The nations of the world gather in Madrid today for the opening of the UN’s 2019 Climate Conference. Smaller countries, particularly those already affected by the climate crisis, have been the ones most insistent on the need for urgent action. A couple of them have also unexpectedly led by example. Of all the countries that signed the 2015 International Paris Climate Agreement, championed by the UN Climate Action Summit, only two have made commitments sufficient to limit temperature increases within the 1.5 degrees Celsius range by the end of the 21stcentury.
The countries, Morocco and The Gambia, may surprise you: Even though overall emissions in both nations are expected to increase between now and 2030, their commitments will still slot in below the 1.5 degrees Celsius target, according to current trends. Of all the countries that signed the 2015 International Paris Climate Agreement, championed by the UN Climate Action Summit, only two have made commitments sufficient to limit temperature increases within the 1.5 degrees Celsius range by the end of the 21st century that are needed to forestall catastrophic global temperatures.
While green diplomacy has increased around the world, most countries and their leaders have failed to translate their words into action and policy. Most fall into the what the leading independent analyst group Climate Action Tracker (CAT) calls the insufficient to highly insufficient range, translating into warming levels of about 3 to 4 degrees Celsius. These countries only do modestly better than the ones in the critically insufficient category: Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Ukraine, Turkey and the United States, the only country to officially pull out of the Paris Agreement.
Morocco and The Gambia are anomalies not because these developing countries emit a relatively low degree of greenhouse gas emissions, but because they are aggressively prioritizing renewable energy, in terms of both their share of all energy produced and their expansion plans. These relatively small West African countries are not large emitters to begin with, but their efforts stand out compared to the rest of the Paris Agreement’s member states.
Morocco’s government created the National Energy Strategy, which aims to have 42 percent of its power generated by renewable energy by 2020, increasing to 52 percent by 2030. Morocco’s renewable energy mostly comes from solar, wind, and hydropower, with projects and objectives set for each industry.
The country’s solar energy comes from the Noor solar plants: Noor I is located in Ouarzazate, one of the sunniest parts of the world, and has an expected capacity of 580 megawatts, enough to support the electricity needs of 1 million people. But Noor I is just beginning to generate energy close to its full power capacity; it will soon be joined by two additional sites commissioned in 2018, Noor II and III, in Laâyoune and Boujdour respectively.
Wind energy should provide an additional 2,000 megawatts through the Morocco Integrated Wind Energy Program. One thousand megawatts worth of wind power were installed at the end of 2017; and, according to data from the same year, Morocco was the second largest producer of wind energy on the continent, after South Africa. The renewables trifecta is completed with the Morocco Hydro-Electric Plan, which has a planned hydroelectric capacity of about 2,000 megawatts, of which 1,300 megawatts have already been installed.
On a negative note, Morocco is still investing in its coal-fired power industry, which will prevent it from remaining on track after the 2030 goals, if that part of their energy mix continues to grow.
South of Morocco and bordered on all sides by Senegal is The Gambia, known for its beaches along its small Atlantic coastline and for being home to a character in the novel Roots: the Saga of An American Family. It is Africa’s smallest country that is not an island. Through a proactive effort similar to Morocco’s, The Gambia has passed laws that prioritize expanded green energy. In 2013, the parliament passed the New Renewable Energy Law, which set aside funding for renewable infrastructure, research and development, as well as local equipment production and promotion.
Overall, investment was slow to materialize in solar and wind until the World Bank financed construction for the first solar photovoltaic plant, producing 10 to 20 megawatts of energy, in 2018. The Gambia has also made substantial land use changes in its reforestation and its agriculture sectors. In 2018, it pledged to restore 10,000 hectares of forests, mangroves, and savannas.
The biggest obstacle to maintaining The Gambia’s climate-leader status and expanding renewable energy sector is funding. In 2015, the government, recognizing this problem, created the Sustainable Energy Action Plan. It laid out renewable energy targets for 2020 and 2030, along with specific measures to achieve these goals. It was a clear way to state objectives necessary for the planet, but also a pitch to foreign investors ready to bankroll the objectives. These plans are not included in the CAT ranking, as the necessary funding has not yet been raised, but this vision for the future could prepare the country for rapid implementation.
The Gambia’s funding problems are not unique, particularly in the developing world, but they highlight how green energy requires active and purposeful investment. Additionally, it shows how much easier it is for wealthier countries to make the largest investments necessary to create impactful change against the current global emissions targets. Which makes the lonely status of two poorer nations being the only ones to meet the necessary climate goals all the more stark.
Although the temperature threshold in the Paris Agreement is clear, most countries still have “goals” that are incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. After the UN Climate Action Summit in November, and teen activist Greta Thunberg’s impassioned speech to world leaders, about 80 countries stated their intentions to upgrade their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) to the Paris Agreement.
However, the problem with most climate policy is that it’s easier to talk about than to implement. The latest UN Emissions Gap report states that if the member states met their self-determined climate agreement goal, which they are not, the Earth would warm to a mean temperature of 3.2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The rest of the world can learn the lesson from the unlikely climate leaders, Morocco and The Gambia, that prioritizing green energy goes a long way in combatting the climate crisis.
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