Africa is already facing the significant consequences of climate change, and will only continue to do so as long as immediate action is not taken to defend the planet. 

Water shortages and droughts have been threatening food security on the continent, while extreme weather changes are impacting development. Not to mention, natural disasters caused by climate change have led to population displacement.

But while Africa is having to quickly adapt to these climate-related changes, it’s incredibly important to note that the continent is the least responsible for climate change, and yet it is the most affected by it. However as climate change affects absolutely everyone, there’s no other option but for African nations and their leaders to step up and help to clean up the mess — even if it isn’t entirely theirs to clean up. 

One such country leading the continent in taking immediate environmental action is Rwanda. The country is home to Kigali, which holds the title of the cleanest city in Africa. Its leadership has consistently implemented green strategies to reduce negative impacts that Rwanda has on the environment. 

Their determination has already seen the country increase forest coverage to 30% of all land area in the nation, a goal aimed at reversing deforestation which they reached in 2019. With that success, it seems that Rwanda is becoming more and more motivated to do their part in protecting the planet. 

The country has committed to the race to zero emissions, a global effort set out by the UN with the aim for participating regions to reduce their carbon impact, and secure an environmentally stable future.  

We spoke to Rwanda’s Minister of the Environment, Dr Jeanne D'Arc Mujawamariya, to learn more about the country’s plans to tackle climate change and to find out why it’s so important for Rwanda to race to net zero carbon emissions.

Rwanda's Minister of Environment Dr Jeanne D'Arc Mujawamariya
Image: Supplied

Why is it important that Africa takes action against climate change despite emitting the least amount of carbon emissions globally

Although Africa is not a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, it remains the most vulnerable continent to climate change impacts. As a result, it is experiencing exponential losses and damages which pose systemic risks to its economies, infrastructure, water and food systems, public health, agriculture, and livelihoods. 

Additionally, agriculture is the backbone of Africa’s economy and accounts for the majority of livelihoods across the continent. Africa is therefore an exposure and vulnerability “hot spot” for climate variability and change impacts.

Sub-saharan Africa has 95% rain-fed agriculture, plus seven of the 10 most vulnerable countries are in Africa.

The 2019 State of the Climate in Africa report showed that several high-impact events like the rise of sea levels, severe tropical cyclones, droughts and floods affected the continent and were associated with loss and damage to vital aspects of communities and populations. This results in issues related to food security, population displacement, and the safety, health and livelihoods of people. 

Why is it important for Rwanda in particular to commit to net zero emissions?

Because Rwanda is highly vulnerable to climate change, adaptation is a key concern and a priority for the country. Even if Rwanda’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is relatively small, emissions from deforestation, agriculture, and land use, combined with strong expected emission growth from expected economic development and energy use, are significant enough within Rwanda’s carbon footprint to demand a mitigation response.

A number of countries, including Rwanda, have made commitments to move to a net zero emissions economy in response to climate science showing that in order to halt climate change, carbon emissions have to stop, and that reducing them is not sufficient. In order to meet the 1.5 degrees celcius global warming target set out in the Paris Agreement, global carbon emissions need to reach net zero around mid-century.

As a party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Rwanda is committed to contributing to the ambitious goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees celcius, with efforts to reach 1.5 degrees celcius agreed under the Paris Agreement. 

What are some of the key factors that the country needs to work on in order to achieve the net zero goal?

In 2020, Rwanda committed to reduce its emissions by 38% by the year 2030, this is equivalent to 4.6 million tons of carbon dioxide. 

Rwanda has adopted the Green Growth and Climate Resilience Strategy (GGCRS) setting out the country’s actions and priorities on climate change relating to both mitigation and adaptation and to how these will be mainstreamed within economic planning. The strategy aims at making Rwanda a developed climate-resilient and low-carbon economy by 2050.

Factors identified by the World Resource Institute to promote effective efforts to achieve net zero targets will also be something to consider. These factors include planning and transparency, carbon pricing, and exploring international carbon credit markets. 

Rwanda reached its goal, set for 2020, of increasing forest cover to 30% of all land area one year early in 2019, how has this achievement positively impacted the country?

The achievement has generated considerable impact to Rwanda including the fact that greenhouse gas emission removals from forests increased, meaning that potential net emissions released into the atmosphere decreased if forest cover would not increase evidenced by increased removals.

Desertification was also avoided to a large extent in the eastern province of Rwanda. There was an increase in rainfall in this region, which has contributed to the agricultural productivity in this part of the country thus contributing to food security. 

In other parts of the country, the forest sector contributed to the reduction of land degradation, erosion control, and reduction of intensity of landslides and floods in some areas. 

Increase in forest production such as timber products contributed to the national import substitution because part of forest products (timber products) that were previously duly imported are locally produced. The forest sector succeeded in attracting private investments in the form of concessions and co-management approaches to sustainable forest management.

Forest related knowledge was increased among Rwandans and this has led to adoption of improved approaches of forest management such as private forest management units.

Rwanda is also home to some of Africa’s most prominent young environmental activists. What role can they, and other young Rwandans, play in promoting climate action?

Young people today constitute an important group within societies, and the habits they develop as consumers are decisive. and exercise a growing influence on markets and lifestyles. Therefore, they deserve special attention in efforts to change our wasteful consumption patterns into ones that are more towards sustainable development.

Rwanda has placed green growth at the center of creating sustainable jobs and eradicating poverty. With youth constituting the majority of the population, they have a critical role to play in providing solutions to the national development challenges.

Through platforms such as Youth Connekt, Eco-brigade and so many more, young people are currently engaged in environment protection and building resilience to climate change activities such as reforestation and agro-forestation, conservation of river and lakes catchment, and greening and beautification in the cities of Rwanda. 

However, the youth can extend their engagement through creation of green innovation and green technology-based companies to invest in areas where green technology is needed, such as air and pollution abatement, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable building materials, among others.

What message do you have for Africa’s leaders on the subject of climate action?

Africa's leaders need to acknowledge that the appropriate time to act is now since there is a concerted perception that climate risk is real on the African continent. Appropriate policy and strategic options need to be established and implemented now so as to make sure the future of the planet is safeguarded. Appropriate adaptation and mitigation actions need to be supported by clear planning and monitoring frameworks, commitment and accountability.

The achievement of climate action requires huge volumes of financial resources and African countries' individual efforts cannot be enough. Therefore, African leaders need to explore opportunities lying in climate negotiation to push African interests so that developed and emerging economies raise their pledges to climate financing mechanisms.

This article has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

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Why Is It Essential for Rwanda to Race to Zero Carbon Emissions?

By Khanyi Mlaba