The planet’s burning. Can the Global South save it?

As the world hurtles towards climate devastation, countries like The Gambia, Costa Rica and Morocco may have a fix — if others help them.

Climate change headlines are rarely positive, but even against that yardstick, the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) latest global warming predictions unveiled in mid-May marked a poignant moment for human civilisation.

In the next five years, the WMO warned, the world is likely to see an increase of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming over average pre-industrial levels for the first time.

While the weather events forecast by the United Nations’s weather body capture outlier spikes in temperatures, they serve as ominous portents of just how hard it will be for the world to achieve its hope of limiting the average temperature increase to 1.5C by 2100.

Yet, the warning signs have been around for a while and have been mounting.

Barbeques are no longer the only smoky markers of the start of summer. Devastating wildfires, like the ones that ravaged Canada earlier this month, signal the onset of rising temperatures with deadly regularity. Meanwhile, cyclones like Biparjoy, which slammed into western India in mid-June, are wreaking havoc with increasing frequency.

Eight years after global leaders gathered in a northeastern Paris suburb to seal the landmark 2015 climate agreement, no country is meeting the emissions cut goals needed to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5C, according to the independent research platform Climate Action Tracker.

So is it all a lost cause? Or is there still hope? Are there any countries that are doing better than the rest in trying to mitigate the worst effects of climate change for future generations? And if so, what are they doing right?

The short answer: Most developed countries are falling far behind their climate pledges. But some developing nations – such as The Gambia, Costa Rica, Morocco and Mali – are taking bold steps to fight a crisis that, though not of their making, often hits them the hardest.

They are harnessing the power of the sun and innovating with agriculture in ways that serve as examples for others. But their journeys also reveal the limitations of how far they can wage this battle alone, without the Global North truly stepping up.

Gambian gambit

Nfamara Dampha remembers his first brush with an extreme weather event as if it had happened yesterday.

It was 1999 and 10-year-old Dampha stood with his parents and siblings on the verandah outside their house. A sudden torrent of rain caused by a thunderstorm – so intense that such phenomena are colloquially called “rain bombs” – had hit their village in The Gambia, the smallest country in mainland Africa. They were “too scared to be inside the house due to the uncertainty of whether its walls would survive or collapse”, Dampha said.

The storm had ripped off the roofs of most houses around them; walls of buildings lay collapsed and fallen trees blocked the roads. Dampha’s house survived but the fence was destroyed. As he waded through the water the next morning, the scale of the devastation hit him even harder: furniture, mattresses, clothes and books floated along water-logged streets.

Now a research scientist and senior climate change consultant at the World Bank, Dampha relived some of those memories when another rain bomb exploded on the West African country in July last year, affecting nearly 40 percent of the population and displacing thousands of people.

Yet today, the country is on the front lines of not just the global climate crisis, but also efforts to combat its most devastating effects. Dampha created a Household Disaster Resilience Project (HELP-Gambia) in 2017 to gather financial resources to support local resilience efforts such as climate change awareness, adapting agricultural practices to survive the growing vagaries of weather patterns and supporting green businesses, specifically for the most vulnerable communities in The Gambia.

His initiative is one among a series of similar climate-driven local movements across the country that have collectively turned the West African nation into a rare success story in the global fightback against climate change. In 2021, The Gambia was the only country in the world briefly on track to meet its Paris climate change commitments.

Central to The Gambia’s strategy is the concept of agroforestry. Traditionally, agriculture and forests have often been viewed as competitors for land, with increased food demands leading to deforestation. Agroforestry, on the other hand, involves land use practices in which trees and forests coexist. The county unveiled a national agroforestry strategy in 2022 that set the target of restoring 7,000 hectares (17,300 acres) of degraded forests in a decade.

This builds on longstanding reforestation efforts that saw The Gambia regain 6.6 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005. Research also suggests a 51 percent increase in mangrove cover – which helps curb erosion and reduce the intensity of floods – across The Gambia and parts of Senegal between 1988 and 2018. All of this is aimed at cutting the country’s net carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.

As the rain bombs have shown and as the nation’s long-term strategy document says: “The Gambia has no choice.”

Power of the sun

To the east of The Gambia, much-bigger and landlocked Mali has a power crisis: 83 percent of its population lacks access to electricity.

Until recently, the country’s solution lay in decentralised diesel-powered mini-grids – sets of small electricity generators – to supply rural areas. Now, it is converting those into small solar grids.

It has already deployed one such system, with support and a $9m loan from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD). The 4MW solar mini-grid system is designed to supply clean energy to 123,000 people across 32 villages. It could help Mali cut total carbon dioxide emissions by 5,000 tonnes – a thousand such mini-grids could almost wipe out the country’s carbon footprint.

And this project is part of a broader trend. Between 2010 and 2019, Mali doubled the number of people connected to renewable mini-grids using solar, hydro and biogas technologies, reaching 11 million people – or more than half the country’s population – in 2019. If these grids now serve up the power they can, the county could dramatically reduce its energy access problem.

But that is not all. Tania Martha Thomas, a researcher at the Paris-based Climate Chance Observatory, an international group that monitors trends on climate and biodiversity, said these solar mini-grids – which store electricity in batteries for local use – save thousands of women hours of labour. They would previously need to travel long distances to collect water, which can now be pumped using electricity.

Further north, Morocco is leading a North African solar revolution that could serve not just the region’s energy needs but also those of Europe across the Mediterranean at a time when Russia’s war in Ukraine has disrupted oil and gas supplies.

Morocco’s giant solar farms already export electricity to Spain through two undersea cables. But last year, as  the war in Ukraine intensified, the country struck a deal with the European Union to ramp up exports further. The biggest of the new projects on the horizon involves laying what will be the world’s longest high-voltage submarine cables, taking solar power from Morocco’s Sahara desert past Portugal, Spain and France all the way to the United Kingdom. The target is to provide up to 8 percent of the UK’s total energy needs by 2030.

Egypt and Tunisia are also hoping to export solar power to Europe.

Yet, if the world is to truly neutralise global warming, it will need more than the export of energy. It will need countries to learn how to turn things around from the brink of disaster.

Costa Rica, a tiny country in Central America, could offer valuable lessons.

Green beacon of hope

Today, Costa Rica routinely ranks among the world’s greenest countries.

That wasn’t always the case. In the 1940s, three-fourths of the country was covered in rainforests before loggers ravaged the landscape, using trees to mint their fortunes. By 1987, forest cover was down to only 21 percent.

“It’s a super bio-diverse country that used to be a poster child for environmental destruction,” Stanford University researcher Kelley Langhans told Al Jazeera.

Over the past 35 years, she said, the country has adopted “a suite of innovative conservation finance and policy mechanisms” that have today made it a role model among environmental policymakers – giving it a reputation very different from the one it had until the 1980s.

More than half the country is now once again lush with forests. Costa Rica is one of only nine countries – Morocco and The Gambia are also on this list – whose steps to mitigate climate change are “almost sufficient”, according to Climate Action Tracker.

Under a key policy that has helped with this dramatic turnaround, Costa Rica pays communities and landowners that preserve the environment, including its tree cover, biodiversity and water cleanliness. This initiative is funded by taxes collected on fossil fuels.

The country has relied almost entirely on renewable energy since 2014. More than 7 percent of all passenger vehicles are electric, higher than in the US, Canada and the rest of Latin America. Electric vehicles are exempt from taxes and import duties, and owners have a range of other benefits – including free parking in designated spots as well as a waiver on annual road permit payments.

That impressive track record made Langhans and her colleagues decide to study whether Costa Rica could implement its reforestation strategy even better.

“We know that Costa Rica is interested in reforestation, so we wanted to know how, given limited land and money to achieve conservation goals, the country might be able to target reforestation to areas where it could provide people and ecosystems with the largest benefits,” she said.

She and her team found that reforesting an area 10 metres (33 feet) wide along the banks of Costa Rica’s rivers – which would roughly be equivalent to 1 percent of the country’s total land area – could significantly improve water quality by reducing sedimentation as well as nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. It would also assist carbon sequestration efforts – capturing carbon from the atmosphere.

These gains could be further amplified, the researchers found, if these reforestation efforts are concentrated in areas where people depend on rivers for drinking water.But if showing success against climate change is hard, maintaining it is even harder – as The Gambia is learning.

Can’t do it alone

Burdened with ever-increasing development needs, which are in turn exacerbated by extreme weather events, many developing nations are struggling to meet their climate goals alone.

Soon after The Gambia drew global headlines as the only country whose plans to combat climate change were considered compatible with the goals set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, Climate Action Tracker downgraded it a notch, to “almost sufficient.” This was after the country submitted its updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) plan – its blueprint to reduce carbon emissions.

Such plans have two components. One lays out what the country can do on its own, while the other outlines the steps the country wants to take – but that depends on international support. According to Climate Action Tracker, while The Gambia’s domestic efforts are still on track to meet Paris targets, it is falling behind on plans that need global help.

As the developed world is yet to meet its promise of $100bn annually in climate financing to developing nations – even for a single year since the 2009 pledge – the World Bank now estimates that $1 trillion will be needed each year for mitigation and adaptation.

Meanwhile, countries like The Gambia must fight crises in the present while preparing for the future.

The World Bank’s Dampha was previously the director of administration at The Gambia’s National Disaster Management Agency, where he saw closely how extreme weather events kill people, destroy livelihoods and leave behind a trail of destruction.

2020 study by Dampha concluded that most people leaving the country’s island capital city of Banjul are climate migrants.

“Earlier studies revealed that our capital city Banjul will be underwater by 2100 if the world’s mean sea level rises by just a metre,” he said. “If current conditions remain the same, Banjul’s loss to sea level rise could result in a total governance or state failure.”

Banjul is not just The Gambia’s administrative centre but also its economic hub.

During the COP27 conference in Egypt last year, countries agreed to a new fund to cover loss and damage suffered by vulnerable countries affected by climate disasters. Following the announcement of this new fund, African “expectations are high in view of the magnitude of the stakes around climate change”, said Mélaine Assè-Wassa Sama, a climate action project officer at Climate Chance Observatory.

Research suggests that in sub-Sarah Africa, as many as 86 million people could be displaced by climate change within their own countries by 2050, and 19 million in North Africa. Cyclone Freddy, which hit Southern Africa in March 2023, forced nearly 660,000 people in Malawi to move.

Without outside help, Sama told Al Jazeera, vulnerable African countries will struggle to fight against the effects of climate change for which they have little historical responsibility – no matter how hard they try with their limited domestic resources.

Dampha agreed. Currently, international financial support is negligible. “The estimated cost of the July 2022 rainfall event was more than the total climate finance received by The Gambia in 2018,” he said.

“Climate reparation or financing is not development aid or charity to those disproportionately impacted by the climate catastrophe,” Dampha said. “It is our moral obligation.”