Fires have ravaged Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, burning over 1,330 square miles of tree cover, and placing people, wildlife, and their habitats at risk. Experts warn that further degradation could inhibit the forest’s ability to release oxygen and absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide—a key function for combatting climate change.

The fires in the Amazon have been met with an international response. The G7, for instance, offered to contribute approximately $20 million to fight the blazes.

Yet the Amazon is not the only forest whose welfare is key for habitability. The Congo Basin forest, also known as the Earth’s “second lung,” is the second largest tropical rainforest behind the Amazon. It too is on fire.

In the month of August alone, at least 70% of the fires burning worldwide on an average day were in Africa, many of which were in the Congo Basin. Though fires can serve a critical component of savanna ecosystems, deforestation from practices such as “slash and burn,” pose a great threat to the forest. Continued deforestation could impact rainfall patters and exacerbate insecurity of freshwater and food supplies.

While a direct comparison as to which fire is worse remains unclear, it is evident that deforestation strains the environment in the short-term, and can have far-reaching implications long-term.

Below are two critical mechanisms through which the international community can unify stakeholders to address deforestation and climate change, particularly as they relate to Africa.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is an international agreement under the UN Convention on Climate Change that codifies States’ pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and sets a framework for these reductions, beginning in 2020. Entered into force on November 4, 2016, the Agreement was ratified by 186 parties, including 90% of African countries.

In principle, the Agreement was intended to improve upon and replace the Kyoto Protocol, which bound signatories to emission reduction targets. The Paris Agreement specifically aims to do two things:

  1. Strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by pursuing efforts to limit warming this century to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels; and
  2. Strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has indicated, “most African countries are highly vulnerable to climate change.”

To address this concern, the Agreement envisions putting in place appropriate financial flows, a new technology framework, and an enhanced capacity building framework to support action by the most vulnerable countries. Importantly, these frameworks are designed to be in line with States’ own national objectives, known as nationally determined contributions (“NDCs”) (Article 4, para 2).

Of particular importance to many African countries, the Agreement recognizes the different positions of developed and developing countries and adjusts the goals accordingly. Where for instance, the Agreement states that “developed countries should the lead by undertaking economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets,” it recognizes that developing countries should instead “continue enhancing their mitigation efforts, and are encouraged to move over time towards economy-wide emission reduction or limitation targets in the light of different national circumstances” (Article 4, para 4).

UN Climate Action Summit

The UN Climate Action Summit (the “Summit”) on September 23, 2019, brings together leaders from governments, the private sector, civil society, and other international organizations to accelerate actions to implement the Paris Agreement. Specifically, the Summit encourages these stakeholders to create concreate, realistic plans to enhance their NDCs by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by forty-five percent over the next decade. The Summit focuses on the following areas:

  • a global transition to renewable energy;
  • sustainable and resilient infrastructures and cities;
  • sustainable agriculture and management of forests and oceans;
  • resilience and adaptation to climate impacts; and
  • alignment of public and private finance with a net zero economy.

One area directly concerns deforestation, while another concerns adaptation—both relevant to Africa’s landscape. Moreover, the UN Secretary General has prioritized several action portfolios, which are recognized as having high potential to curb greenhouse gas emissions and increase global action on adaptation and resilience. The two below offer potential for increased participation from African countries:

  • Finance — mobilizing public and private sources of finance to drive decarbonization of all priority sectors and advance resilience;
  • Resilience and Adaptation advancing global efforts to address and manage the impacts and risks of climate change, particularly in those communities and nations most vulnerable.

In tandem, the mechanisms above provide avenues through which stakeholders can address climate change in Africa at an international level. Due to increased forest fires, in part caused by deforestation, there is a need to continue supporting climate governance in Africa and ensure progress towards the articulated goals.

There is still an opportunity for governments and the private sector to fight the fires—by innovating within this framework to develop actionable regional approaches.

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Photo of Fatmata Kabia Fatmata Kabia

Fatmata S. Kabia is an associate in Covington’s New York office. Her practice focuses on internal and government investigations and commercial litigation. Ms. Kabia has represented private and public companies, corporate directors, and individuals in a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals, benefits, and…

Fatmata S. Kabia is an associate in Covington’s New York office. Her practice focuses on internal and government investigations and commercial litigation. Ms. Kabia has represented private and public companies, corporate directors, and individuals in a variety of industries including pharmaceuticals, benefits, and financial services. Ms. Kabia also has experience working in-house as part of the anti-money laundering group of a multinational investment bank. She provides an interdisciplinary perspective to advise clients, particularly on cross-border issues and financial crime compliance.