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Africa vs. Climate Change – Harvard International Review

Climate change: one of the most pressing problems for every country. Or is it? Although it is common to hear of wealthier nations engaging in dialogue to combat the effects of global warming, climate change is not universally prioritized. While wealthier governments worry deeply about the impacts of global warming, poorer countries worry more about addressing more immediate needs, like poverty, starvation, and healthcare. According to a worldwide survey conducted by the UN, climate change is a priority for about half of the respondents in high Human Development Index (HDI) countries, a quarter of the respondents in medium HDI countries, and less than 10 percent of respondents in low HDI nations. Thus, climate change tends to rank higher on wealthier countries’ governmental agendas since they are better position to prioritize climate change over other concerns that are more widespread in developing nations.

In the case of Africa, although some of its countries are further along the path of industrialization and economic development than others, many nations in the region have low HDIs and are less equipped to manage sea-level rise, heat waves, droughts, and other natural disasters that are linked to climate change; thus, the effects of climate change will impact these developing nations more than developed countries that have more infrastructure and capital. At the same time, developed nations contribute far more to increasing the rate of global warming. According to the Center for Global Development, industrialized countries worldwide were responsible for 79 percent of accumulated carbon emissions between 1850 and 2011. Additionally, the wealthiest 10 percent of individuals contributed approximately half of the global emissions recorded in 2015, with the top one percent being responsible for approximately 15 percent of emissions—twice the amount contributed by the world’s poorest 50 percent. This means the poorest nations and individuals inevitably bear the heavy brunt of climate change consequences regardless of their minimal contribution to global warming.

The Case of Mozambique

Mozambique—one of the poorest countries in the world, where over 70 percent of its total population lives in poverty—is one of the most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change, despite not contributing much to the causes of climate change. According to the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, Mozambique is the fifth most affected nation by extreme weather over the past two decades, as the changing weather patterns caused by climate change have triggered waves of devastating cyclones and floods. Its key economic sectors—like agriculture, which employs approximately 75 percent of the Mozambican workforce—are severely affected by these extreme weather conditions, which, in turn, hinders Mozambique’s productivity. Needless to say, the adverse effects of climate change have contributed massively to Mozambique’s lack of economic development, as its average annual losses from cyclones are approximately US$440 million. In fact, Mozambique is estimated to have lost 12.6 percent of its GDP to the climate change crisis in 2019 alone.

Given that recovering from these natural catastrophes entails families rebuilding their homes or relocating to higher grounds, poor families in Mozambique are often sent into downward spirals of poverty. Although farming communities in Mozambique often move between living by rivers and on higher ground because of the constant change between droughts and floods, when Mozambique floods, families may not have enough time to relocate. In addition, Mozambique is particularly at a disadvantage when it comes to climate change-induced natural disasters because of its geography—its close proximity to the Indian Ocean, paired with the fact that it is downstream from many of Africa’s largest rivers, means that Mozambique disproportionately faces hydro-meteorological disasters. As Alexandre Tique, a meteorologist at Mozambique’s National Meteorological Institute, states, “it is difficult to circulate […] information [regarding natural disasters] to everyone that needs it, because a very large percentage of Mozambique’s population lives in rural areas.” Thus, the people of Mozambique are disproportionately exposed to the dangerous effects of climate change, and have far fewer resources to prepare and recover compared to people in more developed countries.

The Problem with Current Global Warming Solutions

To mitigate the impact of global warming, nations set targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. However, this seems to unfairly disadvantage developing nations like Mozambique that need to industrialize to promote economic growth. Historically, industrialization was the driver of economic growth for many wealthy nations in Europe and the Americas. Using cheap fossil fuels can lead to more manufacturing and higher rates of productivity in the workforce, which increases profits, urbanization, and standards of living while reducing unemployment and poverty. Underdeveloped areas of the world benefit immensely from fossil fuels, given that this resource allows them to escape poverty through accessible and inexpensive energy.

Mozambique’s Need for Development

While some economists may argue that less developed countries can essentially “skip” over industrialization by investing in human capital and governance, Mozambique’s economic welfare has lagged in terms of progress with respect to the developing world, partly because of its lack of accessible education and healthcare. Mozambican women have a 50.3 percent literacy rate, and the life expectancy for Mozambican men is roughly 56 years. Additionally, Mozambique is underdeveloped because of the historical exploitation of its people and resources at the hands of the Portuguese, who controlled Mozambique until it gained its independence in 1975. For more than 300 years of Portuguese colonization, Mozambique was depleted of its people and resources, as some of its most important industries during its colonial era were the slave and ivory trade—which had devastating ramifications for Mozambique’s economy and society. Additionally, the Portuguese were not interested in educating Mozambicans beyond what they considered necessary, which was left up to the Portuguese’s discretion; many schools even denied access to and purposely failed African indigenous students.

Although Mozambique finally won its independence in 1975, it has spent approximately half of its time since independence fighting multiple civil wars, further destabilizing its economy and depleting its population. Given how Mozambique’s tumultuous history has proved detrimental to its resources and human capital, Mozambique has had a difficult time industrializing. Furthermore, Mozambique experiences severe structural issues regarding its education system. A USAID study showed that only approximately 15 percent of Mozambican school days are actually utilized due to issues like a lack of teachers and other structural limitations; 66 percent of Mozambican school children finish elementary school without basic reading and writing skills. Additionally, with over 70 percent of Mozambicans living below the poverty line, many children are forced to either quit school to support their families or to start their own families. This poor education infrastructure makes it extremely difficult for Mozambique to invest in its human capital, creating a desperate need for industrialization. Expecting the nation to industrialize without inexpensive energy and electricity is unfair, especially considering that Mozambique’s natural gas consumption accounts for a negligible percentage of the world’s total consumption.

Harmful Alternatives to Carbon Emissions

People may argue that, in theory, restricting access to oil and natural gas-powered electricity plants for countries with low HDIs leads to fewer carbon emissions and helps address the climate crisis. However, stripping countries like Mozambique from access to fossil fuels means that people resort to more dangerous forms of energy. For instance, one of the most commonly used renewable forms of energy worldwide is biomass—the burning of wood and other organic matter—which accounts for 96 percent of the global renewable heat market. Unfortunately, biomass fuel (BMF) is even worse for the environment than the usage of gas and oil. The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states that burning biomass not only endangers the world’s forests, but also generates air pollution that can cause health problems like asthma attacks, cancer, and heart attacks, which, in turn, puts more pressure on the already-strained health services in poorer nations like Mozambique. Additionally, because biomass emissions are generated by individuals to cook meals or boil water rather than just at localized energy plants, there are greater health impacts on users, especially women and children, since they are primarily exposed to high levels of BMF smoke in rural areas. Thus, restricting fossil fuel usage in Mozambique may simply push more people to use BMFs, which has similar, if not worse, environmental and health impacts in comparison.

Mozambique is rich in fuel; it is Africa’s third-largest source of natural gas. To generate income, Mozambique relies on “extractivism”: earning money by extracting and exporting large quantities of energy worldwide. However, although this generates wealth for Mozambique, it also contributes to the growing threat of environmental catastrophes that have continued to impact other economic sectors in Mozambique. This creates a cycle in which Mozambique is forced to rely on extractivism because of the destruction caused by climate-change-induced cyclones, which are partially caused by extractivism itself. At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, Mozambique’s Prime Minister declared that Mozambique would derive 62 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2030 in order to comply with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); he proposed Mozambique’s exploration of natural gas as a “transitional energy source.” The United Kingdom Export Finance (UKEF) responded by committing over $1 billion for gas extraction projects in Mozambique. Although some critics, like the environmental activist Anabela Lemos, argue that these extraction projects do nothing to mitigate climate change effects worldwide—causing irrevocable damage to the Mozambican environment—Mozambique’s Prime Minister’s proposal is reasonable. Moving away from utilizing fossil fuels must be among Mozambique’s priorities; however, doing so would structurally change its economy and social standards of living. Thus, Mozambique should be allowed to gradually transition towards relying on renewable resources on a longer time scale than developed countries given that fossil fuels are so central to Mozambique’s economy.

Moving Forward

Overall, it is perhaps in Mozambique’s best interest to transition away from extractivism and strive to re-envision its economic growth strategies. Moreover, the international community must focus on making clean forms of energy like solar panels more accessible to low HDI countries through subsidies and similar policies. Clean energy plants should be built to prevent health issues stemming from BMF smoke. The diversification of energy sources in Mozambique will allow it to diverge from the usage of fossil fuels while improving its economy. Mozambique and other low HDI countries should not have to bear the burden of resolving climate change, especially because they have historically contributed insignificant amounts to cause global warming. Although transitioning to renewable forms of energy is Mozambique’s ideal long-term solution to the climate change crisis, developing countries like Mozambique should be allowed to continue to use fossil fuels—at least for the time being. In other words, Mozambique’s best course of action may be to rely on natural gas and other fossil fuels in the meantime; nevertheless, it should still plan a gradual transition to renewable sources of energy, and developed nations must help facilitate this transition. Mozambique should not be pressured into setting the stage regarding international climate action; rather, it should be allowed to slowly adapt to a greener way of life.

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