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Pragmatism must trump profit when African leaders commit to a green development agenda, argues Linda Nordling.

Imagine the year 2060. Three technological innovations have profoundly affected Africa's development. Agricultural biotechnology has raised farmers' productivity and significantly reduced pesticide and water use. Drug research has produced cheap and efficient diagnostic tools and treatments for diseases, such as malaria and schistosomiasis, that hit the region hard. And Africa's rivers, wind and sunshine produce abundant cheap and clean energy.

A rose-tinted view of the future? Perhaps. But the African Development Bank sees it as a reasonable description of Africa half a century from now. In a recent report, "Africa in 50 years time — The road towards inclusive growth", it names technological innovation as one of three driving forces for change that will help Africa cope with challenges such as poverty, climate change and migration. [1]

The report assumes that African countries will take sustainable development paths to reach this vision. This would include an agenda of 'green growth', focusing on clean energy generation and sustainable agricultural and industrial practices.

Africa's commitment to a sustainable development path depends on governments' willingness to forego — if necessary — immediate financial gains in favour of long-term sustainability for their economies. According to a position statement recently produced by ministers on the continent, this willingness is virtually guaranteed.

Africans standing together

The continent's common position was prepared for the global negotiations on sustainable development, planned for June next year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The global meeting, called Rio+20, is taking place 20 years after the first Earth Summit, held in the same city in 1992.

The African 'consensus statement' for Rio+20 was the chief outcome of a set of meetings in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last month, which focused on 'green' development in Africa. It is due to be formally approved by African heads of state early next year. But it already outlines the African negotiating position with clarity.

The statement sets a promising tone by binding African governments to take ownership of their sustainable development agendas. "We recognise that African countries are primarily responsible for driving their own sustainable development agenda," it says.

The countries also undertake to increase investments in science, technology and innovation "in order to ensure that Africa is not left behind in the race for green technologies", and to let sustainable development priorities guide their national development plans.

Money matters

However, when it comes to the money side of things, the onus is still on developed countries to fulfil their earlier pledges and ensure that Africa's adoption of a green development agenda does not adversely affect the continent's competitiveness.

Indeed, the demands that the African countries plan to present to the Rio+20 gathering reads like a roll call of pledges made by developed countries towards developing countries over the past decade, including the promises from the Gleneagles G8 meeting in 2005, better trade rules for developing countries and solving developing countries' debt problems.

"Despite the need to increase domestic effort, Africa alone cannot meet the sustainable development challenge, especially in the face of new and emerging issues such as climate change, and the global financial and economic crisis. We therefore enjoin the international community to meet its commitments in terms of transfer of financial and technological resources," the statement says.

But is it profitable?

By tempering calls for financial support with the promise of a strong commitment to sustainable development, Africa's common negotiating position presses all the right diplomatic buttons. Nevertheless, pinning hopes that developed nations will meet their aid commitments because of this promised green development choice is risky.

And short-term domestic gains may be particularly at risk. Many proponents of green growth argue that the green industries will outperform businesses based on older technological solutions. But some academics argue that Africa should stay away from 'green investment' altogether.

In a presentation in Addis Ababa entitled "Does Green Investment Raise Productivity?", Salifou Issoufou and Nama Ouattara, from the University of Paris 11, France, analysed 1987–2007 data from 46 countries. They found that a 1 per cent increase in green investment over this time was, in fact, associated with reduced productivity growth by 0.23 per cent. [2]

"Given the negative impacts of green investment, African countries may have to forego climate change issues in their quest for industrialisation," they told the meeting.

Pragmatism over profit

Such studies are no doubt the stuff of nightmares at the headquarters of the Rio+20 secretariat, based in New York, USA. If 'greening' is seen to come at a cost to productivity, and thus to economic growth, countries — especially developing ones — will be reluctant to take the plunge and move to a sustainable development path, however necessary it may be as a long-term survival mechanism.

This is why African heads of states need to emphasise the reality of the challenges facing the continent, and the moral imperative to tackle them, as much as the financial foundation to their commitment towards green development when they meet to cement their joint position for Rio+20.

They must be pragmatic in realising that the alternative — potentially involving over-exploited resources and environmental decay — is unlikely to bring a rosy future for Africa come 2060, however optimistic the African Development Bank may be.

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, Nature and others.