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

Boys swim in the waters of Gambia river in Jufureh, Albreda port, Gambia July 20, 2019 a town where slaves were shipped from by slave traders. The 400-year anniversary of the first slave boat to arrive in America from Africa has caused a rush of interest in heritage tourism in West Africa, as ancestors go back to ancient sites to delve into a dark and often hidden past. Picture taken July 20, 2019.  REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra

Boys swim in the Gambia River in Jufureh, The Gambia, July 20 2019. Image: REUTERS/ Zohra Bensemra

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
This article is part of: Forum COP26 Live
  • 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 get 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.

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 gets underway.

The Gambia, highlighted in yellow, is a sliver of West Africa.
The Gambia, highlighted in yellow, is a sliver of West Africa. Image: World Economic Forum/Datawrapper

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 globalization may instead have a firmer ethic of protection – better equipping them for the transformational change that’s now deemed necessary.

Source: World Bank data valid as of 2018.
Source: World Bank data valid as of 2018. Image: World Economic Forum

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 may come up for discussion this week in Glasgow – a city that’s helped produce at least one colonial administrator of “British Gambia.”

A map of the Gambia river made in 1732.
A map of the Gambia river made in 1732. Image: Stanford University Libraries

More reading on COP26 and climate change

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Who wants what at COP26 – this interactive highlights the priorities and “red lines” for the various countries and negotiating alliances at the climate summit. (Carbon Brief)
  • Climate change has triggered land disputes in The Gambia, so this recent project planted 45,000 trees, then handed out 600 spades and 200 watering cans to people in ten communities to nurture both saplings and better relations. (Land Portal)
  • The seemingly harmless hyacinth has become a menace in West Africa, according to this piece, which details an effort to use Earth-observation technologies to tackle the problem. (Wired)
  • Why national pride could make or break climate action. This analysis argues that global thought must trump local interests, and notes unsettling examples of ultranationalist movements that encouraged environmental protection, including the Nazis. (JSTOR Daily)
  • Among the top data journalism pieces from this past summer: The Gambia’s “paradox,” or how a country with plentiful water resources struggles to provide safe drinking water. (Global Investigative Journalism Network)
  • More potential climate contributions from West Africa – Germany plans to turn the region into a green-hydrogen production powerhouse, though according to this piece related “social and ecological” questions must first be answered. (Clean Energy Wire)
  • The share of the population in West Africa living in urban areas will jump from 50% to nearly 66% by 2050; this piece delves into whether local food systems will be able to feed growing cities in a sustainable way. (LSE)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Africa, Climate Change and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

Image: World Economic Forum
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum