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Climate change and Africa's natural resources

African governments and outside powers must be accountable

William Minter and Anita Wheeler

2009-10-29, Issue 455

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On the eve of the UN Climate Change Conference this December, ‘momentum for action falls far short of that needed to avert catastrophe’, William Minter and Anita Wheeler write in this week’s Pambazuka News. When it comes to Africa's natural resources, say Minter and Wheeler, the ‘prospects for change depend squarely on African governments, on foreign companies and their home-country governments, and on the pressures that can be mobilised by national and international civil society’. With Africa predicted to ‘suffer consequences out of all proportion to its contribution to global warming, which is primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions from wealthy countries’, African governments ‘can and should take action now’.

On the eve of the climate change summit in Copenhagen this December, momentum for action still falls far short of that needed to avert catastrophe. Africa will suffer consequences out of all proportion to its contribution to global warming, which is primarily caused by greenhouse gas emissions from wealthy countries.

But Africa can also make significant contributions to mitigating (i.e. limiting) climate change. Stopping tropical deforestation is one of the most cost-effective means to slow the growth of greenhouse gases. Ending gas flaring in Africa's oil-producing countries could reduce carbon emissions and, as a bonus, also provide cleaner electricity.

Environmental activists in Africa – people like Nnimo Bassey in Nigeria, Wangari Maathai in Kenya, and Marc Ona Essangui in Gabon – are thus also on the frontlines against global warming. The damage from gas flaring and deforestation shows up both on the ground and in satellite photographs on the Internet. Reversing the damage will require both local and global action.


In Africa, as around the world, awareness is growing that climate change is not a remote threat but an immediate danger causing more frequent ‘extreme weather conditions’ of drought and flooding. Ice is melting at the poles and on Mount Kilimanjaro. The waters of Lake Chad are disappearing. Drought cycles in East Africa are becoming more unpredictable.

Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change, notes the International Panel on Climate Change. Factors such as dependence on rain-fed agriculture and the impact of warming on the spread of disease reinforce multiple pre-existing stresses. Like AIDS, the threat is already here. The toll is rising. Even more damaging effects will play out over decades.

Yet global warming comes primarily from greenhouse gas emissions outside Africa. Much of Africa's share, moreover, comes from extracting natural resources to be exported.

According to the latest estimates, the entire African continent was responsible for only 3.7 per cent of the world's annual CO2 emissions, compared to China with 21.5 per cent, the United States with 20 per cent, and the European Union with 14 per cent. Comparing cumulative emissions, a better measure of environmental impact, Africa's estimated 26.7 billion metric tons of emissions (1900-2004) were less than half the 55.1 billion tons from the United Kingdom, and only 8 per cent of the 314.8 billion tons from the United States.

African countries have prepared a common position for Copenhagen, stressing strong targets for emissions reduction by developed countries and global responsibility to aid Africa in reducing emissions and adapting to change. But attention at the conference will centre elsewhere. The United States and China are the two largest contributors to global warming, followed by Europe and emerging powers such as India, Brazil, and Russia. Africa's leverage in the negotiations is limited.

Whatever is decided in global talks, the crucial test will be what happens on the ground. When it comes to Africa's natural resources, the prospects for change depend squarely on African governments, on foreign companies and their home-country governments, and on the pressures that can be mobilised by national and international civil society.

Two sectors well illustrate the point: Oil production with its by-product of gas flaring, and deforestation, the result both of local land-use pressures and the export of tropical woods.


When crude oil is extracted, it comes with natural gas which must be separated. If this gas is not captured for fuel, or reinjected into the earth, it is vented into the air or burned. Venting and flaring produce methane and CO2, both greenhouse gases. Gas flaring is one of the two largest sources of CO2 emissions in sub-Saharan Africa, second only to coal-fired power generation in South Africa.

Recent satellite studies show that Russia is by far the largest gas flaring country, with an estimated 40.6 billion cubic meters (BCM) in 2008. But Nigeria ranks second, with 15.1 BCM. Algeria, Libya, and Angola rank 5th, 7th, and 9th (see National Geophysical Data Center for data and satellite images). Nigeria now exports liquefied natural gas to Europe, as well as to Togo, Benin, and Ghana. But about a third of the gas is still flared. If all the gas was instead used to produce energy, the country could gain as much as US$2.5 billion a year in revenues, as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and toxic effects on the local environment.

Stopping gas flaring, it would seem, would be a win-win proposition. Indeed the Nigerian government and even the oil companies have joined critics in recognising this. The Nigerian government first outlawed routine gas flaring in 1979, imposing fines and setting a target to end flaring by 1984.

All the major oil companies in Nigeria, principally the Dutch-British Shell Oil, and American companies Chevron and ExxonMobil, are members of the World Bank-sponsored Global Gas Flaring Reduction Public-Private Partnership, as are Nigeria and the United States. The World Bank notes that ‘Capture and use of the flared gas is ... a so-called low-hanging fruit relative to other carbon emissions reductions.’

But as Nnimo Bassey of Environmental Rights Action testified to Nigeria's National Environmental Consultation in December 2008, both the oil companies and the government (which has majority shares in the major oil concessions) have again and again found excuses for delay.

Most recently, despite some reductions, deadlines to end flaring were missed in 2007 and 2008. A new deadline for the end of 2009 will also not be met. Meanwhile, fines for non-compliance are so low that the companies easily include them in the cost of production. In 2005, the Nigerian High Court, judging a case brought by the Iwerekan community in Delta State, declared gas flaring to be an unconstitutional threat to human welfare. It ordered Shell to stop gas flaring there, and mandated the government to impose meaningful penalties to stop the practice. The judgment has not been enforced.


The effects of gas flaring on global warming are, of course, only part of the damages from Niger Delta oil. Analysts have repeatedly documented corruption and distortion of the national economy, toxic effects on the local environment, marginalisation of local communities, and militarisation of repression, all with the complicity of international oil companies. (For a dramatic visual record and sharp analysis, see The Curse of the Black Gold, by photographer Ed Kashi and political scientist Michael Watts).

There is also an enormous opportunity cost in failing to convert gas to reliable electricity. More than half of Nigerians have no electric power. Power outages plague Nigeria's businesses, leading those who can afford them to rely on fossil-fuel-burning generators. The gas lost through flaring could more than fill Nigeria's electricity needs. In one community in the Delta, Bonny Kingdom, there is a local small-scale gas distribution system that provides power, in addition to the LNG export facility there. But many – if not most – of the oil-producing communities have no electricity at all. Nationwide, serious power shortages are predicted to continue at least through 2015. And expensive projects to export natural gas are still given priority over those to provide electricity within the country.

Local communities in the Delta have been involved in resistance for decades. The non-violent campaign by the Ogoni people was met with the killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa by the Nigerian military regime in 1995. But non-violent actions by environmental groups have continued, as civilian governments since 1999 have also failed to satisfy the grievances of people in the oil-producing areas. Since 2005, a guerrilla insurgency under the banner of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has targeted oil installations, causing as much as US$4 billion a year in lost revenues.

International environmentalist and human rights groups have documented the abuses, campaigned for accountability, and supported legal actions such as a suit by Ogoni activists that won a US$15.5 million settlement from Shell in mid-2009. Yet pledges to resolve the conflict and clean up the environment in the Niger Delta have repeatedly evaporated, just as have the deadlines to end gas flaring. Vested interests have demonstrated their capacity to resist change.

Industry defenders argue that oil production must continue while ways are found to solve the problems. Niger Delta activists are now turning that argument on its head. ‘The truth is that indeed that is the best option: Leaving the oil in the ground,’ Bassey told the National Environmental Consultation. Such an option is unlikely, given the country's dependence on oil revenues. But unless action is taken to reduce the damage, Bassey noted, the externalised costs will continue to rise.

Open conflict in the Niger Delta may be temporarily abating, as several key leaders of armed resistance have accepted a government amnesty. But there is still little evidence that the Nigerian government or foreign oil companies will confront the long-term issues. And so the damage continues to mount up. As the effects of global warming accelerate, it will not only be the marginalised communities of the Niger Delta that suffer. Lagos and other coastal cities around the world will face the dangers of rising sea levels and catastrophic floods.


Africa's oil contributes to global warming both when produced and when consumed. Africa's tropical forests, in contrast, are among the most productive ‘carbon sinks’. Tropical forests store much more carbon than they produce, storing it in biomass or soil.

Globally, tropical forests absorb nearly a fifth of carbon emissions released by fossil fuels each year (Nature, February 2009). They also cool the atmosphere by putting moisture into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration (See the Annual State of the World's Forests).

The Congo Basin is home to the world’s second largest rainforest, second only to the Amazon. Africa's forests help regulate both temperature and rainfall. But Africa is losing more than 4 million hectares of forests a year, according to the UN Environment Programme. This is more than three times the world's average rate, equivalent to clearing an area the size of Switzerland every year. As a result, according to UN estimates, by 2020, some African countries may see a 50 per cent reduction in rain-fed agricultural yields.

Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai won world renown for the Kenyan Greenbelt movement, becoming the first African women to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004. ‘Protecting and restoring forest ecosystems, and arresting global warming, are matters of life and death,’ she stresses.

There is a clear international consensus that slowing deforestation is one of the most cost-effective ways to slow the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. Central African states have recognised the critical role of their forests, establishing the Central African Forests Commission (COMIFAC) in 1999 to coordinate forest protection. COMIFAC works with the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, which also includes donor governments, international organisations, non-governmental organisations, scientific, and industry groups.

The US Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests, in a report released this October, stressed that mitigating climate change by preserving the forests of the developing world, especially the Congo Basin, was ‘a vital national interest.’ Under pressure from international and local NGOs, China and the EU have committed to helping curb illegal logging in the Congo Basin. The May 2009 African Ministerial Conference on the Environment (AMCEN) in Nairobi also called for action against deforestation to be included in the new global climate regime.

Implementation, however, is difficult. There are multiple threats to Africa's forests. There is competition for land with local farmers, rising demand for wood for fuel, and rising world demand for tropical woods, with China replacing European countries as the top importer of logs in recent years, as this graph demonstrates[pdf]. Incentives for illegal logging and for cutting corners in legally approved projects are high.

In Africa's second biggest wood exporter, Gabon, local civil society has pushed the government and foreign companies towards greater accountability in the timber industry, illustrating the possibilities for constructive action. But, as in other countries, there is still a large gap between policy and reality.


Gabon’s forests cover up to 85 per cent of the country’s land area. Gabon was until recently relatively unaffected by deforestation because of its sparse population and oil wealth. Yet now that its oil reserves are diminishing, industrial logging by European and Chinese companies is expanding.

The government has laid out clear policies to control forest use. In 2002, President Omar Bongo declared 10 per cent of Gabon’s territory national park land. Quotas were set to reduce the share of logs in timber exports to 25 per cent by 2012, in favor of processed products. Companies must prepare ‘sustainable forest management plans.’ The rate of deforestation, about 10,000 hectares a year, is still relatively low, compared to neighbouring countries such as Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Yet nearly half of the nation's forest is now under timber leases. Demand for tropical timber is increasing, particularly from China, where massive rural to urban migration has driven a surge in construction. Gabon has become the leading African supplier of timber to China, and China the leading importer of Gabon's timber.

In this regard, greater environmental sensitivity in China has had contradictory effects. Domestic environmental activists, working with sympathetic scientists and government officials, have had some impact. Chinese banks have explicitly adopted environmental guidelines. China imposed strict laws banning logging in virgin forests a decade ago, winning praise from environmental groups. But the ban on domestic logging spurred imports linked to excessive logging in Southeast Asia as well as Africa. China thus stands accused of supporting policies abroad that it rejects at home.

News coverage of China's rapid economic expansion into Africa, such as the reported deal with the military regime in Guinea, has stressed China's willingness to disregard human rights concerns. But China is more sensitive to international and African criticism than generally acknowledged. The Chinese government wants to deflect criticism, especially on issues that garner international attention. This is particularly so in the environmental arena.

Thus the Chinese government has encouraged companies working in the Congo Basin to abide by local forest use laws In 2008, Chinese government and timber industry representatives visited with the government, private sector and civil society in Ghana, Liberia, DRC and Gabon, reiterating commitment to Sustainable Forest Management.

As in Western countries, the gap between national policy guidelines and the practice of specific companies can be very wide. In practice, in Gabon, Chinese as well as European companies are operating a significant proportion of timber concessions illegally. The burden is on Gabon's government to enforce the laws. But the fact that the laws are in place does give environmental activists some leverage.

One recent case demonstrates the potential, even in a context where neither the host country nor foreign interests are inclined to transparency and democratic accountability. That is the case involving the Ivindo National Park, which includes 3,000 square meters of forest rich in biodiversity. In 2006, the Gabon government and Chinese-owned CMEC entered into secret negotiations on the Belinga Iron Ore Project in Ivindo, a violation of Gabon's environmental protection laws.

Marc Ona Essangui, who leads the environmental NGO Brainforest, successfully pressured the Gabon government, CMEC and China’s Exim Bank to conduct an environmental assessment of the project.

Marc Ona Essangui (Credit: Rainforest Foundation)

In late 2008, Essangui was temporarily detained by police for his activism. But the Gabonese government and China's Exim Bank have put the project on hold to reassess its environmental impact.

Gabon, where 47 years of rule by strongman Omar Bongo has been followed this year by his son's victory in a disputed election, may seem an unlikely place for such pressure to have much effect. And the outcome is still uncertain. Essangui notes that forestry laws are still vulnerable to ‘well-oiled networks of corruption.’ Nevertheless, he told journalists after winning the Goldman Environmental Prize in April, ‘We have to protect our forests. It is our country, it is our duty.’


Decisions in Copenhagen will matter for Africa – what commitments the United States, China, and other countries are willing to make to firm targets on reducing carbon emissions, for example, and who will pay how much for mitigation of global warming and adaptation to changes already well under way.

It will make a difference to what extent international agreements mandate direct action or rely instead on complex ‘offset’ schemes that fund climate action in one place by allowing pollution to continue elsewhere (examples include the international Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the ‘cap-and-trade’ provisions in the proposed US climate bill). Depending on the details, the UN's REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) may end up as one way to pay poor people and countries to preserve the environment, or as another offset mechanism vulnerable to fraud and deceptive calculations.

Whatever the results from Copenhagen, the bottom line on climate mitigation is how to actually decrease carbon emissions. Priority measures include increasing efficiency and cutting back the dirtiest fuel sources, particularly in the countries most responsible for emissions. But ‘low-hanging fruit’ such as curbing gas flaring and tropical deforestation must also be on the list for immediate action.

African governments can and should take action now. Foreign companies and governments can help or hinder. But overcoming resistance from vested short-term interests will not be easy. Local environmental activists have already taken the lead by actions such as targeting gas flaring in the Niger Delta and deforestation in Gabon. Global climate change activists must follow suit, using international platforms to connect local and global issues and demanding that change be measured against realities on the ground.


* William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin. Anita Wheeler is a doctoral student at Howard University specialising in China/Africa relations.
* This article appears in AfricaFocus Bulletin, Niger Delta Rising and the Institute for Policy Studies.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.

Readers' Comments

Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.

Two independent things for Africa to do about climate change: 1) Stop selling oil. Make the rest of the world cut down whether they want to or not. The export money does at least as much harm as good. 2) The water cycle is the larger part of climate. Restore your waterways to full functionality by clearing weeds and silt from them. Make the weeds into biofuel, and the silt into soil conditioner. Reforest your continent.

Stephen Klaber

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