Activists march in Nairobi on September 4, 2023, to raise awareness on the urgent need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. 

| Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Pomp, colour and anger as world leaders meet in Nairobi for climate talks

Global leaders converged on Nairobi on Monday (September 4) for what was billed as Africa’s biggest climate change summit in recent history. The inaugural Africa Climate Change gathering was initially called to discuss the future of the continent in the wake of what scientists have called “the biggest catastrophe of our times”, but its attendance on the first day was global, with dignitaries from some of the most powerful nations on earth trooping to Nairobi to lend a voice to the African conversation.

President William Ruto's full speech at the Africa Climate Summit 2023

Among the issues the delegates are expected to grapple with is what these talks mean to the millions of Africans who have to endure untold suffering due to the decisions of polluters in the global North, as well as how to move the talk from the conference halls to the theatres of action.

From left: Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua, President William Ruto and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe in attendance during the opening ceremony of the Africa Climate Summit.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Most importantly, observers are looking forward to what is being referred to as The Nairobi Declaration, a document from the talks that will summarise Africa’s position on the global climate crisis and perhaps also present a unified voice in Dubai later in the year during the annual gathering of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or the COP28.

In various speeches, speakers drove home the fact that time is running out for the planet, and particularly for the African continent. Rivers are drying up, crops can no longer sustain the millions of subsistence farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture to till their farms, and hunger has become a way of life from Cairo to Cape Town, and Nairobi to Niamey.

Simon Stiell, Executive Secretary UNFCCC during the Africa climate summit at KICC. 

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

President William Ruto set the tone of the meeting during the opening ceremony early in the morning when he referred to the Nairobi talks as “a moment to imagine a bold and radically affirmative African future”, his words underlying the fact that never in the history of mankind has the call to change become so important.

That call and its urgency has been long coming. About three decades ago, global leaders guided by scientists noticed that greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming were gradually increasing, but there was no global legal framework to act as a compass for limiting the upsurge. It is then that more than 190 countries agreed to create, and become a party to, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Delegates follow proceedings during the Africa Climate Summit.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The body was created alongside two other institutions that help in protecting the world’s biodiversity and fighting desertification. All African countries are parties to the UNFCCC and have always attended the climate Conference of Parties, or the COP, which are held annually.

President Ruto said that the three-day summit should be a stepping stone for Africa to decarbonise the globe and bolster investments for the continent.

Decarbonisation means that countries will need to find a way of doing away with, or reducing, emissions loaded with carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming.

President Ruto: Africa Climate Summit no ordinary summit

 “We are brought together with a clear understanding of the inadequacy of our needs in regards to climate finance, but we will not shy away from realities that must achieve positive change,” said the President. “Climate change is not just an abstract composition, it has been proven by science and emerging experience. This is why we are not here to catalogue grievances and list problems. We are here to talk about solutions.”

Dancers entertain delegates during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi on September 4, 2023. 

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

On decarbonising the world, President Ruto said that Africa’s potential for renewable energy will not only benefit the continent but also bring in development money.

“Our assets need to be in the form of partnerships. The reason why we have not made so much progress is because Africa had not consolidated and brought her ideas to the table. The day we do that, then we will be a wealthy continent,” he said. “It is not just the volume of our renewable resources that stand out, but also its non-seasonality. We will always have the sun out.”

Dr Ruto called out Africa’s lenders for their inequity on loan paying, aligning his arguments with the one of the key agendas for the summit, which is to restructure news ways of paying debt since its distress derails the continent from developing and makes its people even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

“It is not a secret that we are paying at least five times more of our loans compared to the advanced economies. I see that as an opportunity to unleash the creativity of local investments.”

“My call for everyone at this summit is to have Africa’s priorities. It is a moment to imagine a bold and radically affirmative African future,” said Dr Ruto, adding: “The future is not something to hope for, or wish for. It is for us to actualise and conceptualise now. This is what we have come to do at the Africa Climate Summit.”

His sentiments were echoed by the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, Mr John Kerry, who noted the need for the entrenchment of a carbon market that will be used as a tool to fight climate change.

Africa Climate Summit held at the KICC

First Lady Rachel Ruto and Second Lady Pastor Dorcas Rigathi follow proceedings during the ongoing Africa Climate Summit held at the KICC on September 4

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

“We think Africa can benefit and the global South can benefit only if the carbon market grows,” said Mr Kerry at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in the afternoon of what started off as a busy day for delegates. He added: “It has to grow. This market has to become a market in the billions in order to work effectively, and for that, we need to ensure its environmental integrity.”

Other high-level delegates present at the event backed the African agenda despite uproar from non-state actors weeks before the event, who suggested that outsiders had hijacked the summit. They had raised an alarm over US-based consultancy firm McKinsey and Company’s involvement.

However, Environment Cabinet Secretary Soipan Tuya had assured at an earlier press briefing that Africa’s business would remain only Africa’s, even though partners from outside the continent were welcome. She reiterated that the overarching goal for the summit is to chart a green growth pathway for the African continent.

“Climate change has entered a new era,” said Ms Tuya. “It is not just about an environmental or developmental angle, but it now addresses climate change in the context of climate justice.”

Africa Climate Summit held at the KICC

Kirinyaga County Governor Anne Waiguru confers with Embu County Governor Cecilly Mbarire during the ongoing session of the Africa Climate Summit held at the KICC on September 4.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

Representing civil societies, Mr Mithika Mwenda, the executive director for the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, said that it is time for climate summits to shift from being a contestation between the global north and the global south, to solutions-seeking gatherings. The era of finger-pointing, he urged, should end. But even as he struck a conciliatory tone, Mr Mwenda also warned that industrialised countries should not use such summits to escape responsibility for their high emissions

“The outcome of this summit should not only provide solutions to people whose livelihoods have been affected by climate change and its false solutions, but also reflect African realities, and the core of it should be adaptation,” he said.

Ms Josefa Sacko, Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development, Blue Economy and Sustainable Environment for the Africa Union’s Commission, described climate change as a pandemic in Africa.

“What we are witnessing is a situation where governments are abandoning development and using their money on the climate crisis. Africa needs to move from a donor-recipient relationship to building investments,” she said.

Speaking on behalf of the Indigenous People in Africa, Ms Anne Semante said that the role of indigenous people should not be overlooked, and despite them being the most vulnerable, only one per cent of the climate finance share is given to them.

“We lack policy frameworks that limit our direct access to climate financing. We request for the establishment of an indigenous people resilience fund,” she said.

UNFCCC Executive Secretary Simon Stiell said that the summit is an important occasion for Africa to put its hands together on how to build resilience and transform economies in a just transition manner.

Indigenous People's Perspective on Climate Change Anne Samante during Africa climate summit at KICC. 

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

Scientists have warned that humankind might have nothing to call home in this century if temperatures continue rising at the pace they are now.

In Glasgow two years ago, nations committed to cut down emissions and slow down the pace of global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But the United Nations warns that this is not enough and that our destructive activities are likely to lead to a rise of global temperatures by 2.5 degrees Celsius by the turn of the century.

The Nairobi talks are expected to stress the urgency of action in this critical decade, when global carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced by 45 per cent to reach net zero around mid-century, or somewhere around the year 2050. While the Glasgow Climate Pact called on all countries to present stronger national action plans within a year, and while the COP27 talks in Egypt last year emphasized on the need for the global north to act more responsibly, the Nairobi talks are now demand accountability and action.