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Working in a greener world: Tackling climate change and unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa

In the run up to World Cities Day and COP26, we take stock of the current predicaments of sub-Saharan African cities vis-à-vis sustainable growth needs, and the role that climate-sensitive industrial policy, diversified local economies, efficient governance, and decentralisation can play in helping Africa grow without sidelining the urgent and important issue of climate change.  

Amidst increasing global efforts towards climate change mitigation and adaptation, the local call for jobs bellows louder than ever in sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, youth unemployment challenges have worsened, leading to occasional violent unrest throughout the continent. The frequency of mass protests prompted by dissatisfaction with governance in African cities has increased more than seven-fold in the past decade. Governments are stretched in their priorities as they face multiple competing demands such as job creation, governance, and pursuing sustainable development objectives.   

While the impacts of climate change are (increasingly) being locally felt, and are compounding the economic challenges, the association between livelihoods and climate change is still somewhat indirect. Due to hard economic conditions, governments priorities naturally go to addressing the public’s immediate livelihood needs, and therefore climate objectives tend to be secondary concerns. Since the impacts of climate change mitigations are usually not immediately apparent to citizens and take effect well beyond the term-bound duration of policy makers, perhaps this is why climate change is still considered a bottom priority by leaders in developing countries.  

In between the pursuit of global climate objectives and the incentive of reacting to present economic crisis, the importance of the role of cities in providing enabling and efficient governance often gets lost. There is a tension in focusing on climate and jobs, and navigating this successfully requires strong local governments/urban governance systems. 

Green industrialisation, sustainable cities and simultaneous job creation  

Cities, as centres of agglomeration, are being pressured by economic and environmental vulnerabilities. African countries occupy four of the top five high unemployment rates in the world. South Africa leads with a national unemployment rate of 34.4%, followed by Namibia at 33.4%, Nigeria at 33.3%, and Angola taking the fifth spot at 31.6%.

Compared with the global unemployment rate of 6.5%, these figures are significantly high. Unemployment rates amongst the youth are even higher. In South Africa, official youth unemployment figures for the second quarter of 2021 were 64% for those aged 15 to 24 (contrast with a global average of 14.6%), and 43% for those aged 25 to 34 (contrast with global average of 5.2%) – the highest on record. The impatience of the unemployed youth bubbles in the underbelly of African cities, sprouting into occasional violent protests.  

Future jobs prospects are even more bleak The working age population in sub-Saharan Africa will, on average, experience a net increase of 20 million per year over the next two decades, putting further pressure on cities, and exacerbated by the need for urban jobs as migration towards cities continue to accelerate. In our forthcoming Growth Brief, we show evidence that there are only 2–3 million jobs being created currently.  

Given the challenging economic outlook, the commitment to meeting global climate action objectives has become difficult and somewhat peripheral to the pressing demands for job creation by citizens and local policymakers. At the same time, there is evidence that climate change is having a growing impact on the African continent, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and contributing to food insecurity, population displacement, and increasing stress on water resources.  

In an upcoming online event hosted by the IGC, titled ‘Green jobs as drivers of growth in African cities’ to mark World Cities Day 2021, the central part of the discussion will be to explore: (i) the need for African cities to develop industrial policies that are spatially and climate-sensitive, (ii) the need to build and leverage green global value chains, and finally, (iii) the need for cities to decarbonise energy, domestic connectivity as well as cross-border connectivity as enablers to deliver the green growth transition.   

Creating opportunities for sustainable green enterprise at the local level is a reliable way to diversify local economies, and reduce political risk and instability. The success of green industrialisation policies requires a particular focus from the perspective of African cities because initiatives have to be anchored on equally ambitious culture of developing new and efficient urban governance systems.  

Pillars of sustainable growth: efficient urban governance and decentralisation  

Overlooking the crucial aspect of transforming urban governance in developing cities will be a huge mistake. Poor urban planning and governance are very expensive and will stifle progress. First, inaction or the slow response to good urban planning and governance could mean haphazard and unplanned development being pervasive for many years to come. This will impede green growth as negative impacts on the environment (such as urban sprawl) will continue unabated, and attempting to retrofit the required infrastructure is far more expensive. 

Secondly, getting urban infrastructure investments wrong has long-term consequences. It is estimated that the typical lifespan of urban infrastructure and building stock can be up to 125 and 75 years, respectively. This means that urban development is path-dependent – investment decisions made today will impact the emission intensity of cities for many years to come.  

To efficiently achieve green growth, decentralisation is key, for it is the cities themselves which understand the nuance of local responses. Although the role of national governments is vital in facilitating the strategic role of cities in regional integration, it is the local stakeholders who are best placed to live and champion the development of green industries.  

However, effective empowerment of local governments to drive economic development and create sustainable jobs has been slow in most African countries. In Botswana, the preparation of the Decentralisation Policy has been an unenthusiastic process, although the prevailing culture of good administration is expected to support the policy changes. For African cities whose governance models are still highly centralised, there needs to be a deliberate collaborative effort to advance shared sustainable interests of key local players. The transition from a centralised system to a multi-level or decentralised one will be a steep operational and cultural change that requires concerted effort and attention at addressing.  

Bottom-up approaches to a low-carbon future 

Although not easy, the opportunity for African policymakers to make meaningful progress in the transition to low-carbon development remains plausible. A study showed that countries in Europe also experienced difficulty with urban governance in low-carbon transitions. With the prevailing complex urban condition of Sub-Saharan African cities (high unemployment, poor housing, frequent civil unrest, and inefficient urban governance) the low-carbon transitions will be similarly challenging.  

For progress to be made, the first step is for stakeholders – across sectors, society and development organisations – to have honest conversations about meaningfully capacitating urban governance systems to understand and balance the costs and benefits of a green growth path. To enable such conversations to occur effectively, deliberate investments in urban policy discourse need to be made, including data gathering and frontier research by national governments and international development partners.   

It is through these bottom-up climate action responses that new urban policies tied to the complex realities of the local urban context can open up new opportunities for growth. Like all areas requiring new and innovative policy, localised approaches and collaboration with key stakeholders are critical, as is experimentation and research

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