Cyclone Idai shows the deadly reality of climate change in Africa

As Africa climate week unfurls in Ghana, the countries of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe count the costs of Cyclone Idai, which ripped through villages and towns, taking hundreds of lives and leaving a trail of destruction.

For a continent already racked by the effects of the climate crisis, Idai is another chilling reminder of the destructive power of the kind of storms that will become more common as the world warms up.

The cyclone made landfall on 14 March, the same day that the One Planet Summit started in Nairobi, called by French president Emmanuel Macron. After picking up speed, with winds of 195km/h (120mph) accompanied by lashing rains, Idai caused flooding and landslides, ruining crops and roads, and has already affected millions of people. The city of Beira in Mozambique was hit the hardest, with nearly 80% of homes and public infrastructure destroyed.

While the most vulnerable communities are facing the real impact of climate change on the ground, national leaders at the One Planet Summit kept their talk inside comfortable and acclimatised rooms. During the summit, Macron encouraged global collaboration towards ensuring sustainable preservation of forests, and President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya made a pledge to achieve at least 10% forest cover in the next three years.

These commitments would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Africa needs to do a lot more than that to build climate resilience. Cyclone Idai is another powerful demonstration of this.

While many countries appear to be already reducing carbon emissions and moving towards an energy transition, Africa’s coalfields are open for business. Along with a few Asian countries (Indonesia, Vietnam and Bangladesh in particular), our continent continues to be an El Dorado for the coal cheerleaders and big business determined to carry on its coal-onisation. New plants are being planned from South Africa to Senegal, from Kenya to Mozambique, as well as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Côte d’Ivoire. Most of them are co-financed by the African Development Bank, on whose board sit members of African, European, North and South American and Asian governments.

This is the case for the coal-fired power plant projects in Bargny (in the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal), San-Pédro (Côte d’Ivoire), Lamu (Kenya), or the Thabametsi power station in Limpopo province, South Africa, near the border with Botswana.

The situation is pretty similar for the oil industry, a source of energy that continues to attract investors in Africa, a continent that accounts for 8% of global production, with 7.5m barrels a day. Despite the drop in the price of oil over the last five years, new players are added yearly to the list of majors companies, such as Total, Shell, Exxon, BP and Eni.

In Uganda, for example, a new field will be exploited, the fruit of the cooperation between Total, the Chinese company CNOOC, and the British company Tullow Oil. Perenco, a French-British company, has just set up in Gabon and DRC and plans to produce half a million barrels a day. In February 2019, Total announced the huge offshore discovery of gas-condensate and light oil in South Africa, which could contain 1bn barrels of total resources.

Even though Africa is estimated to produce just 4% of global carbon emissions – compared to 80% by the most industrialised countries (G20), it is the continent that pays the highest price. For us, climate change is not a future risk, it’s already a reality evident in wrecked families, lands and livelihoods, and hopeless children and young people who have no choice but to seek a future by migrating.

Everywhere on the continent, communities fear losing their land as each season hits one country after another with exceptional floods, unexpected storms and increasingly long droughts. Fauna and flora reserves have been running out, access to water has become a privilege, and extreme weather events have become more numerous and left families without homes or livelihoods.

Some assume that increasing forest cover or granting new billions in funding to governments plagued by bad governance and corruption will prevent such disasters from happening and solve the issue of global warming. This is an insult to people facing untold suffering in every corner of the continent, while new coal and mining infrastructure and carbon commodification continue to be allowed.

The proliferation of fossil-fuel projects is happening at the expense of people’s health, the climate and ecosystems. Yet the solutions to this crisis are also well known. They include ending coal extraction and mining, stopping the funding of new coal infrastructure – mines or power plants – and accelerating the investment in renewables.

International cooperation and funding from industrialised economies are necessary to combat climate change. And such efforts should start by not promoting or funding any fossil fuel projects anywhere in the world.

But before money, energy transition is a matter of vision and leadership. African countries have to step up efforts against environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, by decentralising energy supply systems, and by promoting tax policies that favour solar and wind energy investments.

African governments must do a better job of protecting their people, but fossil fuel companies must also be held accountable for the impact that decades of unregulated exploitation of coal, oil and gas have had on the continent, including before courts.

Tired of vain promises and empty slogans, students and pupils around the world, including in South Africa, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, organised a series of rallies and events last week asking their governments to take, without delay, the decisions needed to contain climate destabilisation. This organic mobilisation is likely to continue and grow until real action is taken.

While regional leaders and development partners are gathered in Accra for the 2019 Africa climate week, they should refrain from promoting more false solutions or making empty promises while thousands of innocent citizens are perishing. Ending the extraction and use of coal and other fossil fuels in Africa is a decision that cannot be delayed any longer. The brutality of Cyclone Idai is another stark reminder that millions of lives depend on it.