Start main page content

Take the money? A conundrum for African biodiversity and climate negotiators

- By Laura Pereira and Sally Archibald

We have just had the final text negotiated at COP28 in Dubai.

Whilst disappointing on many fronts - especially on financial commitments by rich countries to enable just transitions and adaptation in the Global South - there are a few wins.

Apart from having fossil fuels named as the culprits driving our climate emergency, the explicit link between the climate and our ecosystems has also been strengthened. Paragraph 33 of the Global Stocktake explicitly refers to actions needing to be in line with the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. Ecosystems are critical to keeping the 1.5C Paris Agreement target alive, so what does this mean for African ecosystems?

Whilst government financial commitments in acknowledgement of historical debt is like a slow dripping tap, money from voluntary carbon markets is going to start pouring into Africa and the Global South to achieve climate mitigation via ecosystem-based approaches, which is now firmly entrenched in the latest UNFCCC decisions. This is both an opportunity and a problem for Africa. It is an opportunity because funds are being released for action on the ground, where fiscal resources are increasingly squeezed, and where the right kind of action could spark all sorts of benefits for people and nature. It is a problem because like all “development” funding it generally comes with strings attached, and the funders (even when the intentions are good) have not necessarily thought through the implications for the countries and ecosystems where they intend to implement these interventions. 

In particular, most development funding in Africa is now framed in terms of nature-based solutions (defined broadly as “Actions to protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural and modified ecosystems that address societal challenges effectively and adaptively, simultaneously benefiting people and nature”1). 

This sounds good on paper, but in reality, the chances of finding projects that truly are good for climate, people, and nature all at the same time are quite rare, and a recent review illustrates how often the most vulnerable and least privileged people and ecosystems are the ones that end up losing out (TES NBS Holden). Scientists in Africa are aware of this, and many are hesitant to put their weight behind projects they know are likely to have mixed consequences and will not be able to fulfil these unrealistic expectations, yet they also desperately need the finances to help drive projects on the ground. 

This places African negotiators at the CBD (and the UNFCCC) in a quandary: individual countries (and their negotiators) want and need the money, but not with the particular strings currently attached. As we start the preparations for both the CBD COP16 and UNFCCC COP29 in 2024, the following options are on the table: 

  1. Take the money and promise things they know either are not achievable, or could have negative consequences for biodiversity and/or livelihoods.
  2. Defer (reject the current wording) in order to achieve more convergence on the implementation of NBS, and clarity about the terms and the funding mechanisms. This is risky, and requires a really active and vibrant science-policy space, and the capacity to suggest and promote alternative actions and interventions and be taken seriously. 

The other challenge is that Option 1 can occur at a bilateral level between two countries but Option 2 requires a coordinated response from the majority (or even all) of the relevant countries, which is hard to push forward when Option 1 is on the table, especially given the lack of alternative funding. So, how to enable Option 2, without stalling the process too much (we are in a climate crisis) and without losing potentially vital and necessary funding to help us adapt to climate change?

Clarity and nuanced funding

Future Ecosystems for Africa (Fefa) is partnering with various organisations working for change on the ground and in the international sphere to help highlight this conundrum, especially in the African context, and to explain why more nuanced funding, based on better information, is needed. We are also coordinating among scientists on the continent to build the evidence base for negotiators and other government officials to use to support their arguments. 

Land managers and scientists in Africa understand their ecosystems and are aware of the trade-offs involved in different interventions, but often this information is not available to the people who need it or has not been packaged in a way that helps to inform the negotiations and NBS guidelines. By developing data-sharing platforms, and producing regional and continental-scale maps and policy documents, African researchers can ensure their information and perspectives are included. 

It might seem that the horse has already bolted, as many NBS programmes are already underway, while the negotiations continue to drag on. But it is all the more important in these instances for people with data and contradictory perspectives to help drive these programmes in the right direction. For example, the original vision behind the Great Green Wall has evolved as the implementers engaged with the communities and realised that the original project was misinformed (From the FAO website: “The idea that initially inspired the initiative has given way to the vision of a mosaic of sustainable land use practices”). 

This could all be made a lot easier if funders were able to recognise and give credit to countries and implementers that embrace the trade-offs and make them explicit — where projects are assessed not in terms of whether they provide all of the co-benefits, but in terms of who in the community benefits and who or what loses out and whether this is justifiable. Funders therefore need checklists that talk not only to biophysical metrics (such as how much carbon is sequestered), but also to less measurable, but no less important aspects, such as who is making decisions, whose aspirations are being acknowledged and who is really winning.  We propose expanding these criteria to include:

  • Most agreements from different interest groups about the current state and the desired state of the ecosystems to be manipulated (past maps of “degradation” have sometimes highlighted biodiversity and water provision hotspots with large tourism income as requiring NBS interventions2).
  • The widest range of useful interventions (careful thinking about particular interventions to be applied, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach).
  • Most alignment between livelihoods, carbon and biodiversity needs, and an ability to make the trade-offs explicit (i.e. encourage honesty about the challenges of implementing NBS, rather than unrealistic promises).
  • Leaves open the most opportunities for the future (i.e. doesn’t limit future land use options).

So watch this space — negotiators have just returned from the Unea intergovernmental consultations on nature-based solutions and SBSTTA 25 (the subsidiary body for scientific, technological and technical advice of the CBD)  in Nairobi, where there was significant pushback from a range of countries (mainly in the Global South) against wording relating to a range of aspects about the objectives and implementation of Nature Based Solutions (i.e. Option 2 is on the table, and there is sufficient coordination and agreement between countries in the Global South to be able to propose alternative mechanisms). 

Negotiators at UNFCCC COP28 managed to get “ecosystem-based approaches/adaptation” everywhere that “nature-based solutions” were mentioned in the text. African countries will need to have a clear coordinated strategy over the coming years if we are going to be able to steer the funding and energy in directions that work for the continent, its people and its nature.

1 Definition from Seddon et al 2020. There are currently three definitions being used globally, each emphasising different aspects of Nature Based Solutions. The IUCN definition focuses on biodiversity and people, the EU definition emphasises innovation and economic benefits and the UNEA definition introduces the aspect of sustainable development. This creates confusion at the multilateral platforms in terms of what constitutes a nature based solution intervention given this diversity in the absence of a global and cohesive guidelines and criteria for implementation of NBS. 

2 Bond et al  TREE: “The Trouble with Trees” 

Laura Pereira and Sally Archibald are Associate Professors, Global Change Institute, University of Witwatersrand.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick