/ 13 September 2023

How Africa weathers the climate storm

1st Africa Climate Summit In Kenya
Kenyan President William Ruto holds a press conference with the attendance of participating country leaders within the 1st Africa Climate Summit at the Kenyatta International Convention Center in Nairobi, Kenya on September 6, 2023. (Photo by Andrew Kasuku/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In Nairobi last week, African leaders gathered alongside some of this continent’s smartest minds for the first-ever Africa Climate Summit. Their goal: to figure out how African countries are going to survive in a much warmer world. And what it will cost.

The summit was, in part, a reaction to the failure of the developed world to take meaningful responsibility for causing the climate crisis (Africa is responsible for just 4% of global emissions).

Despite repeatedly promising action, rich industrialised countries have not delivered much in the way of action or funding. A pledge to pay $100 billion per year to those countries most affected by climate change has gone almost entirely unfulfilled.

In Nairobi, experts, activists, government officials and politicians repeatedly said that the continent needs at least $277 billion per year in climate finance, which works out to $2.8 trillion in the decade from 2020-2030, according to the Climate Policy Initiative. It has so far been getting about 12% of that — which means that we are already playing catch-up. 

This money should be used to repair the damage caused by extreme weather events, adapt to a warmer world, and build economies that don’t make the situation worse.

The consensus is that Africa cannot afford to wait for rich countries to come to the rescue, because they won’t. So any plan to raise this money will have to come from the African continent itself. But how?

New paradigms

Participants came at the $277-billion-a-year figure with a dizzying array of ideas on how to raise it — some of them better than others.

The meatier ideas often came from side events by experts and activists around the city, and not the predictable speeches by presidents, world leaders and big names on the main stages at the official venue, the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.

An expert panel convened by AfriCatalyst, a Dakar-based consulting firm, said that the big numbers can be broken down into two categories.

About 40% of the funds must deal with the loss and damage caused by climate change, as well as helping countries to adapt to new realities.

The remaining 60% is investment to pursue prosperity without relying entirely on fossil fuels — and, in so doing, avoiding a repeat of Europe’s climate sins.

Vera Songwe, a Cameroonian economist who was until last year the head of the Economic Commission for Africa, said the funding for loss, damage and adaptation — about $1 trillion — should be met by the developed world which created this crisis, through grants from multilateral lenders like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Songwe argued that Africa, and the rest of the developing world, should push the West to pump money into these lenders. The money exists: European countries found an extra $40 trillion to inject into their economies in response to Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine. 

But a West that has refused to pay for its impact on the world seems unlikely to pay up.

More interesting were the ideas on how African countries can raise the money themselves.

The first step will be internal, in the form of higher taxes and mandatory savings goals, so governments can dip into the $1 trillion reportedly held in African pension funds. People might also have to give up their own land for large-scale climate projects, such as solar farms.

The next will be external. Countries are going to have to take out loans from global lenders, at high rates that exacerbate debt; or enter into the public-private partnerships that tend to extract resources without meaningfully addressing problems.

And debt has already given African countries fewer tools to deal with the climate crisis. This year alone, Sub-Saharan African countries will pay at least $22.5 billion on their debts, according to the American credit ratings agency Fitch.

In a session convened by Afrinomics Law, a Nairobi-based non-profit, a panel of seven experts proposed an alternative path: What if African countries didn’t pursue new money but rather relief from old debts? That $22.5 billion is not the $277 billion reportedly needed annually in climate finance, but keeping it here would be a start.

A little bit of all of these ideas were present in the summit’s concluding Nairobi Declaration, which called for “a new financing architecture that is responsive to Africa’s needs including debt restructuring and relief”.

While the declaration is not binding, and key African leaders were absent — including the presidents of Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda — it is a starting point for further negotiations at the next global climate change conference, COP28, which will begin in Dubai in November.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.