sure that they are not overly res

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