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Q&A: Can African-Sino Agri-Health Cooperation Champion Green Recovery?

File image of a Malawian farmer works on his land in Nsanje district several hundred Kms south of the main town Blantyre. Due to severe drought hit Malawi, one of the poorest country in Africa, most of the land is dry and has not produced the expected quantity of maize. GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP

For a moment it would seem that climate change has taken a backseat in the midst of a global pandemic, yet we are increasingly seeing the need to make linkages between COVID-19 response and climate action policies. What has been termed as “green recovery” refers to implementing policies that intrinsically are centered on sustainability while mitigating the impacts of climate change. An estimated average decline of 10.6 % is expected for the crop mean yield across the African regions by 2050. With reported higher temperatures, floods, droughts, locusts invasion, Africa is at risk of becoming vulnerable and food insecure.

To understand how to tackle these issues headstrong during COVID-19, CAP Managing Editor Eric Olander spoke with Hannah Ryder, CEO of the Beijing-based consultancy Development Reimagined to find out how best to conceptualize what a green recovery would look like.

ERIC OLANDER: Despite being in the midst of a global pandemic, why is the conversation on climate change so significant?

HANNAH RYDER: There are two reasons why it is crucial to talk about climate change now, even as COVID-19 dominates headlines and policy.

First, Michelle Wucker has called COVID-19 and climate change both “grey rhinos” – as in, obvious and known dangers that are anticipated but are in reality mostly neglected. She is absolutely right, but I also like to make another analogy. Back in 2006, as an economist and policy maker at the time, I wrote three chapters in the seminal Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, which put forward for the first time the case that the costs of acting NOW to address climate change will be lower than the costs of doing nothing.

Now as head of a consultancy that advises policymakers all over the world, I still believe that assessment is right, and we have seen this analogy play out very clearly with COVID-19. Governments that helped their citizens to act immediately – by shutting down international borders, mandating social distancing and masks – have been able to completely avoid or flatten COVID-19 curves, and therefore resume economic activity faster. Even the poorest countries, including those in Africa, have seen this result very clearly.

Thus, the experience of COVID-19 should encourage us to not only be aware of grey rhinos like climate change, but it should encourage us to be more resolute and assured that taking action is the right, least-cost decision. It also reminds us that countries at all ends of the wealth spectrum – rich to poor – face the same circumstances and fundamental policy choices when it comes to grey rhinos like climate change and COVID-19.

The second reason it’s important to talk about climate change now derives from the first. Right now, governments are spending a huge amount on COVID-19 recovery. Asian and Pacific counties are spending on average 7% of their GDP to counter COVID-19’s health and economic impacts. Even African countries are spending on average 2.6% of their GDP. But money is finite. If we can ensure this money is being directed towards climate-friendly actions now, or what is known as a “green recovery” that will be even better.

ERIC: This is a very interesting concept. In your view, to what degree is Sino-Africa cooperation on COVID-19 – whether in the area of health or any other area – taking account of this “green recovery” idea? Is it happening?

HANNAH: Since COVID-19 erupted we have seen two key trends when it comes to Sino-Africa cooperation.

  1. A continuation of traditional Sino-Africa cooperation on health as well as some new innovations. As reported in our recent COVID-19 infographic analysis, to date China has sent a total of 7 medical teams to 15 African countries. Earlier on in the year, through the partnership between the Jack Ma Foundation, Alibaba Foundation and the Ethiopian Airlines, the foundations made a series of donations of masks, medical use protective suits, testing kits and ventilators through the African Union and the African Centre for Disease Control benefitting a total of 54 African countries.    
  2. A willingness by China to support African counties with creating more fiscal space to deal with COVID-19’s financing needs, for example through the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI).

But China (nor others) has not explicitly said the new spending should be “green”. Partly this is because China does not impose these kinds of conditions on governments when extending development finance, but it is important to be aware of.

Indeed, China has itself announced a huge new internal policy for net carbon neutrality by 2060 – while the government did not make a direct link between COVID-19 and this policy when announcing, it is clear that COVID-19 has encouraged China to think more carefully about self-sufficiency, especially in energy, and the benefits of green technological innovation which can stimulate its economy to recover.

Now while it is difficult to directly apply “green considerations” to health cooperation, the fact is COVID-19 as a health challenge does require economic responses, as we can see from China’s own policies.  A recent study we did for an agency affiliated to China’s Ministry of Environment suggests that more than any other region in the world, carbon emissions in Africa tend to come from the natural resource base or the manufacturing base of a country, which is how the continent’s economies currently derive the majority of their growth – not population.

The question is to what degree China is now willing to help African and other economies go through their own green recovery, and this is something African governments need to both demand and track.

ERIC: African economies rely on the agriculture sector for a great deal of jobs, and of course it is one of the sectors that is impacted the most due to the consequences of climate change, and has been impacted by COVID-19 too. Have you seen any examples of Africa-China cooperation that help address agriculture, climate change and even health that you think are worth highlighting?

HANNAH: Not yet, but I think this is an area to watch. As you say agriculture is impacted by climate change and it has also been impacted by COVID-19. Over half of the African population (60 per cent) actually depends on agriculture as a source of livelihood.

One study by Ayanlade & Radeny (2020) looked at the linkages between the agricultural planting season in Sub-Saharan Africa and how it coincided with the lockdown measures, posing a major threat to the food security of countries. Furthermore, farmers have had limited access to some agricultural inputs. Agricultural exports are another source of revenue for the continent which the UNCTAD estimates will experience a 3 per cent decline. At the same time, a range of African countries have implemented COVID-19 responses to safeguard the productivity levels of their agriculture sectors.

What we have seen in Asia, for instance, is governments – as part of their COVID-19 response – trying to bring sectors together. For example, there are three countries whose Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) incorporate forestry and have made linkages with COVID-19 responses. Take Pakistan for example whose reforestation NDC was used as a means of creating temporary job opportunities for out-of-work labourers during COVID-19 to plant saplings under the “10 billion Tree Tsunami” programme. As unique as this programme sounds in that it links forestry, climate change and COVID-19, it demonstrates the possibility of implementing more climate sensitive policies during the pandemic. Making it a triple win.

At DR, as you will see if you explore the infographics we have been producing since March 2020 on Africa’s COVID-19 response, we have estimated that African governments have brought in around 245 social and economic support measures to address COVID-19 that could reach over 175 million people – particularly concentrated around cash transfers. In contrast, the Asia Pacific region has brought in over 300 such measures, mostly focused around ensuring people maintain their jobs and new jobs are created. More measures like these should be championed across the continent.

*With thanks to Samu Ngwenya, Policy Analyst at Development Reimagined.

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