This week sees the start of the Africa Climate Summit – a landmark initiative from Kenya and President Ruto. This African convening will bring together stakeholders from across Africa to discuss one of the critical challenges facing our continent before COP28.
As emphasised during our discussions at the Ibrahim Governance Weekend in Nairobi last April, it is essential that African countries come together before global policy events, to articulate a common position and create a united bloc to ensure its perspectives and priorities are fairly and efficiently represented on the international stage.
Climate change is a key topic for our continent, and to ensure we tackle this challenge we need to bring the discussion back to basics, with 4 key points.
1. For Africa, the climate challenge is a development challenge
Due to its comparatively limited development level, Africa is the least responsible for climate change, while at the same time the most impacted, given its low resilience and adaptation capacities.
Since 1850, the whole of Africa has only been responsible for 2.8% of fossil fuel emissions globally – less than the UK (4.3%). Even today, in as many as 39 African countries, per capita carbon emissions are within the range needed to stay within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
But Africa’s lower level of economic development means limited infrastructure, energy access, and food security – and this is ultimately what makes Africa so vulnerable. It is no coincidence that 13 of the 20 most climate-vulnerable countries globally are also among the 20 poorest in GDP per capita terms.
For most African countries, mitigation is not a key issue. However, adaptation – building resilient societies, economies, and infrastructure – is. And this simply isn’t possible without economic development and growth.
2. Africa, and its people, cannot be asked to choose between climate and development
Let us be honest – developing countries cannot grow and deliver the economic and social infrastructure needed without increasing carbon emissions. There are no examples of low-income countries (with a population of over one million) growing their economies and simultaneously reducing emissions.
Africa cannot be asked to put its development agendas on hold until net zero carbon technology is widespread across every sector – including those more challenging to decarbonise like cement and steel, key for infrastructure development. Doing so jeopardises the achievement of both the SDGs, already off-track, and Agenda 2063.
This does not mean that Africa must pursue the historically carbon intensive development path of Europe, North America, and East Asia. The continent is already following a greener trajectory than counterparts in other regions – with 22 African countries primarily utilising renewables for electricity generation. Natural gas, the least polluting fossil fuel, can, for instance, act as a transition fuel to supplement renewables.
3. The world cannot go green without Africa
The continent hosts green assets that are essential to staying within 1.5 degrees of warming. This includes critical global ecosystems such as the Congo Basin rainforest, where annual net carbon sinking is greater than in the Amazon and Southeast Asia combined.
Africa is also home to critical minerals for the green energy transition, such as cobalt, manganese, and platinum group metals. DR Congo alone accounts for over two thirds of global cobalt production – a critical material in rechargeable batteries.
The continent’s geography means that renewable potential is vast and that it is an ideal location to develop renewable energy sources – solar, wind, geothermal – and emerging climate technologies such as green hydrogen and carbon capture.
4. Reconciling climate and development means both Africa and its partners must tackle key structural issues
Leveraging Africa’s global climate potential means reconciling climate and development goals. This is possible – but requires key moves from both African stakeholders and their partners.
A decisive shift is needed from traditional economic models, historically based on raw commodity exports from the continent with little benefit for its people. Investing in local transformation on the continent will create local jobs, provide key prospects for our youth, and lower emissions linked to the endless back-and-forth transport of commodities.
This means speeding up the implementation and leveraging the African Continental Free Trade Agreement. It requires stronger governance frameworks at both national and international level to avoid the so-called ‘resource curse’. It also means factoring the impacts on local communities, and their needs and knowledge into climate investments.
None of this will be possible without the relevant financial resources. International partners must meet their existing climate finance pledges – we still have not seen the promised $100 billion per year for developing countries, while the ‘Loss & Damage Fund’ is still not operational. But even if these promises were realised, they still do not come anywhere close to the $277 billion per year needed for African countries to achieve their nationally determined contributions.
For this, the broken global financial system needs a serious overhaul. When so many in the Global South cannot obtain the finance to meet their own development needs – or can only do so by placing themselves under an excessive debt burden – change is clearly needed.
In Nairobi next week, our continent has a unique opportunity to showcase that it is possible to reconcile climate and development goals, rather than oppose them, and to do so for the best interest of its people, without leaving anyone behind.