Professor Desta Mebratu, waste management lead, United Nations high level climate champions and Engineering X initiative on open burning of waste explains why Africa must be the focus of the latest UN conference.
Climate change is already having significant effects on the entire world. Those who are most affected are the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, a substantial number of whom live in Africa. These groups bear the brunt of the negative impacts of climate change and industrial mismanagement.
This is an issue of justice – despite contributing the least to global emissions, sub-Saharan Africa experiences the most damaging effects from rising temperatures and extreme weather events. The environmental impacts of consumption in wealthy nations are often displaced to developing countries in different forms. Meanwhile, the impact of relocated polluting industries and consumption waste have also been neglected by international media and governmental bodies.
Efforts to move towards sustainability in these regions have also largely failed so far. This is due in part to the political environment, as well as the lack of appropriate infrastructure and the ineffectiveness of existing projects focused on sustainable development. COP27 in Egypt provides a unique global platform for leaders to acknowledge this imbalance and set out defined commitments to address the impacts of climate change in Africa.
The fact that sub-Saharan Africa is still at the early stage of industrialisation and urbanisation provides a unique opportunity to build a more resource-efficient and climate-resilient ecosystem that could result in multiple global sustainability dividends. A lack of unsustainable infrastructure should be seen as an opportunity to build the foundations for more sustainable and resilient solutions from the very beginning, that can be greener than traditional approaches.
Making the best out of this opportunity would require combining coherent top-down policy and strategy guidance with context-specific and bottom-up solutions that build upon the innovation and creativity of local communities and informal operators. It also requires shifting the emphasis to community-based value creation through resource reclamation and employment opportunities, supported by technology-based solutions. There have been large investment projects recently which have not been successful, and this was because the focus was on technological fixes rather than context-responsive socio-technological solutions. The huge investment made by some African countries on waste-to-energy conversion incinerators that are not supported by an integrated waste management system is one such example. To solve the complex issues caused by climate change, a concerted effort needs to be taken across government, industry, and the public.
The Engineering X Safer End of Engineered Life mission, in partnership with the UN High-Level Climate Champions (UNHLC) and other partners aims to raise awareness about the challenges and opportunities associated with mismanagement of waste, and the uncontrolled disposal of manufactured products at the end of their useful lifespan. As part of this project, a multistakeholder partnership opportunity will be launched at COP27 calling for global commitment against the open burning of waste in sub-Saharan Africa, which has major environmental and health impacts. It is vital that emphasis is placed onto investments in context-specific technologies that are developed with an understanding of the local systems, as well as directed efforts towards shifting societal attitudes within Africa.
It is also crucial that industry is held accountable for its role in the climate crisis, especially regarding its impact on developing nations. Companies that are involved in producing products with hazardous content that end up as waste have a responsibility to consider the end of life of those products. Where the products end up and how they end up causing harm to some of the poorest communities cannot be ignored. With many businesses and brands committing to sustainability and socially responsible impact, waste management should not be forgotten. This could be through leveraging their influence to raise awareness of the impacts and work with municipalities to adopt new strategies, or by directly investing in new solutions.
As their populations and energy needs grow, developing countries will begin to contribute more to climate change. At the same time, many of the same countries are projected to receive the worst impacts from climate change, including rising sea levels and more frequent and damaging storms that threaten agriculture, infrastructure and more. African nations need attention and support now, before the impacts reach catastrophic levels.
We may not be the cause, but our voices can be the reason for change, for the wellbeing of all.