/ 4 October 2022

African leaders must stand together at COP27 to counter the Global North’s divide-and-rule tactics

Petro-Canada's Edmonton Refinery and Distribution Centre glows at dusk. The G7 are making moves to cut the subsidies on fossil fuels in an effort to remain true to COP21.
Petro-Canada's Edmonton Refinery and Distribution Centre glows at dusk. The G7 are making moves to cut the subsidies on fossil fuels in an effort to remain true to COP21.

The shadow of Europe’s energy crisis — and the rich world’s resurgent hunger for fossil fuels — looms over COP27, the annual international climate talks to be held in Egypt in November. 

With COP27 hosted on the African continent, expectations are high that the summit will finally deliver for a region where energy shortages are an obstacle to economic development. 

Debates are raging over the adequacy of climate finance, the responsibilities of high emitters to the most vulnerable countries, and investment rules for natural gas.

This should be Africa’s year to get the best deal possible but African and European views are sharply diverging over the shape and ambition of the continent’s energy transition.

African negotiators are at risk of making a tactical mistake if they cede ownership of their technology choices — particularly over the use of local gas — in exchange for vague new pledges of climate cash.

In May, 10 African energy ministers declared gas to be a transition fuel, helping countries move from coal and diesel power to renewable energy, and increased their goal of how much electricity each person needs. 

In July, the African Union Commission adopted a similar position on the energy transition. But some African climate activists and negotiators have pushed back out of a concern that a fight at COP over gas financing would distract from other issues such as pledges for more climate finance and compensation for climate-related damage. Gas is also a potent polluter, even if African plans for gas would add little to global emissions.

For African leaders, giving up control over their energy future would be a moral and strategic surrender. Here are five hard truths that explain why.

1. Rich countries will always prioritise their own energy security over climate

All countries have to balance multiple national goals but when push comes to shove, energy prices and domestic jobs have always superseded emissions cuts, a phenomenon that political scientist Roger Pielke in 2010 called the “Iron Law” of climate policy.

That explains why, just months after pledging aggressive timelines for reaching net zero emissions, Germany restarted its coal plants, Norway ramped up gas production and other Europeans scrambled to secure long term gas contracts. Germany’s chancellor travelled to Senegal, in part to secure his country’s access to West African gas. Whatever is pledged at climate summits, rich countries themselves are not yet abandoning gas.

2. Rich countries will continue to object to Africans getting financing for gas projects on climate grounds

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February this year triggered the energy crisis in Europe, the remaining tolerance for financing gas projects in Africa had been growing thin. The World Bank stopped investing in projects to get oil and gas out of the ground in 2019, while agreeing to allow exceptions for some projects that refined oil and gas, but under stringent conditions.

In 2021, influential European shareholders proposed getting rid of all these exceptions by 2025. None of these policies — designed to dissuade poor countries from building infrastructure for gas-fired power, fertiliser production and cooking gas — applied to rich countries.

Despite the energy crisis and Europe’s African gas shopping spree, the policies intended to hold back gas infrastructure on the continent remain. The hypocrisy has not been lost on anyone.

In a candid moment, the European Union’s climate czar, Frans Timmermans, said: “Many of our citizens in Europe will not buy [the moral] argument today because their worries are linked to their own existence in this energy crisis.” 

3. The promised windfall of new climate finance for poor countries is not happening

At the 2009 COP, rich countries promised to find an additional $100-billion a year in climate finance for poor countries. Not only has that figure never been reached, little of the billions reported as climate funding is new. Most of this involved relabelling standard aid projects as climate-related. Aid, even genuinely additional aid, is mainly controlled by donors and they are not giving up control of how it is used. That’s why African leaders trading away policy flexibility for new promises makes little sense. Big climate cheques are not coming.

4. Rich countries will never agree to pay for loss and damages

The “polluter pays” principle means the case for transfers from wealthy emitters to vulnerable poor non-emitters is ethically strong. Resources are needed for African countries to grow their economies, repair damage and build climate resilience. But rich countries have already made clear that they reject the notion of legal liability for climate reparations. 

At the African Ministerial Conference on Environment in Dakar earlier this month, the United States’ special climate envoy, John Kerry, declared that: “Mother Nature does not care where those emissions come from.” 

Some token compensation programmes, such as Denmark’s recent $13-million pledge, may be announced but nothing of any scale – and little, if anything, will go directly to governments.

5. Africa giving up control of its own policies in exchange for big payouts is a recipe for failure

The pattern at climate and development summits has become familiar: moral arm- twisting, agreeing to a large aid number, a flurry of relabelling, missed targets, finger pointing, rinse, repeat.

Conclusion: A strong common position is the only way to counter the divide-and-conquer tendencies of the Global North. Some of the larger economies such as South Africa and Egypt are negotiating their own energy transition packages with the major economic powers. Such deals may help those specific countries but will provide nothing for the others and could have the effect of splitting the continent and watering down demands. 

Africa needs a common position on the energy transition that asserts its own agency to set policies and pursue development, even if it means some countries will experience short term increases in emissions. Anything less would only widen the global inequality gap and create even worse climate injustices.

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.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.