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What the smallest country in mainland Africa can teach the world about climate action

What the smallest country in mainland Africa can teach the world about climate action

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The Gambia has been singled out as the only nation with adequate plans to avert a climate catastrophe. While the country’s own carbon footprint is small, it’s suffered from the impacts of global climate change. The related shortcomings of bigger countries have been highlighted as COP26 climate talks are underway in Glasgow.

One country is doing what’s necessary to limit the destruction delivered by climate change. But you may have to squint to see it on a map. According to the Climate Action Tracker, as of September The Gambia was the sole nation taking steps in line with the Paris Agreement – which is meant to help all nations stave off imminent catastrophe.

As a sliver of West Africa one-third the size of Belgium, The Gambia is punching above its weight. Though this isn’t the first time in recent memory the small country has acted when its bigger peers did not; The Gambia managed to bring Myanmar to The Hague in 2019, and win a court order protecting the Rohingya minority from genocide.

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How The Gambia keeps emissions low

With a population of 2.5 million and an economy that depends heavily on agriculture and remittances, the country makes a relatively miniscule contribution to global carbon emissions. That’s beside the point.

What’s important is that The Gambia has specific plans to do its fair share to fix the problem – like changing the ways it cultivates rice, and how it manages the livestock that accounts for 11% of its emissions. That shouldn’t make it unique, but it does. The world’s mostly failing to make concrete changes needed to avert calamity, according to a recent report, and wealthy countries are being urged to do more as the COP26 climate summit is underway.

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The Gambia has suffered from inaction and a global economy that relentlessly saps resources as it hastens climate change.

The country’s namesake river, once used by Europeans to ferry enslaved Africans into the Atlantic, has choked on saltwater that now flows in the opposite direction due to sea level rise and a lack of rain, damaging crops. Water scarcity has worsened, and local fish stocks have been decimated to meet soaring global demand for seafood.

First-hand trauma doesn’t always spur climate action. Leaders in other, relatively wealthy parts of the world have watched wildfires rip through forests and obliterate entire towns, or rivers swell under inordinate rainfall until they’ve unleashed near-instant destruction. Yet, decision-makers there haven’t all been motivated in quite the same way.

According to a report published last week, most members of the G20 – some of the wealthiest nations in the world – aren’t on track to meet their original climate pledges, much less hit any updated targets.

What we can learn from The Gambia’s example

Some experts suggest there’s a vital difference between the ways developed and developing countries approach issues like climate change.

Rather than seeing the world as a resource to be exploited, people in places on the periphery of globalisation may instead have a firmer ethic of protection – better equipping them for the transformational change that’s now deemed necessary.

The Gambia has a fast-growing tourism industry, some of which is focused on the area’s troubled past. Visitors can trace the (contested) roots of the author of the landmark American historical novel ‘Roots,’ for example, and even attend the International Roots Festival.

Starting in the 15th century, European powers vied to exploit what is now The Gambia, in the process sending countless human beings into slavery. It became a distinct British colony in the 19th century, and its current border was drawn up as part of an 1889 agreement with France.

Now, this country that’s suffered myriad misdeeds and indignities at the hands of larger, wealthier countries has won praise for a climate agenda that’s more forward-looking than what’s been put forward by its more privileged peers.

Some believe the dynamic should be exactly the reverse – that the wealthy countries that benefited from colonialism have a moral obligation to take the lead on (and foot the bill for) putting everyone on a more sustainable path.

The notion of former colonial powers helping developing countries pay for climate adaptation came up for discussion this week in Glasgow – a city that’s helped produce at least one colonial administrator of “British Gambia.”

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