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African countries have a vital role in the fight against the climate crisis

4 min read

We all know that rapid heating of our climate poses a terrible and increasing threat to humanity, including our security and prosperity in the United Kingdom. But not enough attention is paid to the vital role African countries can play in stopping the impending disaster.

As Labour’s shadow minister for Africa, I recently had the privilege of visiting Gabon, on the Atlantic coast of central Africa, and soon to become our newest Commonwealth sibling. The highlight of my visit, expertly facilitated by the International Parliamentary Union, was the National Park, thriving with wildlife and dense rainforest. It has been estimated that Gabon absorbs more carbon than it emits, making it one of the first “carbon negative” countries in the world.

As we know, we are going to need many more carbon-negative areas to offset the emissions that may remain unavoidable even in a genuinely net-zero world. So, when I saw some of Gabon’s national trees towering above me and was told that they had grown to that size in just 15 years, I felt a hope that can be sorely lacking today.

Trade agreements have been weak on environmental protections

Gabon is massively and rightly proud of their role in stewarding one of our planet’s healthiest “green lungs”. There are plans to increase hydroelectric and solar power capacity and grow sustainable timber and agriculture industries as well as ecotourism. Doing this is essential to replace oil extraction as a source of jobs and government revenues, and if done right, it could provide a much-needed model of sustainable prosperity for Africa and beyond.

If we are going to prevent global heating in excess of 1.5 degrees, we urgently need to halt and reverse deforestation, particularly in areas like Gabon where forests and mangroves store vast amounts of carbon.

The next Labour government will play a major role in supporting green and inclusive development finance across Africa. Equally, we will work diligently within international institutions to ensure that standards for timber, agriculture, tourism and other potentially green industries are both high and accessible to African governments and communities. Labour will set a net-zero and nature test for all government spending and require all UK financial institutions and FTSE 100 companies to publish their carbon footprint and adopt credible 1.5 degrees-aligned transition plans by 2023.

Liz Truss talks up bilateral investment deals, but trade agreements have been weak on environmental protections and her short-term approach has meant trusted, shared rules and goals have been neglected, and short-term profits put above sustainability, poverty reduction and local ownership. The enormous promise of green African development will not be achieved and the consequences for our security and prosperity in the UK could be dire, with runaway climate heating damaging our health and wrecking untold damage on our economy.

The future of Gabon can be bright, and Commonwealth membership could help in shaping a positive path. But their future is far from certain. Currently, it remains true that wealth in the country is primarily based on oil exports, and massively unequally shared.

Traversing a path to net-zero prosperity will be an enormous challenge. As with so many countries dependent on fossil fuel exports, high levels of corruption, social and economic exclusion, economic instability, and democratic deficits remain serious risks. In many countries, a transition to environmental sustainability also promises benefits for political stability, equality, and human rights.

UK development policy can take inspiration from the soaring ambition and the practical implementation of environmental politics in Gabon. Labour will use careful diplomacy in partnership with the Commonwealth, the African Union, and other leading continental bodies, and consistent, properly resourced conflict prevention and resolution efforts to support the continent’s poorer and less stable countries. We must work to prevent illicit finance flowing out of countries that need it and into offshore accounts via the City of London, while actively supporting inclusive and sustainable trade and investment.

With strategic support, stewardship and enhancement of nature can take root across so much more of Africa. There are so many fertile local traditions and values, and so much youthful energy and wise leadership – such potential yet to be realised. How much more hopeful our shared future would be if this promise is fulfilled.


Lyn Brown is the Labour MP for West Ham.

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