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Why Africa needs a Union Special Envoy for Climate Change and Security

Africa is responsible for a mere four per cent of global CO2 emissions. Yet, no continent is equally affected by the double burden of climate change and political fragility as Africa. A recent study by United States Agency for International Development shows that globally 57 per cent of the countries facing the highest double burden of climate exposure and political fragility risks are located in sub-Saharan Africa.

African societies, moreover, face socioeconomic and political challenges, such as endemic poverty, weak and corrupt governance structures, protracted conflicts, demographic pressures and urbanization. These issues alone overwhelm the capacity of many African states to achieve goals within the AU’s long-term strategic framework ‘Agenda 2063’.

Being the most vulnerable continent to climate change—inextricably linked to the continent’s peace and security—Africa is in need of a clear climate security strategy and strategic leadership. Ongoing reform within the AU and the upcoming AU Summit provide an opportunity to showcase leadership and develop adequate responses to climate-related security risks.Part of this should be the appointment of a Special Envoy to Climate Change and Security which could help widen the understanding of climate-related security risks within the AU. One example of how this can be done is commissioning integrated climate risks assessments that would directly inform the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change, the AU Commission as well as the AU Peace and Security Council. Such assessments would be crucial to mainstream climate security in continental and regional early warning systems and conflict prevention functions within the AU Peace and Security Department. Moreover, to counter siloed responses to climate security, a Special Envoy could ensure that the current AU reform process integrates climate risks in its peace and security architecture and across its structure .

The evidence is clear—climate-related changes compound social and political challenges. Africa’s high vulnerability to the impacts of climate change is due to African economies’ dependency on agriculture, a sector acutely affected by climate fluctuations. The risks that ensue include that of violent conflict—which in itself is an additional push factor for migration and forced displacement.

Climate-related security risks, including migration, are transnational in character which reasserts the need for African states to find a multilateral response at the AU level. Shifting precipitation patterns have increased water scarcity in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. This has put additional pressures on the availability of water and arable land as well as limiting the access to these resources within and across countries, sometimes forcing people to migrate. Conflicts and increased environmental stress have made the Sahel region a migration hotspot and North Africa a transit area for people attempting to reach Europe. Climate change also exaggerates transnational security challenges such as water management. According to data from the United Nations Environment Programme, Africa has 59 international transboundary river basins and 15 principal lakes that cross the political boundaries of two or more countries. The Nile River Basin, for instance, extends over ten countries and the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is shared by four countries. The expected variability in water availability requires cross-country collaboration, but it has also become a hotspot for regional tensions. The strained dynamics between Egypt and Ethiopia around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam exemplify the security risks of cross-boundary resource sharing against a backdrop of changing climatic conditions. Further, this tension demonstrates the need for mediation through an appointed Special Envoy who could facilitate dialogue and cooperation

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