Greening Practically: Post-COP28 impressions from Ethiopia

This handout picture provided by the UAE Presidential Court shows UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali touring the EXPO city during the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai on November 30, 2023.

Photo credit: AFP

There is something quite magical and alluring about trees.

This may be a somewhat cliché opening but allow me to explain. In September 2023, I had the opportunity to travel to the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) for a work assignment.

In Ethiopia, the rainy season spans June to September, with rainfall intensity tapering off in the latter month. Naturally, the effects on surrounding landscapes are mesmerising to say the least. Following months of heavy rainfall, the dam was almost about to overtop for the fourth round of the filling. That moment is, of itself, wondrous.

But beyond the high expectations of overtopping and the eventual cascade of a white avalanche of water, another glorious site to behold was the forested mountainous islands of the GERD that have formed. The valleys and peaks of each mountain covered in deep velvet green and studded with a tapestry of what from atop look like broccoli heads, but in reality, were dignified, sturdy and resolute trees of many varieties and of many years. I describe them in human terms because despite my lifelong affinity to nature and trees, it was perhaps the first time that I experienced a deep sense of “life” in these trees. A watchfulness. A benevolence.

In 1972, the First Earth Summit was held and a declaration adopted setting out principles for the preservation and enhancement of the human environment. This marked a turning point in the global political narrative by igniting climate change consciousness for the first time. Since then, the issues of global warming and climate change have gained traction as a global agenda and many international agreements adopted and awareness created.

I find that policy making processes sometimes tend to dry out issues and become removed from the human factor. The process focus becomes entrenched in two or three sides attempting to assert perspectives, that the basics and the human necessities often take a back seat.

Droughts, floods and rainfall fluctuation

In many African countries, such as in Ethiopia, extreme weather events like droughts, floods and rainfall fluctuation have been confronting efforts to ensure sustainable socio-economic development. The impact of climate change has also triggered other environmental crises, which directly affect over 80% of Ethiopians living in rural areas and practicing subsistence agriculture. Livelihoods dependent on their surrounding natural environment and factors affecting it remain stable.

In development rhetoric, the role trees play in our day-to-day lives is overshadowed by collective commitments “to do well”, ‘to do better”. Yet practicality does not always follow pomp. Most times, the micro is essential to the macro. At least for Ethiopia, the impact of this rationale has been demonstrable over the past five years in the Green Legacy Initiative national uptake. The initiative to plant 25 billion trees nationally in a four-year period and another 25 billion in a second phase of four years was no been mere rhetoric.

It was 2019 that I planted a tree for the first time in my life. On July 29, 2019, a month after the Green Legacy Initiative (GLI) was launched, Ethiopians mobilised nationally to plant 350 million trees in a 12-hour period and attempt a Guinness World Record. It was in the rainy season that a national public holiday was declared to enable all citizens to be part of this milestone.

Being part of the Prime Ministerial delegation, I headed to the southern part of the country where under the blanket of pregnant clouds and slow drizzle, I put hand to dirt planting Green Legacy seedlings together with millions of Ethiopians across the country. The thought “from dust you have come, to dust you shall return” plagued my mind, palms covered heartily in dirt.

Since 2019, the initiative has taken a life of its own with around 25 million citizens going out every rain season to plant. Tree nurseries have mushroomed countrywide, employing many women and youth. Large tracts of degraded landscapes have been restored, deforestation has been halved, land productivity has improved and so has the quantity of renewable water resources.

Yet beyond figures and targets, what astounds me to witness every year is how over the past five years a green culture has taken root in Ethiopia, especially in urban centers. What makes Ethiopia’s Green Legacy Initiative unique, in my perspective, is how it has become accessible. Some would like to downplay it as a mere tree planting activity, shrugging off their very ability to breath, eat and live is dependent on the health of trees that make up our eco-system. This is precisely the point that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was making in his COP28 national statement in which he conveyed the intricate ties between our practical action of planting trees with our food systems, nutrition endeavours and clean energy utilisation.

Climate change mitigation

While over the past five years Ethiopia has been spearheading a practical application of climate change mitigation and adaptation through the GLI by intentionally planting trees, many other countries have drawn inspiration from this practicality. Others have taken inspiration because in 2023 alone, four nations announced massive tree planting initiatives like GLI. In April 2023, Canada announced the 2 billion trees program; in September the US hoisted its national one billion-trees program; in October 2023, Saudi Arabia initiated the 10 billion trees program, and in October, Kenya announced the 15 billion trees initiative and replicated Ethiopia with a “day off” for national tree planting.

Green Diplomacy has been at the heart of the GLI, through which seedlings have been shared with our Horn and East African neighbours. The uptake by neighbours is testament to how citizen-centered, practical climate actions like the GLI have powerful repercussions. After all, we all aspire to eat well, breath well and live well by nurturing nature’s bounty.

Over the past five years, I have planted both forestry and agroforestry trees as part of Dr Abiy’s GLI and leadership. Perhaps it is this green awakening that made me experience the forested islands of the GERD differently. Indeed, trees are life and are alive!

Billene Seyoum is Press Secretary at the Office of the Prime Minister - Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia