Post-G8 report cards are for the most part judging that the emphasis in Germany last week was on climate change, with the fight against poverty in Africa and the developing world taking a back seat. In truth, however, the two are so closely intertwined that they cannot be considered separately. Just as skewed global trade and political systems stack the deck against developing countries struggling to escape the poverty trap, it also limits their scope for effective action on climate change.
Progressive efforts to tackle climate change in Africa and the developing world are almost invariably hamstrung by global political, trade and finance rules and realities. Attempts to crack down on energy leakage are too often stymied simply because the mostly international corporations affected can threaten to pack up and move. Poor countries are desperately dependent on investments and jobs from these western companies.
Many developing countries have high levels of carbon emissions because they use so-called dirty fuel such as coal to generate the bulk of their energy. These countries worry about the cost of rapidly turning to sustainable energy, when they have massive social obligations to their poor citizens. More than 25% of households in South Africa, for example, do not have access to affordable energy, let alone clean energy.
The conversion from dirty to clean fuel is expensive. And here there is a telling echo of struggles for antiviral drugs in Africa: countries pursuing new technology to produce cleaner energy affordably often face battles with western companies and governments over intellectual property rights issues.
The people of Africa and the developing world understandably worry that they will find themselves left bearing the brunt of climate change, just as they have regarding health issues. The latest reports from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have identified Africa as the continent likely be hardest hit by climate change, thanks to plummeting food production and water shortages. And yet the industrialised countries are disproportionately responsible for global warming. The big developing countries - China, India and Brazil - are not blameless, but the western track record is hardly an example to follow.
After the G8 meeting, many welcomed the news that the United States had agreed that a future deal on the environment would be cobbled together under the auspices of the United Nations. However, the UN is viewed by many in Africa with distrust, especially following its apparent manipulation by the US and "coalition of the willing" in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. There is little confidence that a fair deal will be agreed. At the UN-sponsored Africa climate change event in Kenya last year, Africans were watching powerlessly from the margins, as they were excluded from discussions that concerned them most.
If the G8 is serious about climate change in Africa and the developing world, one proposal is to refocus the World Bank to help poor nations overcome the cost of shifting to clean energy. Only the G8 nations have the power to achieve that.
It is no wonder that the large developing countries are suspicious of western attempts so far to persuade them to opt for a greener, and more costly, option to catch up with the west. Indeed, some developing countries perceive the clamour over climate change as an attempt by the west to dominate the world's depleting energy sources. Others, such as China, India and Brazil, suspect an ulterior motive on the part of a western world anxious about their high growth rates. These positions may be wrong, but they are certainly understandable.
Global warming has a disproportionate impact on poor countries, but it is, almost by definition, a pressing issue everywhere and for everyone. It cannot, however, be tackled in isolation, divorced from the other problems facing Africa and the developing world. Rich nations would be foolish to imagine that the fight against poverty can be postponed in favour of a focus on climate change. The solution to both demands an equitable partnership in decision-making and restoration of trust between the west and the developing world, and that must begin with genuine efforts to change the inequitable global trade, political and financial systems.
WM Gumede is senior associate and Oppenheimer fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2007 The Guardian