Fatima Denton interview (full transcript)

Photo Credit: CGIAR / CCAFS.

Fatima Denton: Director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa covering climate change, the green economy, new technologies, innovation, minerals and extraction.

A shorter version of this interview is available here.

Anders Lorenzen:
Do you think climate change is one of the biggest issues facing Africa?

Fatima Denton:
Yes, undoubtedly. I think Africa has come a long way in terms of its own development. Africa is also growing at a very fast rate, at about 5%. I think there is confidence that this growth will continue and it will arrive at a double digit figure. I think if climate change is not addressed, it could derail Africa’s development. Climate change needs to be looked as not as an environmental problem but as a development problem that can actually conspire to derail Africa because of its development trajectory and where it wants to go.

Do you think there is enough information in Africa about climate change? Do Africans understand climate change and why it is happening?

I think there is a growing realisation that the climate is changing. I think when you talk to the rural community they can tell you and give you very specific indicators of what they used to see and that they are not seeing anymore. They would tell you about the length of the growing season, they will tell you about the rains, they will tell you about issues related to biodiversity. Things that they would see that would signal that the rains are about to start and they are not seeing it anymore. I think there is a kind of general awareness. So how you make that scientific issue is another matter. But at least from the face of it, people can actually tell you that these are the things that are happening, and it’s getting hotter, it’s getting cooler and that is not normal.

Do you see any progressive leadership in Africa on climate change?

Yes I think so, I think it has come a long way. Africa has been going to the climate negotiations for 20 years like many other countries. Africa is the only region that has got a committee of African heads of states on climate change called the CAHOSCC (The Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change). So that, I think, is an indicator of the fact that it is seen as a political issue as well, and it’s high on the political radar. Policy makers have come together and asked – what can we do to address climate change? That is awareness. The public perception about climate change is also helping to tell African governments you have to act. We are seeing more leadership, more African countries are willing and ready to take on very
specific issues about climate change. Benin is one example. It has done quite a lot in terms of rural poverty. It is not talking about rural poverty in isolation, it is talking about rural poverty and climate change. So I think you have those kinds of countries that are looking at this very much as a time bomb, how climate change would very much act as a stressor that would ultimately create more difficulties in one sector or another.

How does corruption impact action on climate change?

I would like to believe that corruption is a problem you see everywhere and that there is no continent that has a monopoly on corruption. I do think that climate change in terms of its governance has actually unraveled a lot of issues. How do you govern? How do you create a system that works? Who gets to make which decisions and at what level? Climate change is potentially an issue that is a human security problem. Where do you start? Do you start from a local level? Do you start from a federal level like in Nigeria? Who has the power and authority to do what? So I think actually it has unmasked several very serious governing issues. We will have to decide what gets done on a decentralised level, what gets done on a provincial level and what gets done on a national level. And the rules that would stifle corruption, are rules that would have to be created not only in the international forum where decisions are being made about climate policy and climate action, but also in national forums where governments would have to say ‘these are the standards in place’ and insure those who are acting in favor of climate action would understand those rules and that they would be discouraged from using monies and funds that are not geared for that purpose.

How do we deal with Africa’s thirst for energy and can we demand that they should only develop clean sources of energy?

That is a very tough one, it is a really good question. There is a Tanzanian guy who wrote a book called ‘Survival Emissions’ and the reason for that is that he argued in his book that fossil fuel emissions in Africa are emissions that would allow Africa to grow in the same way that the industrialised nations used those emissions to grow. So I think in that sense it’s very hard to say to African countries you have to grow, but you have to grow with clean technologies. Because clean technologies come with a price and so many countries may not feel too keen to go down that pathway, but I think the rationale for growth has to be explained in such a way that we talk about how environmental issues intertwine with the development issues. I think you have to use business, economic arguments to really persuade African governments that it’s in their best interest to have a decarbonised trajectory, they have to go towards that trajectory because if they stay on a fossil fuel trajectory that has consequences, not just for other countries but for the generation today and tomorrow.

What role does decentralised energy play and can it help to give more rural communities access to energy?

You cannot convince some people even in rural areas that decentralised energy is best because anything that is not grid electricity they see as some kind of second stage energy, they do not value it. I think that it’s basically trying to wean people off this sort of mindset and convince them that a good decentralised energy system can provide clean solar energy which can do a lot of the productive work they are doing. I think once that idea starts growing on them it becomes a lot easier to take them down that pathway. I do think that decentralised energy has a lot of beneficial effects in Africa, it can create jobs, it can create productivity depending on what you are looking at.

Is a lack of finance holding back progress?

I think finance is a very big part of the problem. We can talk about low carbon growth all we want, but low carbon growth has to be financed. You have to invest in the infrastructure, you have to invest in the knowledge, you have to build skills and those things come with financial implications. And many African countries are suffering from structural problems, food systems that are not up to scratch, so asking them to find additional funds to grow cleaner is a hard ask.

What should Africa’s agenda be for Lima and Paris and will they take on board emission reduction policies?

I think the answer for that is trying to do as much as one can in the road towards Paris. Africa needs to do its homework, and be focused in terms of what it wants. What does it want in terms of agriculture, how does agriculture need to look like in the next five, ten, 15 years and what kind of technologies would help the agriculture industry transform itself. What are the kinds of skills that would enable African parliaments to be less dependent on rain fed agriculture for instance. Africa needs to underline very clearly the things that are currently delaying or derailing its economic development. And it has to come to Lima and to Paris with some very clear guidelines in terms of what it wants from the negotiations. Technology transfer is one; cleaner technology – there is a price, how is Africa willing to finance that?  So it has to be able to ask developing countries to actually provide funding for that leapfrogging. You cannot leapfrog
anywhere if you do not have the technology, so it has to start with that. It has to be able to say let’s look at issues relating to forest emissions. How do we take advantage of that and harness the resources that are there. How do we ensure that deforestation is not going to continue to affect the economy and wreck the potential that we have in greening our economy. It has to really try to highlight areas where climate change is going to hit the African economy the
hardest; it has to come with pointed questions and it has to come with a clear roadmap so that it can actually start to say these are the things that we want. It also has to go beyond from my perspective just ‘adaptation adaptation adaptation’ argument, it has to say we are ready to mitigate. Mitigate in the transport sector, mitigate in the energy sector, we can mitigate in the agriculture sector. These are the three conditions for mitigation it has to be able to answer.

What can you take with you from your time in Denmark and use in Africa?

During my time in Denmark I was really amazed by how much they have adopted renewable energy in terms of wind farms and that is something that is a good practice. With technology that works well in Europe, European governments can say we can support you, we can provide all kinds of capacity and skill sets to deploy the technology.

Fatima Denton was interviewed at the British Library ahead of her Barabara Ward 2014 IIED lecture on the 20th of November 2014.

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