BY Aisha Bahadur It is in the interest of the developed world to keep Africa poor. Resources of the continent are exported to continue building development in industrialised nations.  Africa has been blocked from colonial times by the developed world f …

Andrew Africa, Ecology

BY Aisha Bahadur

It is in the interest of the developed world to keep Africa poor. Resources of the continent are exported to continue building development in industrialised nations.  Africa has been blocked from colonial times by the developed world from making strategic use of these resources for its own development, hence the weak industrial base on the continent outside of South Africa.

Trade unions have, by in large, supported calls for Africa’s industrialisation. Building the industrial base means more formal sector jobs and more revenue generated through trade, thus industrialisation has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of Africans, especially the working class poor. Accelerated industrialisation is needed to improve trade performance, grow GDP and employment and address poverty. To achieve this, Africa must increase its share of global industrial output and manufacturing exports.

Increasingly, trade unions are being asked to put their voice behind the call for the need to address climate change and for greener policy development nationally and internationally. However, consideration of the industrialisation needs of Africa and the needs of the continent on climate change are mostly mutually exclusive and can be confusing as these seem to be at odds with one another.

Climate change is created by capitalist accumulation on the back of overconsumption in the developed world. This is facilitated by the commodification of all things, including relationships. Resistance to change in the North is blocked by the psychopathology of consumer fetishism.

To address climate change, a reduction in consumption is needed. Yet it is the centrality of consumption in the capitalist economy that Africa is depending on for its industrialisation. In theory, goods produced in Africa will be consumed in the developed world and in time wages earned by African workers will build local and regional markets hence consumption in the region will increase.

But the earth’s resources are not unlimited and in the global capitalist society, inherently exploitative and exclusive, only those that can afford, can consume, thus the theoretical framework for Africa’s market development is doomed. Instead, the framework will again benefit the rich in the developed world so that they may continue to squander the lion’s share of the world’s resources.

It is not overstating the issue to say that capitalist driven climate change is currently the single greatest threat to human kind and that the world does need to act now. Scenarios predict catastrophic events that will change the fabric of society, making millions vulnerable to the social impact of climate change, such as deaths from climate related disasters or diseases and hardship from failed crops and undrinkable water.

According to most in the scientific community, the impact of climate change will be particularly negative for Africa. Major issues of regional concern arising from the physical impact of climate change on the continent include water scarcity and unreliability of potable water, food security and rural survival, human health implications of greater disease penetration such as malaria, natural resource management and loss of biodiversity.

Climate change needs to be addressed on two fronts. Mitigation, are actions to reduce the hazards or risks of climate change on human life, such as reducing demand for energy intensive goods or switching to renewable energy. Adaption are adjustments to moderate harm of actual or expected effects of climate change such as making more drought resistant crop seeds available to rural farmers or extending malaria prevention and control areas into previously unaffected highland areas. Africa’s resilience to climate change will depend on its ability to adapt proactively.

On the mitigation front, there is the opportunity for Africa to leapfrog to clean renewable energy, skipping the problems faced by developed nations of industrialisation based on fossil fuels, thus creating new modern clean industrial clusters. Given that Africa’s carbon footprint is very small and makes the least contribution to Green House Gases (GHG) than any other region, these mitigation efforts will do little to address the larger problem caused by the developed world and increasingly being added to by the industrialisation of emerging nations.

Africa’s industrialisation ambition gives little cognisance to climate change; for Africa, reducing carbon emissions is not its priority and why should it be? It is not a problem that Africa created. Instead African policy makers look at how development has advanced in China and India once these countries embraced capitalist market orientated policies, despite the global environmental repercussions of their accelerated industrialisation.

China is currently the largest emitter of GHG overtaking the US in 2007. India is set to be the third largest emitter by 2015, a position currently occupied by the combined EU states. These emerging nations feel that the developmental benefits outweigh the impact on the environment, Applying clean green technology is expensive and threatens efficient industrialisation as goods produced using renewable energies may not be as competitive globally.

These nations, including South Africa argue that their emissions must be allowed to rise for a period to allow them to catch up with the developed world, only then should they be required to make reductions. South Africa, which accounts for 42% of the continent’s contributions to GHG, has its politicians mouthing commitments to reduce emissions, whilst its state owned utility Eskom, currently the world’s second largest company emitter in the world, is building more coal based generation facilities to spew out more dirty enegry.

Emissions stay in the atmosphere for 350 years, so the approach of emerging nations is short sighted, creating a future historical burden under which coming generations must suffer. The current emissions of emerging nations is used by industrialised nations, responsible for the vast majority of the stock of anthropogenic GHG in the atmosphere, to hold back on  making substantial commitments at climate change negotiations. Whilst the politicians engage in finger pointing, the industrialists get to churn out more emissions in the pursuit of profit and the lives of the world’s poorest, who must deal with the impact of climate change, becomes even more precarious.

So whilst African policy makers are recognising the need for adaption to climate change on the continent, pursuing clean avenues to industrialisation falls low on their developmental agenda, given poor commitments to addressing climate change in industrialised and emerging nation. Thus, it seems Africa will continue to pin its industrialisation dream on the use of fossil fuels.

In any case, to change the fossil fuel development model, Africa will need to gain access to climate cash, funds dedicated for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Unsurprisingly, the jungle laws of capitalism apply to this too, through the international carbon markets. Carbon credits are generated through Clean Development Mechanism projects that reduce GHG emissions in developing countries. These credits are then sold to companies and governments in industrialised countries, who are essentially buying the ability to maintain or increase their emissions.

The obvious problem with this carbon market is that it allows a status quo when an enormous reduction in emissions globally is urgently needed to address the climate change. The trading system is only a catalyst for geographical changes in emissions accountability and does not reduce emissions or mitigate climate change.

Also, under global capitalism, the carbon market must grow and in pursuit of this, it does not discriminate. Growth of the market can be by making more dirty polluters pay or making those polluters that pay more dirty! Aside from this, out of the total 3150 registered CDM projects worldwide, Africa hosts only 63 projects, thus Africa has not really benefitted from the system.

Clearly the funding needs for Africa’s clean development cannot be met by carbon markets. The same factors holding back Africa’s industrialisation, the lack of skills, inadequate capital, poor infrastructural support and technology, weak institutional support, undeveloped regional markets and poor access to developed markets, will persist in climate based development initiatives. To truly overcome the barriers to investment in mitigation and adaptation for Africa, funds for transformative green development must be generated.

Much hoorah is being made of the establishment of the ambitious multibillion annual Green Fund aimed at mobilising funds for developing countries to cope with climate change, however if generating money for this fund relies on carbon emissions in forms such as carbon credits and levies on goods and services with high carbon footprints, then the system will remain flawed. It is akin to saying ‘to achieve peace, we must produce weapons’ and look at the devastation that type of thinking wreaked on the world.

So where should African trade unionists add their voices and actions on climate change?

Unions can mobilise on ethical dimensions of climate. Conceptually this is being led by calls for climate justice that seek to address the unequal burden created by climate change. It is the poor of the developing world, who have done the least to create the problem, that are going to pay for the historical over-consumption of fossil fuels by rich industrialised nations. Africa has the least resources to cope with the impact of climate change and Africans unionists can be at the forefront to advocate that this injustice is addressed.

Industrialised countries in the North have amassed huge ecological debt owed to Africa, for the resources that it has pillaged from the continent to support their exploitative economic growth and gluttonous levels of consumption that has now resulted in the continents climate change challenges.

Reparations must be made to Africa for the continent to address its development needs. Climate justice requires a global shift to a low carbon global economy which must not compromise Africa’s right to development.

A UN report titled ‘Why a Green Economy Matters for the Least Developed Countries’ states:

refocusing policies and investments to target sectors and areas including renewable energy, agriculture, forestry, tourism and enhanced ecosystem services can lead to the economic empowerment of low income populations, be more conducive to inclusive growth and jobs and make a significant contribution to achieving the Millennium Development Goals in the poorest countries.

What is needed is a more radical approach, which trade unions are well suited to champion. If Africa is to address poverty, the continent urgently needs to define a new agenda that strives to be clean, just and more equitable. Industrial development on the African continent, as in the rest of the world, needs to move away consumer capitalism; instead production should focus on meeting people’s needs rather than wants.

A trade union activist, on his return from Lesotho in the midst of winter, put it this way, “We should not be producing solar geysers for those that can afford the hefty price tag, we should be producing solar geysers because expecting poor people to bath in cold water in three degree weather is inhumane.”

Whilst this may address more equitable development, industrial development within the context of climate change and the current global economic system cannot be resolved by tweaking the regional model alone. The status quo of the North with regard to climate change must come to an end and the rapidly growing emissions of developed and emerging nations stemmed. A cleaner world will mean making hard choices and changing for the better together.

Aisha Bahadur is a partner at Civil Society Research and Support Collective (CSRSC) based in Durban, South Africa. She provides strategic support to civil society organisations, and predominantly organised labour, in the areas of research, education and advocacy.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.

Related Articles