African free trade could increase resilience to climate change and conflict
By David Harary
Developing countries are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as drought, flooding, severe weather events, and threats to humanity’s basic needs like food, water, energy, and shelter. The African continent knows much about the impacts of climate change. But what can it do about it?
Enter the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). For decades, African leaders have looked outside the continent for trading partners. While intra-Asian and intra-European exports accounted for 59 percent and 69 percent of their respective total exports in 2016, intra-African exports made up only 18 percent of total exports. A heavy reliance on external markets, such as China, makes the African continent vulnerable to the whims of faraway leaders. This is especially true for the most basic necessities, such as food.
The risks of a globalized food system
In 2011, the global market price of wheat nearly doubled as a consequence of heat waves decimating the Russian harvest. Russia subsequently restricted agricultural exports, which led food prices to rise across the globe. Countries that relied on Russian agricultural commodities, especially those in the Middle East and North Africa, witnessed a series of spikes in the price of bread. The resulting famine helped set the stage for the Arab Spring. Egypt’s revolutionary slogan, “bread, dignity, and social justice,” embodies the nexus of climate change, global trade, and human insecurity.
Failures in the global food system can precipitate mass social unrest, political strife, and at times, conflict when the price of food reaches a tipping point. Similarly, if African nations continue to rely on basic goods from faraway countries, the effects of climate change will be multiplied through supply chains as those goods grow more scarce.
To prevent this kind of scenario, African countries could develop their self-reliance and sustainability together. The free trade area paves a way for 44 of the 55 African Union member states to break down economic barriers and work together. While only a handful of countries have ratified the agreement so far, such a free trade area could increase human security in the region. Easier, simpler, and less costly trade means these basic goods and services can flow smoothly during times of peak stress from environmental crises and natural disasters.
Increased economic specialization and development can occur more rapidly because regional value chains and infrastructure projects can cross borders. Perhaps most importantly, the free trade area can allow Africa to become a beacon of sustainable development as advanced technologies can be readily implemented at a larger scale than previously possible.
In an era of increased risk from climate change, one of the most notable effects of this agreement will be to reduce human security challenges. With a population expected to reach over 2.4 billion by 2050, Africa needs to be able to meet the demand for food, water, and energy at a time when environmental volatility is high. African leaders must therefore act sooner, rather than later, to account for potential price shocks and periods of shortage.
Putting theory into practice
We’ve already seen the cost of not acting. Food and water shortages have exacerbated conflicts and led to violence across the continent, especially in Africa’s Sahel region, which is subject to a high degree of climatic volatility and is likely to experience extreme change over the next few decades. The region has witnessed the rise of violence at the hands of extremist terrorist groups, like Boko Haram, partially because of increased resource competition resulting from climate change.
Severe weather due to climate change has made it easier for some terrorist groups to grow their ranks and radicalize young people. Al-Shabaab in Somalia is one such group. Climate change has worsened recurring droughts and famines in the country and has contributed to fierce competition for already scarce resources between rival factions. In such unstable settings, Al-Shabaab has successfully recruited young people who otherwise faced famine, food insecurity, and low economic opportunity.
To reverse these social effects, countries like Somalia will have to focus more on becoming resilient to climate change. A combination of instability, low state capacity, and increased economic vulnerability, however, means developing long-term resilience has been put on the backburner. It doesn’t help that Somalia now imports 18 times more food than it did in the late 1980s while local production provides an average of only 22 percent of per capita cereal needs. Shockingly, only 2.7 percent of Somalia’s imports come from Africa, while 87 percent comes from Asia.
Without robust trade cooperation with nearby states, Somalia must continue to rely heavily on long-distance trading partners in order to alleviate food insecurity, which affects 46 percent of the country’s population. With a strong African free trade area in place though, Somalia could avoid both a need to further build domestic agricultural capacity and to rely on markets far outside of Africa. It can do this by focusing more on strengthening ties with neighboring states that can provide the food, water, and energy Somalia needs at a competitive price to ensure its population is secure.
First of many steps
The free trade area in its current form includes a few overarching goals that can help bring greater resilience to the effects of climate change in Africa’s conflict zones. First, ongoing AfCFTA negotiations aim to progressively reduce and eliminate customs duties and non-tariff barriers on goods. Less costly trade and easier customs will help ensure basic resources get to crisis zones in times of need before deep social unrest and resource competition takes hold.
Secondly, the free trade area plans to further cooperation and implement a common policy on plant import requirements and sanitary conditions. This is especially important in light of the increased risks climate change poses to the continent’s food security, water security, disease, and health conditions. Strong science-based, food safety, animal and plant health standards are absolutely necessary to ensure these human security risks are mitigated.
Lastly, the free trade area’s goal to develop and promote regional and continental value-chains can help the agricultural, water, and energy industries transfer infrastructure, technology, and financial tools across boundaries to build resilience to withstand climate change. Programs that help farmers avoid losing their crops and livestock, conduct precision-agriculture, and offer microcredit could be especially useful in securing access to food and water.
The long-term sustainability, development, and security of African countries can be bolstered through industrial collaboration, partnerships, and trade. The creation of the AfCFTA is therefore a landmark first step towards achieving this goal.
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