Africa Climate Summit: A hit and miss affair.

William Ruto

President of Kenya William Ruto (C) surrounded by other African leaders delivers his closing speech during the closure of the Africa Climate Summit 2023 at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi on September 6, 2023.

Photo credit: PCS

Like many summits involving Heads of State, the African Climate Summit, concluded last week in Nairobi, Kenya with grand statements and glittering photo opportunities. But as the dust settles Africans are adding up the outcomes and realizing that they have, once again, been swindled.

The summit, it turns out, was a diplomatic setback, a mishit on the negotiation front and a miscarriage in terms of the final outcome. Parts of the declaration contradicted the Africa Common Position on Climate Change for COP28 while the agenda was, in part, a departure from Africa’s true priorities.

The outcome is not all bad.  The meeting squarely put the issue of global reform of the finance architecture, including debt relief on the table, and it was good to see African leaders making a united call for debt relief to free up funds to be used to tackle the climate crisis on the continent. 

Considering the ‘climate debt’ owed by rich nations due to their catastrophic burning of fossil fuels, its only right African leaders demand debt relief to help fund climate solutions.

But on balance the result requires some serious soul searching for Africans committed to a better future.

In the weeks before the conference the writing was on the wall. Over 500 civil society wrote to President Ruto calling to reset the focus of the Summit, expressing concern over foreign interference, and calling for an agenda that reflected Africa’s real interests.  African climate negotiators, too, raised concerns about the direction of the meeting.

These concerns were not heard by the Kenyan hosts, and the African Union Commission, who took charge of the Summit.  The result is a Summit Declaration that sells Africans short, and deeply flawed process that must be fixed if it’s not to be repeated.

Foremost, the discussions and the subsequent Nairobi Declaration centred on some dangerous distractions including carbon markets.

The US, the UK, and the UAE – countries that are all expanding fossil fuel production -- committed millions of dollars to the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI), effectively allowing the polluters club to have its day.

Carbon credits are, essentially, ‘‘pollution permits’’ that allows historical emitters to continue to poison the planet, with lives and livelihoods in vulnerable countries ruined as a result.  

Without much emissions to cut, Africa, needs to avoid them while prioritising adaptation interventions. Yet the declaration called for Africa to play a role in the ‘‘decarbonisation of global production.’’

According to the outcome, we are not merely to cut our own emissions, we are also asked to mop up the pollution of the richest countries and companies.

Whereas the summit should have served as an invaluable platform to elevate adaptation and resilience, as the overriding concerns for the continent, these themes did not feature prominently in the declaration. The language was unassertive, the substance outright weak. Additionally, no reference was made in the declaration to adaptation funding or the commitment to double adaptation finance.

But it is the decision to lump adaptation and loss and damage together that is most astonishing. Adaptation encompasses efforts to enable communities on the continent to manage and cope with the effects of climate change. Loss and damage is designed to compensate victims of climate change. Africans must, therefore, be vigilant against, and reject, any attempts by rich nations to merge adaptation and loss and damage issues.

On finance, of the USD26 billion finance commitments announced in the summit from public and private sector, multilateral development funds, philanthropic foundations, estimates indicates that over three-quarters was in fact, not new or additional, but mere restatements of projects funding that pre-dates the Summit, including committed loans which risks double-counting and with the rest not fully transparent.

Use in the declaration of ‘‘global community’’ and ‘‘developed partners in the global north and global south’’ curiously failed to differentiate between developed and developing countries, based on the principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities” as laid out in the UN climate convention.

It assumes the Global North and Global South have an equal responsibility for damaging the climate. We can never be equals. Rich nations in the Global North are culpable for the vast majority of the climate mess that afflicts populations in poor and developing nations in the Global South.

Whether deliberate or accidental, this wording is dangerous as it fails to acknowledge the roles, liabilities and obligations of wealthy countries and the special needs and entitlement of poor nations in the context of climate change.

The presence of African leaders at the summit was underwhelmingly low. For a first-ever climate event hosted by the African Union on African soil, the least anyone expected was Heads of State and government leaders from the continent to show up. Out of 55 countries on the continent, only 14 leaders of government, mostly from neighbouring countries, were present. This can only mean two things.

Firstly, Kenya as host did not appeal enough to its continental counterparts. None of the leaders of Africa’s top economies, namely, Nigeria, Egypt, Morocco, South Africa, Angola and Ethiopia, was in town for the talks. In that case, the country’s diplomacy failed to hit the mark.

Naturally, large economies anywhere in the world are more influential in multilateral climate negotiations. They can put their foot down and demand better climate deals than their poor counterparts.

Secondly, while African leaders may have stayed away, this did not stop those from the Global North turning up with eagerness. America’s senior climate envoy John Kerry and Trigg Talley, US’s lead negotiator for COP28, were both in town. The object of their presence was no riddle. For months, the involvement of controversial US consultancies in the design of the agenda had raised eyebrows.

Kerry was in Nairobi to push deals that will either benefit the US or excuse it from climate responsibility. Flying more than 7500 miles to Africa to commit only $30 million to a continent of 55 countries and over a billion people was an embarrassment. But don’t we tend to be lured by quick, cheap fixes to our deep-seated and structural developmental problems?

More than half a billion Africans lack access to energy. Nearly a billion more rely on dirty energy for lighting and heating. Yet, Africa’s landscapes teem with deposits of cobalt, nickel and lithium, all essential and strategic minerals used in the manufacture for renewable energy technologies.

Tragically, discussions on how to harness these minerals for Africa’s economic and energy transformation, were missing. The declaration also failed to acknowledge their central place in driving Africa’s new vision for green growth.

While African leaders committed to ambitious renewable energy targets, including increasing Africa’s renewable energy share from 56GW in 2022 to at least 300GW by 2030.The declaration says nothing about phasing down oil and gas, beyond the mention of unabated coal, reflecting pressure from African countries planning to expand production of these fossil fuels. Silence creates space for oil and gas companies to continue pushing their agenda to expand existing, and start new, oil and gas projects on the continent. Unfortunately, the continent failed to seize the opportunity to drive forward efforts to phase out oil and gas and accelerate a just energy transition from fossil fuels.

It's also unfortunate that the Nairobi Declaration endorses hydrogen development on the continent without acknowledging how water-intensive this technology is, how much energy is wasted during production and transmission, and how much ecological damage is caused to the oceans by water-desalinisation for hydrogen production.

Hydrogen has some uses in Africa. But the focus on hydrogen is being driven by foreign interests who want to launch a new and neo-colonial effort to capture and export Africa’s renewable energy potential and water resources (used to make hydrogen) for their own use. 

To address this, the declaration should have been specific about the socially, ecologically and economically appropriate use of hydrogen: small to medium scale, for domestic use (not for export), not in water-stressed regions, and to produce fertilizers for food sovereignty rather than for cash crops for export.

This summit did play a role in catalysing the largest mobilisation yet of African voices in the climate discourse. The continent is the least responsible for climate change, the most impacted but also the most ignorant on the emergency. But this is changing fast. Africans are increasingly conscious of the urgency of the climate crisis, as evidenced by thousands who descended on Nairobi for the summit.

That civil society were allowed to protest, to hold a People’s Assembly and a vigil, and later to present a People’s Declaration, is commendable. The upshot is that Kenyan and African authorities now recognise that climate talks should be a democratic space for participation by all. 

As we think about the next summit, it’s critical to ensure the event does not again become hostage to these foreign powers hell-bent on imposing a pro-Western agenda at the expense of commitments for additional climate finance and investment in renewable energy and Africa’s resilience.

As the world heads to CO28 in Dubai later in the year, there will be a lot for Africa to mull over, including whether the summit lived up to its billing. Were we overambitious about the meeting? Or did the summit simply fail to deliver the aspirations of millions of Africans who continue to be pummeled by the climate catastrophe?

- Mohamed Adow is the Founder and Director of Power Shift Africa. @mohadow