The “Geopolitics of Climate Change and Conflict” Series: A Summary
The “Geopolitics of Climate Change and Conflict” Series: A Summary
Special Coverage / Africa 5 minutes

The “Geopolitics of Climate Change and Conflict” Series: A Summary

The International Crisis Group’s Solutions Lab hosted a year-long series of virtual convenings on the geopolitics of climate change and conflict, in partnership with Stiftung Mercator. This summary highlights key insights and recommendations from the three expert roundtables. 

This Solutions Lab venture brought together leading experts and policymakers working at the nexus of climate change and security. The series opened with a roundtable centred on the geopolitics of climate change and conflict. It proceeded with two detailed discussions under this rubric, one focused on climate financing in conflict-affected countries in the Horn of Africa, and the other on the green energy transition and conflict in Africa. 

The insights and recommendations in this summary emerged from the discussions and do not necessarily reflect Crisis Group’s own views.

Areas of Discussion and Agreement

The Geopolitics of Climate Change and Conflict

On 25 May 2023, Crisis Group hosted the first convening to examine the links between geopolitical tensions and the climate crisis, both of which are exacerbating instability and driving deadly violence in various regions of the world. The group proposed ideas for better using multilateral frameworks to strengthen cooperation and build consensus on climate action while navigating the challenges resulting from intensified resource competition.

Participants agreed on the need to find cooperative, equitable approaches to tackling global problems that cannot easily be derailed by states pursuing their own narrowly defined interests. The group highlighted the need for donors to listen to affected local communities and consider their particularities in the process of fulfilling climate finance pledges to ensure a just energy transition. 

Leveraging Climate Finance in Conflict-Affected Countries: The Horn of Africa

On 29 September 2023, ahead of COP28, the UN climate conference held in Dubai, Crisis Group hosted a second roundtable on how to overcome the political and technical obstacles to delivering climate finance for adaptation in the Horn of Africa.

Attendees talked about how they could prepare the ground for productive discussions in Dubai about providing conflict-affected countries their fair share of adaptation funding. 

Adaptation is crucial for reducing vulnerability to the effects of climate change and insecurity. Extreme environmental conditions can lead to a vicious circle where resource scarcity erodes resilience and fuels conflict. Countries may also face external shocks besides climate change, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and rising interest rates, that cause fiscal distress. Some states are forced to reallocate development funds to emergency responses, further harming efforts to build resilience.

The conversation highlighted that governance and infrastructure are integral to adaptation – and thus to the climate security conversation. When state capacity is weak, local institutions and regional mechanisms can help ensure that people in need still get their fair share of climate financing. 

Participants suggested that climate security – ie, understanding and addressing the links between climate change and insecurity – requires more discussion. Conflict-affected states face several barriers when seeking adaptation finance. These include insufficient funds, which grow scarcer when new conflicts break out; inconsistencies in donor requirements; and rigid donor policies about spending that are often unrealistic in places where active fighting is under way.

To help address these challenges, participants suggested promoting increased support, lower barriers to funding and more flexible rules at COP28. There was consensus on the need to bridge the climate financing gap for conflict-affected countries, for which much of today’s adaptation funding is not suitable. Programs to support such countries should be tailored to local needs and capacities, lest they prove ineffective or even end up doing more harm than good. 

The Green Energy Transition and Conflict in Africa

On 26 February 2024, Crisis Group hosted the third roundtable on the green energy transition and conflict in Africa. This event considered the impact of rising demand for critical commodities on conflict trends in Africa and the risk of destabilisation for African fossil fuel producers as decarbonisation efforts ramp up. It then addressed European climate and energy policies and their implications for security in Africa. 

The discussants noted that increased competition among big powers over access to minerals in Africa is exacerbating tensions locally, regionally and internationally. They highlighted the power imbalance in the operations of multinational mining and energy companies, which often benefit more from extracting the mineral wealth than the countries sitting atop it. Most African countries with lucrative mineral deposits are under-developed and susceptible to economic shocks that can often lead to political upheaval and conflict. 

Participants criticised aspects of the trend by which corporations and rich countries are purchasing land in Africa, giving them carbon credits to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions. Concerns centred on the harm that could be done to local communities.

With the green energy transition under way, African countries will face challenges in phasing out fossil fuels, as many governments are highly dependent on hydrocarbon revenues. A former senior African government official expressed concern that poor handling of the energy transition is likely to lead to conflict, citing the precipitous drop in oil sales that preceded South Sudan’s 2013 civil war: “For a lot of states in Africa, a revenue shock or an economic shock is likely to destabilise in fundamental ways, which I think is why it’s critical to ensure that the transition is not a traumatic decarbonisation process”, the official argued.

Despite such concerns, oil and gas production in Africa is likely to be phased out first due to high costs, carbon footprints and methane leakages. The ensuing income losses could have serious destabilising effects on volatile states. Participants were unanimous that it is critical for African and international actors to ensure that decarbonisation in Africa does not equate to destabilisation.    

The alternative path involves capitalising on Africa’s limited industrialisation, renewables potential and natural resources to pursue climate-positive growth. More needs to be done internationally to help African countries expand renewable energy capacity and address energy poverty. Investment in processing strategic commodities – not just extraction – will be critical, along with efforts to ensure that renewable industries use components made in African countries.

The discussion considered the implications of European energy policies on Africa, particularly the EU Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), which will come into force in 2026. The mechanism designed to encourage decarbonisation will have a disparate impact on developing countries with carbon-intensive economies that rely heavily on the European market, as many in Africa do. Participants noted that not only will African countries be the first to be affected by policies like CBAM but that they are not receiving the climate finance pledged by the European Union and other major players. 

The session identified areas where big powers can collaborate to improve energy strategies, particularly relating to the danger of conflict in fossil fuel states. A clear articulation of Africa’s energy priorities, especially with regard to critical minerals, is also needed. Unless they develop a common position, the affected African countries will remain on the present troubling trajectory, their interests diverging.  

The Way Forward

Among the messages the convenings yielded for policymakers and donors were to:

  1. Include communities directly affected by climate change, especially the most marginalised, in international climate policy discussions.

  2. Revise frameworks for securing adaptation finance, in order to bridge the climate financing gaps for conflict-affected countries.

  3. Tailor adaptation funding to the unique needs and capacities of conflict-affected countries.  

  4. Urge the EU and other major donors to discuss how to ensure that conflict-affected countries get their fair share of climate financing.

  5. Ensure a non-traumatic decarbonisation process in Africa, in part by developing frameworks that protect volatile African fossil fuel producers from the potentially destabilising effects of rapid and steep revenue losses.

  6. Support the expansion of renewable energy capacity across Africa by leveraging established trade mechanisms, such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act, to signal to the private sector the potential for investment in refining and processing minerals and metals within African nations.

  7. Press gas-rich countries in Africa to promote the growth of green industries by cultivating local markets and encouraging use of domestically manufactured components for electric vehicles and renewable industries.

  8. Address energy poverty by ensuring that the benefits of industrialising the continent reach communities through job creation and inclusive and sustainable development. Natural gas is important in this respect because it will help to improve energy access while phasing out more polluting fuels.

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