Blogs: From a Threat to an Opportunity: Climate Change Policies, Climate Injustice and Capital Accumulation in Africa: Natacha Bruna


In the era of climate change, the new scramble for Africa has become “greener” than ever, as the continent is pointed out as a solution for the current environmental crisis and the main target of climate change mitigation and adaptation policies; which, ultimately seek capital accumulation. As international agreements favor environmental friendly policies that may hold back industrialization and accumulation, climate change concerns were seen as a potential barrier to capital accumulation, nevertheless, capitalism successfully managed to integrate them in the global system of accumulation. Climate change mitigation and adaptation policies became vehicles of resource grabbing, accumulation and/or tools of legitimizing accumulation, intensifying the historical unjust nature of climate change politics.

All eyes on climate change: Urgent call for action

Humanity environmental concerns go back to the rise of the Industrial Revolution with the emergence and intensification of industrialization. Since the 1950s, exponential increases were verified regarding primary energy use, fertilizer consumption, water use and transportation. Consequently, there is a considerably increase on greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane resulting in stratospheric ozone loss, increases in surface temperature, increasing ocean acidification and other environmental threats.

Nevertheless, it was only during the late 70s and early 80s that a global concern became noticeable and a global official commission was established, namely The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). Afterwards, the Brundtland report (1987) was published and was considered a call for a “global agenda for change” and constituted the very first set of guidelines for achieving what they called “sustainable development”. Nevertheless, throughout decades, we have been watching what is a clear inverse relation of economic growth and environmental sustainability. The world’s consumption of fossil fuels, the intensification of pollution levels, the increasingly environmentally harming lifestyles and overall increasing global ecological footprint.

With huge increases in global mean temperatures and sea levels rise, the debates started shifting from “sustainability” to “climate change” as the most critical challenge to face humankind. This assessment was put forward by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which underlines the effects of human action on climate change trends. Currently, UNEP states that Climate Change “is one of the most pervasive and threatening issues of our time, with far-reaching impacts in the twenty-first century”. As a response, international treaties and agreements to limit and reduce emissions started taking place. For instance, The Paris Agreement, which was open for signatures in 2016, aims to “strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius” and “to increase the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change, and at making finance flows consistent with a low GHG emissions and climate-resilient pathway” (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – UNFCCC).

While the giants of industrialization face environmental limits to production, the poorest of all suffer intensively with climate change implications. African countries are at the top of the most vulnerable countries in the world regarding climate change due to its multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity. The 4th IPCC report predicts that in Africa “by 2020, between 75 million and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. If coupled with increased demand, this will adversely affect livelihoods and exacerbate water-related problems”, whereas the 5th IPCC report shows that climate change is already exacerbating poverty in Africa and that “Climate change will create new poor between now and 2100…projections indicate that urban areas and some rural regions in sub-Saharan Africa will experience the most significant growth in new poor”. The most problematic implications in Africa would be food insecurity and exacerbation of the continent’s level of malnutrition as climate change highly implicates the capacity of small holders’ production of food and small-scale fishery.

Certainly, each country within Africa has its own fragilities and vulnerabilities. For instance, Mozambique is one of the most climate-vulnerable country in the world due to its geographic position, its 2.470 km of coastline in the Indian Ocean and the weak and fragile socioeconomic features and human development. Recent events showed how hard climate change intensify climate hazards. In the past years the country has been going through severe droughts, floods and cyclones in different regions of the country (urban and rural), but particularly in 2019, two regions of the country were devastated by two climate hazards (tropical cyclones – Cyclone Idai and Kenneth) followed by heavy rains within the period of two months only (March and April). According to the latest report of the World Health Organization, 1.85 million people were affected by Cyclone Idai and 603 died. Both Cyclones resulted in more than 400 thousand people displaced, 1.700 injured, followed by 6.800 cholera cases and approximately 28.000 malaria cases. And according to the UN office for humanitarian affairs, approximately 715.000 hectares of crops were affected and 55.000 were totally destroyed by the cyclones. Despite the financial aid received, Mozambique still urgently needs more funding to answer to the affected people’s primary needs.

Despite the disastrous impacts of the latest climate hazard events, Mozambique has been accommodating climate change mitigation and adaptation policies such as the implementation of a National Biofuel Strategy for biofuel production, the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) and Climate Smart Agriculture (CSA) promoted and financed by the World Bank and other international institutions and development agencies. Those strategies are already taking place in rural areas in an accelerated rhythm and with social and economic implications for rural livelihoods, particularly regarding redistribution of land and food security.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation policies: “Business as usual”

The environmental crisis as a result of capitalist action is considered to be a threat not only for poor countries with low capacity of adaptation such as Mozambique, but it is also a challenge to the development of industrial capitalism itself – especially extractive and primary industry. As such, industries have to transform themselves over and over again in order to cope with environmental policy enforcement that can increase raw material and operational costs, technology and systems of production. The set of agreements and treaties among the international community resulted in the establishment of limits to pollution and the need to seek greener strategies in order to answer to international community demands regarding climate change, particularly regarding the replacement of fossil fuels by low-carbon energy and overall the decarbonization of the economies. These set of strategies meant, at the very first stage, that industries would have to face higher costs to maintain productivity levels while keeping their environmental footprint as “sustainable” as possible.

But at the same time, climate change mitigation and adaptation policies do not run away from the “business as usual” motto of capitalism. These policies have become a new trend of investment towards a “green economy”, such as large-scale investments in biofuel production and land-based climate change adaptation and mitigation policies such as REDD+ and CSA. These have been opening up new opportunities and new vehicles of capital accumulation and resource grabbing in the name of environment. Many studies and empirical reports have shown how these constitute a threat especially to rural livelihoods.

The REDD+ strategy reinforces and appoints conservation areas and claims that the community should use the land in a way that is compatible to conservation policies. However, those conservation areas have very ambitious investment plans for Eco-tourism projects (camping sites and luxury accommodation facilities) with high expected rates of profit, which is the case of the Parque Nacional do Limpopo in southern Mozambique. Going in line with many other African countries, evidences drawn from the Mozambican case show that the implementation of REDD+/conservation has negative implications on rural livelihoods such as displacement of rural populations, diminished access to resources (including fertile land and water) and consequently, diminished ability of producing food and cash crops.

On the other side, CSA is considered by FAO (2013) and the World Bank (2011) to be a way to strengthen food security and still provide environmental benefits by increasing productivity in a sustainable way, strengthening farmers’ resilience and reducing agriculture’s GHG emissions. Nevertheless, the experience of implementing CSA in the Central region of Mozambique, is being used as a tool to facilitate processes of land grabbing by multinational corporations in the name of development and also under environmental discourses. In other words, CSA can also be understood as a tool to facilitate dispossession and fuel capital accumulation by releasing resources at lower costs.

Overall, both climate change policies, one aiming mitigation and the other aiming adaptation, do not address local issues and do not promote ‘win-win-win’ solutions, they are rather intensifying existing inequalities, sustaining capital accumulation of foreign actors and intensifying levels of poverty to the ones that did not contribute to the current global environmental crisis in the first place. So, although initially climate change concerns were seen as potential barriers to accumulation, it was actually co-opted and integrated in the global system of accumulation as many of the policies regarding mitigation and adaptation to climate change became vehicles of resource grabbing, accumulation and/or tools of legitimizing accumulation.

A call for global climate justice action

At the household level of analysis, climate change trends show that its impacts such as natural disasters, water scarcity and land degradation would clearly deteriorate rural household livelihoods especially regarding food security. Nevertheless, the responses for this environmental crisis through Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Policies also constitute a threat for rural livelihoods through new vehicles of resource grabbing. It is clear on how climate change policies were planned, designed and implemented in unfair ways, and consequently, reproducing existing levels of economic inequality between center and peripheral countries.

The notions of climate justice are to be incorporated and prioritized in the processes of how human beings use and manage the “commons” and what are the implications of it. The following questions must be at the center of this debate: Who has higher current and historical ecological footprint? How is that implicated in the current global environmental crisis? Who is accountable for it? And who is really suffering with the implications of it? How fair is it to a low ecological footprint country (with low levels of industrialization) to be implicated with climate change? How fair is it that industrialized countries keep accumulating profits with no accountability regarding the current implications of climate change in periphery countries? How fair is it that the low ecological footprint countries are the ones that have to change their way of living to accommodate climate change adaptation and mitigation policies? Does it compensate the risk and the cost of their livelihoods and well-being? How fair is it that they are not the ones who “profit”/ “win” the most out of the implementation of these adaptation and mitigation policies?

Latest events show that the Mozambican case is a clear example of climate injustice manifestation. Mozambicans are being increasingly implicated by climate hazards. Mozambique is hosting a number of climate change mitigation and adaptation policies that create new opportunities for capital accumulation. Both sides of climate change dynamics implications are threatening rural livelihoods. Both sides of climate change dynamics involve historical and current waves of capital accumulation favoring center economies and reproducing inequalities. This shows that there is a need to rethink and re-evaluate global climate change narratives and policies in order to achieve more equitable social and economic outcomes. This shows that an awakening from the international community towards climate justice is needed urgently.