When understanding Abiy Ahmed’s stake in climate action, three main motivations arise: firstly, the poor macroeconomic crisis threatening Ethiopia’s development and social stability; secondly, the country’s vulnerabilities to climate change, causing internal displacement and food insecurity; thirdly, the leader’s (and the regime’s) need to gain favorable public approval for its systemic survival.
This section thus explores these three motivations in detail, while in parallel outlining the personal stake Abiy Ahmed holds in his own climate agenda: Why is climate relevant for Abiy Ahmed? It will be proven that the climatic vulnerabilities threatening his country can threaten the fulfillment of the pan-Ethiopian unity he foresees, being a distinguishing element of his leadership, could harm his systemic survival. Here, the consequences emerging from mismanagement of environmentalism would restrain him from fulfilling the electoral promises he pledged in 2019; the promises that have portrayed him as a reformist leader, emerging to “redirect Ethiopia to its true destiny”.
The poor macroeconomic crisis threatens Ethiopia’s development
Ethiopia is a landlocked country in Northeast Africa with a population of 112 Million. The country’s economy is largely agrarian with only 20% of the population living in cities and agriculture comprising 75% of exports and 44% of GDP, according to a 2020 CSIS study. When looking at the industrialization projects of the country, however, the nation’s structural industrial transformation is being handled at a slow pace: agricultural productivity is trailing population growth, the manufacturing industry is not developed and investment is stagnant. In addition, the country is the 17th least developed country in the world, with a per capita income of $783. Lastly, the rise into an economic powerhouse has also been challenged by structural constraints of the country: lack of an established stock market, banking sector and foreign exchange regime.
There are, however, industrialization efforts being carried out by the government, a case in point being the 2019 proposal of the Growth and Transformation Plan II, aiming to turn Ethiopia into a low-middle income country by 2025, through “sustaining the rapid, broad-based and inclusive economic growth, which accelerates economic transformation and the journey towards the country’s Renascence”. As part of this plan, Abiy’s green development solutions have recurrently been organized in alliance with international organizations, on some occasions being funded 80% by partners such as the World Bank, UNDP, and the Global Green Growth Institute. The possibility of assuming the least cost mitigation and adaptation costs proves yet another motivation for Abiy to take on sustainable development projects. Furthermore, economic growth and liberalization are of particular importance to Abiy Ahmed’s leadership, due to his personal experience in fighting a communist regime – and losing a brother to this fight- during his teenage years. Abiy Ahmed has made it a point for his leadership to showcase his economically liberal rhetoric, liberalizing historically state-owned companies and passing new Investment Proclamations.
Being influenced by global economic slowdowns and leading a civil war as of November 2020, Abiy Ahmed is, nonetheless, currently dealing with an economic crisis: according to the IMF, economic growth in the country is expected to slow to 3.8%, the lowest level in almost two decades, and inflation is expected to rise to 35%. Following the country’s sectoral divisions described earlier, the urban population is being affected the most by these challenges, with its real income losing from 6.6 to 8.5%.
In addition, the country suffers chronic energy shortages, undermining the industrial development of the country and the livelihoods and socio-economic well-being of the population. With 56% of the total population having no access to any form of electricity, petroleum fuels make up to 14% of imports and more than 90% of households use solid biomass fuels for cooking, In short: Ethiopia lacks a modern, flexible, reliable and affordable energy system. The current energy system not only holds dangerous effects on the environment, but also on the living standards of people, with energy poverty threatening human resource development, health of individuals, and automation of agriculture. According to E. Mandefro Getie, a researcher from Bahir Dar University, “The quality and distribution of education in rural Ethiopia are also affected by energy poverty. The energy poverty in Ethiopia is challenged by the pandemic COVID-19 in terms of education systems and sharing information about the pandemic disease to create awareness using online information sharing technology”.
As of 2020, the hydropower generation capacity of Ethiopia is around 45 GW, only 6% of the total potential available for use. Thus, Abiy Ahmed finds himself in front of a sparkling opportunity: choosing to invest in energy development, by presenting projects targeting the remaining 94% of the total potential for hydropower. On the one hand, introducing sustainable solutions for energy poverty would impact access to education, an improved health system and the current dependence on imports of fossil fuels.
A successful green energy project could also provide a source of regional power for Abiy Ahmed, with 600 Million of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population living without any access to electricity. In this regard, the reaps brought about by a new infrastructure for green energy infrastructure would allow funding for other sectors of government, such as security. Furthermore, it is possible that, if energy poverty diminishes throughout the country, Abiy Ahmed could publicize such a national effort as an event proving that the Medemer fate is slowly being achieved, strengthening his “soft” power nationally, and handing him a favorable bargaining chip when having to deal with internal wars.
Vulnerabilities to climate change and short-term climatic threats
According to the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority, Ethiopia only contributes 0.04% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. However, the region has a highly volatile climate and has been highly affected by climate change-driven catastrophes.
The country has a long history of recurring droughts, which have increased in magnitude and impact since the 1970s. The last one, happening in June of 2022- was the country’s worst drought in 40 years, severely affecting 7 Million people throughout the country. Another case in point is the 2011 Horn of Africa Drought, which affected 4.5 Million people in the country. The effects of droughts are often combined with other hazards, mainly migratory pest infestation: In 2020, Ethiopia experienced the worst locust invasion in decades. In addition, flooding have also regularly affected Ethiopia’s population, affecting all regions, but Somali, Afar, Oromia and Amhara the most. According to the Climate Risk Country Profile report by The World Bank, projections indicate that there is a likely 20% increase in extreme high rainfall events for the end of the century. According to research carried out by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, heavy rains could cause soil erosion, crop damage and – overall- an increased risk of flash flooding (which itself carries further socio economic threats, such as injuries, drownings, destruction of infrastructure and poor air quality due to molds).
These climatic challenges have had devastating effects on Ethiopia’s population, leading to displacements all around the country and, overall, affecting socio economic dynamics. The strong impact of such catastrophes is due to the country’s agricultural sector’s dependence on rainfall and the institutionally low adaptive capacity. Furthermore, as droughts generate the widespread death of livestock, pasture failures and water shortages, they are one of the main causes of the current food shortages and food insecurity. According to a UN report, between 1990 and 2005, each year 6.3 million people required food assistance amounting to over 654,000 tons annually, a number now standing closer to 10 million people. The area most affected is Tigray, where an annual average of more than 1.2 million people is affected.
According to Famine Early Warning Systems Network predictions, humanitarian assistance needs in Ethiopia in 2022 will be at record levels, nearly 40% higher compared to 2021 and 2016, the worst droughts yet. Widespread malnutrition is causing a humanitarian crisis, which worries Abiy Ahmed in two aspects: on the one hand, it proves his profile of a reformist leader wrong, due to the lack of effective leadership. Thus, it hinders the positive public opinion of the leader. Furthermore, the food insecurity crisis is driving international humanitarian organizations to the country, something Abiy Ahmed has recently seen as a threat to his government and a breach of Ethiopian sovereignty. In addition, the social impact brought about by the conflict in Tigray further aggravates the existing humanitarian crisis, with 400,000 people facing famine in Tigray alone. International humanitarian organizations have made claims about the crisis, which have further opposed Abiy Ahmed’s government to international governance institutions, in particular to their involvement in the civil conflict.
Secondly, climatic catastrophes are leading to an internal displacement crisis, eventually causing herder conflicts, exacerbating current tensions between inter-ethnic groups. Civil tensions are driven by borders of land, grazing areas and freshwater sources. The scarcity of pastureland and tenure have been major drivers for conflict among the country’s ethnic groups, a struggle being fostered by further political disagreement and historical fights, such as the Oromo-Somalia land dispute. According to a UN report, 3 million persons have been forced to migrate within the years 2017-2019. The herder conflict not only threatens the fulfillment of the pan-Ethiopian unity foreseen by Abiy’s Medemer, but it also holds devastating effects on the successful completion of development projects.
In addition, climatic disasters affect the country’s economic and industrial development. According to the World Bank, estimates suggest that climate change may reduce Ethiopia’s GDP up to 10% by 2045, largely through drought-induced impacts on agricultural productivity. In particular, Abiy Ahmed’s government worries about the climate change threats being posed to coffee, livestock, pulses and flowers, with herd making up about 10% of national export income. The disadvantage at which the agricultural production stands in regard to the issue poses yet another pressure on the income distribution and inequality schemes of the country.
However, the economic impact of climate change goes beyond solely the agricultural sector, also affecting industrial growth and overall development. For instance, 80% of Ethiopia’s roads are unpaved, and possible construction projects tend to become failed plans due to the possibility of road degradation by heavy rains and floods. This is a matter particularly worrisome for Abiy Ahmed, due to two factors: on the one hand, a portion of these failed projects are initially funded by national reserves, generally lacking enough resources and struggling to harness more funds. Furthermore, the rapid failure of such projects may give incentives to Abiy Ahmed to relocate such funding into other spheres of government, thus putting him at crossroads with the development plans he proposed in 2019. On the other hand, most of these plans are funded by international donors, such as the Chinese Government. Development projects failing due to environmental catastrophes which could have been avoided or more efficiently managed could jeopardize such ties.
Need to gain favorable public national and international approval.
Before being hit by the 2021 global supply chain crisis, as well as the severe droughts, the country’s economy had been deemed as a success story “Over the past 15 years, Ethiopia’s economy has been among the fastest growing in the world (at an average of 9.5 percent per year). Among other factors, growth was led by capital accumulation, in particular through public infrastructure investments. (…) The consistently high economic growth over the last decade resulted in positive trends in poverty reduction in both urban and rural areas. The share of the population living below the national poverty line decreased from 30% in 2011 to 24% in 2016 and human development indicators improved as well over time. However, gains are modest when compared to other countries that saw fast growth, and inequality has increased in recent years”.
Another reason for such pause is the incidence of conflict: Inter-ethnic tensions have challenged the government’s industrial projects, a case in point being the Addis-Djibouti railway – a public transport project important for climate action due to its ability to work on energy efficiency as well as decrease CO2 emissions within the transport sector and fuel urban economic growth- which opened to commercial service in January 2018, but suffered blockades during flare-ups in regional ethnic tensions due to collisions between trains and livestock.
The international arena has voiced its opinion regarding the Ethiopian government’s handling of the Tigray War, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stating that “The war that began in November has affected all Ethiopians and “has already drained over a billion dollars from the country’s coffers”. The UN further published in November of 2021 an investigation accusing government forces of abuses that could amount to war crimes. However, the war has not only had damaging effects on the public opinion held on Abiy Ahmed internationally, but it has also led foreign investments and loans from International Organizations and allies to be suspended, with factories closing their operations in the country. The lack of a favorable international opinion, thus, is of particular concern to the leader, as it would lead to the withdrawal of great sources of funding for development.
However, the concern for favorable public opinion goes beyond mere economic purposes; Abiy needs it for the structural survival of his leadership. Abiy’s Medemer prophecy finds itself at a crossroads, being harshly hit by the reality of politics. As environmental initiatives are usually widely accepted by the vast majority of the population, Abiy could see environmental action as a remaining tool to push towards his goal of a unified country. In this regard, the passing of successful environmental policies could help depict national pride and thus build on Medemer. In addition, as environmental projects could call for civilian participation and engagement, they would also provide a sense of transparency to the regime. Importantly, one must understand that the failure of Medemer, being a core element of his government and – more importantly- his persona, would prove his leadership obsolete.
Finally, the passing of environmental policies is yet another tool helping the leader to influence his position internationally. In this regard, such a tool would be working in two ways: On the one hand, environmental policies – such as the building of green electricity infrastructure- require various stakeholders and organizations willing to provide loans or invest in such developments. Thus, engaging in green initiatives also serves as the leader to build new international economic alliances with the private sector and international organizations providing funding. On the other hand, Abiy’s green projects have been well received by the Western community, with Abiy relying on their promotion to offset the harm the Tigray war has done to his international image.