High Expectations, Underwhelming Results

The Africa Climate Summit last month in Nairobi promised a lot, but delivered little.

Roland Ngam

Thirty-one years after the famous “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, about 12,000 people across Africa and the rest of the world descended on Nairobi, Kenya for the maiden edition of the African Union’s Africa Climate Summit (ACS) on 4–6 September. It marked the first time the African continent organised an event with the climate emergency as its priority — which goes to show just how unseriously the continent that bears the largest climate burden has treated the matter so far. Better late than never, one could say.

Regrettably, the ACS was another reminder that climate negotiations are, to borrow Nigerian activist Nimmo Bassey’s metonymy, “lost and damaged” and “a rigged process that works in a very colonial manner, offloading climate responsibility on the victims of climate change”. It was something like a “COP lite”. On prend les mêmes et on recommence, as they say in French. We take the same actors and vacuous talking points and do a makeover, but this time with more chaos in the accreditation centre and more disregard for “independent free-thinking” civil society (activist Vanessa Nakate’s intervention was given the graveyard slot after the “important guests” had exited the main conference room and were already having dinner somewhere in town).

The summit was all about money, corporate solutions, and pretty much more of the same. That was already obvious in the grandiloquent theme of the gathering, “Green Growth and Climate Finance for Africa and the World”. The Concept Note for the summit indicated: “Africa needs to capitalise on this existing momentum by (a) driving a holistic Green Growth Agenda that takes advantage of its vast resources, and (b) securing Climate Finance tailored to Africa’s needs to achieve its growth ambitions”. Financial and corporate solutions dominated the discussions as well as the final declaration.

Of all the leaders that spoke at the summit, the only one who mentioned the words “mother Earth” — referring to the fact the nature exists for nature’s sake, not just to be plundered and exploited by human beings — and the disproportionate burden borne by women in particular due to global heating, as well as the necessity for South-South cooperation in problem solving, was not an African, but Colombia’s Vice President Francia Elena Márquez Mina. Another speaker who adopted a decidedly more ecocentric stance during his interventions was UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who said: “It is time to end the injustices that are holding Africa back.” Again — not an African. Meanwhile, the only person who was very loud about reparations and no-strings-attached money for climate-induced loss and damage was Sudanese-British billionaire Mo Ibrahim.

There is something seriously wrong with an approach to climate change that is heavily skewed towards techno-fixes, corporate solutions, and more pledges from the Global North, with the Global South adopting the posture of hapless victim with bowl in hand and no agency at all. But beyond that, we must ask whether the ACS is going to help roll back global heating in a meaningful way — or if it will just become another part of the slow multilateral grind.

Stocks to Sell

The Africa Climate Summit was divided into three parts: the workshop for African heads of state, monarchs, and foreign dignitaries, the ministerial day, and finally, the declaration and closing event on the third and final day. Right out of the blocks, the host president, Kenyan President William Ruto, underlined the theme that would dominate discussions: finance! He was eager to tell the world that African countries have carbon stock and they are willing to sell it.

In his welcome address, he mentioned that “we must see in green growth not just a climate imperative but also a fountain of multibillion dollar opportunities that the world is poised to capitalize”. The rest of his speech was littered with business-friendly language like “I invite us to adopt an opportunity lens”. He talked about “the unparalleled opportunity that climate represents for Africa”, “an unparalleled gold mine”, and stated that Africa “can be a region that helps others achieve their net-zero objective” and that “trillions of dollars are looking for investment opportunities as the need to decarbonize our economies heightens”.

"Africa’s political class arrogated to themselves the role of mediator between the continent and foreign investors, although they do not face climatic shocks in any significant way."

He even absolved the countries responsible for the climate emergency of primary responsibility in fixing the mess that they created: “The conversation of North versus South must come to an end”, he insisted, “the conversation of who did what is not a luxury we can afford”. From that moment on, it was clear that African leaders were playing nice in order to get something in return.

One by one, African leaders rattled off a litany of grievances: Africa contributed less than 4 percent of global CO2 emissions but was bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. They were dealing with the challenges by planting trees here and there, but more was needed for adaptation and mitigation. That is what they kept talking about — planting trees. They urged the countries of the Global North to honour their Paris Pledge to assist developing nations with their climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, but had little to demand beyond that.

Silence on the “Pandemic in Africa”

While it is true that Africa produces less than 4 percent of annual global emissions and that it has some of the world’s most efficient carbon sinks, including the rainforests in the Congo Basin and West African, it would have been nice to hear someone put a clear face on the climate disaster.

“Climate change is a pandemic in Africa”, said Josefa Sacko, Ambassador for the African Union Commission for Agriculture, Rural Development and Sustainable Environment, in her opening statement.

In recent times, we have seen seven coups in West Africa’s “coup belt”, where decades of drought and searing heat have decimated the flora and fauna, causing some of the worst malnutrition and precarity that exists anywhere in the world. We have seen the first famine caused by climate change in Madagascar, multi-year droughts in the horn of Africa, rainfall and flooding that claimed dozens of lives and washed away thousands of homes in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Senegal and many other countries in 2022 and 2023, and, most recently, torrential rainfall and flooding that claimed thousands of lives in Libya — among many other disastrous events caused by climate change on the continent.

None of these were mentioned by the heads of state or government representatives at the ACS. Instead, Africa’s political class arrogated to themselves the role of mediator between the continent and foreign investors, although they do not face climatic shocks in any significant way.

Predictably, Ursula von der Leyen, like other major world leaders, outlined the hard work they had already done to tackle the climate crisis. She mentioned the parts of the EU Global Gateway initiative that had allocated 1 billion euro to unlock investments in green initiatives in Africa, from dams in the Democratic Republic of Congo to strengthening government capacity to access green bonds — exactly the same amount of money that the EU is giving one single country, Tunisia, to stop migrants from crossing over into Europe.

Von der Leyen underscored that the EU’s future climate action would be built around three pillars: attracting private capital to Africa through green bonds and the like, carbon pricing and markets, and carbon thresholds that every entity must not exceed. What was missing in her speech was the acknowledgement of ownership for causing the problem, or any ambitious declaration of funds transfer from the Global North to the Global South.  

Access Denied

On day two, access to the Tsavo Hall where the dignitaries’ workshops was held was cut off to most of the 12,000 delegates invited to the gathering. Instead, the organizers announced, it would be limited to delegates from Europe, North America, the African Union, and African governments. Civil society organizations were limited to either watching the discussions from the safe distance of spill-over rooms or following discussions between UN agencies and civil society elsewhere.

For most people in attendance, this meant they should not have made the trip at all — one could have registered for the conference, downloaded the app, and followed the key parts online. Of course, the Kenyan hosts may have known beforehand that they needed to cut off access to some meeting rooms due to lack of space, but apparently, they wanted delegates to make the journey — 20,000 delegates, artists and vendors to accommodate, feed and entertain over five to seven days means a lot of revenue for the country.

"Young people are thoroughly fed up with politics as usual. They want system change, a new way of life that is not based on constant industrialization and plunder of the environment."

While civil society thus met in side events, discussing what African cities were doing to both decarbonize and prepare for the growing impacts of climate change, the difficulties of addressing waste collection and management, or options for the over 1 billion Africans who lack access to clean cooking, consultants and government officials from the Global North were eager to tell Africans that they had a great opportunity to end energy poverty — through concessional and non-concessional loans.

South Africa’s Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa said that work was underway to develop a South Africa–Namibia hydrogen production ecosystem. Policies are already at an advanced stage of preparation to unlock investment from private capital. US Assistant Secretary for International Trade and Development Alexia Latortue stressed the need for concessional and non-concessional financing to flow into Africa, and to create the right policy frameworks and capacity to enable this. Colombia’s former president Iván Duque Márquez encouraged African nations to conserve more in order to get more funding. In return, the continent’s conservation efforts could be rewarded in the form of investments in carbon credits as well as green and blue bonds.

On the third and last day of the summit, President Ruto announced that 23 billion US dollars’ worth of investments and pledges had emerged out of the conference. These included 4.5 billion dollars to unlock Africa’s clean energy potential, announced by COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber, a 1-billion-dollar African Development Bank and Global Centre on Adaptation initiative to finance youth-led businesses and start-ups across Africa, and a 12-million-dollar deal between Kenya and the EU to kick-start a hydrogen production system in Kenya.

Kenya also scored some major deals with Germany (debt relief), the Bezos Earth Fund (forest restoration) and climate fund manager CAMCO’s investment in Spark Energy Services.

Dissecting the Nairobi Declaration

Finally, the Summit adopted the so-called “African Leaders Nairobi Declaration on Climate Change and Call to Action”. First, the good bits about it.

The Nairobi Declaration shows that African leaders are finally beginning to take climate change seriously. It calls for an urgent transformation of Development Finance Institutions (DFIs) so that they start treating African countries and entities fairly. As Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, said at the ACS, DFIs “were not created with us in mind and that still shows today”.

Too often, African entities are considered risky bets, and thus are expected to borrow money at rates four or five times more expensive than those offered to the Global North. Too many African countries are also dealing with astronomical amounts of debt, and for that reason cannot react to the most basic needs of their citizens. A lot of the suffering comes from austerity policies pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. Something must be done about that, and it is good that the conference called that out.

The Nairobi Declaration also calls for a global tax regime to finance climate action. A tax regime is a good idea, but it should not be global — it must be paid by the nations and corporations that are responsible for dumping the CO2 that is causing the challenges we face today.

We know that BP, Shell, and ExxonMobil are responsible for damaging millions of hectares of prime arable land across the planet. We know that pesticides and chemicals companies like Corteva, Bayer, ChemChina, and others dump large amounts of toxic chemicals into our waterways every year. We know about Coca-Cola and plastic bottles, banks that funded slave ships, colonial plantations, large-scale commercial farms in Africa, funding of polluting industries, and so on. Meek supplication is not going to coax just and fair reparations out of these offenders.

Finally, the decision to establish the Africa Climate Summit as a biennial event convened by the African Union and hosted by African Union Member States is a good decision and long overdue. That said, its format must change. Its core constituency must be the African people. It must also stop acting like beggars and explicitly call out those who are responsible for global heating.

"Where Africa needed to launch a wider South–South discussion for coordinated action and fair policies, the continent’s leaders locked themselves in rooms with venture capital from the Global North to beg for pledges."

So much for the good parts of the Nairobi Declaration. Now, the bad.

The Africa Great Green Wall Initiative, an AU project with the potential to restore degraded forests and build resilience in the Sahel, was not a priority at the summit. It was invisible, only mentioned by the Green Climate Fund and others as a footnote. That this was the case at a time when the Sahel is literally burning is confounding. One only needs to look at the parts of the Sahel where regreening is happening to realize what can be achieved if local communities and clear support come together. Initiatives like the Africa Great Green Wall should be what the ACS is about.

The declaration’s primary audience is foreigners, specifically institutions in the Global North, not Africans. The Africans mentioned once or twice in the document are mere afterthoughts. Those who bear the brunt of climate change, i.e. women and children, are only portrayed as victims and mere props to justify the begging bowl being held out.

Moreover, there is too much focus on a neoliberal trickle-down growth paradigm to development, the only difference being that this time it will be “green”. Terms like “attracting local, regional and global investment”, “propelling Africa’s economic growth and job creation”, or “focusing our economic development plans on climate-positive growth” and “advancing green industrialisation” show in which direction development is intended to go.

Yet massive inflows of foreign capital to develop industrialization policies within current economic paradigms will yield the same results as before: a few beneficiaries (the urban elite) and poverty and inequality elsewhere on the continent. Young people are thoroughly fed up with politics as usual. They want system change, a new way of life that is not based on constant industrialization and plunder of the environment.

Listening to the Other Africa

On 8 September, two days after the end of the Africa Climate Summit, the UNFCCC released the synthesis report of the technical dialogue of the global stocktake, the entity responsible for evaluating countries’ progress in implementing the policies they promised. One of its key findings was that “global emissions are not in line with modelled global mitigation pathways consistent with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, and there is a rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”.

Where we needed to put a clear face to the climate crisis for all to see, the talks in Nairobi were dominated by politicians who live in secure leafy suburbs and never get to experience what climate catastrophe looks like. Where the African Climate Summit needed to explicitly name and shame perennial abusers for their toxic behaviour, we saw only meek supplication for peanuts.

Where African leaders needed to demand reparations and transfers of no-strings-attached technology and resources to the Global South as payment for centuries of plunder, exploitation, transfer pricing, illicit financial flows, or burning through the entire planet’s carbon budget, people kept talking about concessional and non-concessional loans — loans to further enrich polluting nations, lobbyists, and connected politicians.

Where innovative ideas for a democratic, indigenous, people-led transformation of the environment were required, we only saw more neoliberal trickle-down policies that place venture capital, Global North lobbyists, banks, and polluting nations at the heart of the climate solution.

Where Africa needed to launch a wider South–South discussion for coordinated action and fair policies, the continent’s leaders locked themselves in rooms with venture capital from the Global North to beg for pledges.

It is time for African leaders to break with the typical cap-in-hand behaviour that only attracts money for themselves and their cronies in capital cities. The other Africa, i.e. the majority, those who protect the planet and look after it day after day, and those who are already experiencing the destructive effects of floods, droughts, and erratic weather, demand radical ideas for a just and fair transition.

IMAGE: Turkana, an indigenous community living in semi-arid Northern region of Kenya participate in a climate protest on the streets of Nairobi as the Africa Climate Summit commences in Nairobi, 4 September 2023.Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire
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