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Africa aspires to major role in the effort to combat climate change

African leaders say they have a market-based plan to fight human-caused global warming that will spread economic development among millions of people on the continent.

As the Earth grows ever hotter, African leaders see a new role for themselves in combating climate change.
As the Earth grows ever hotter, African leaders see a new role for themselves in combating climate change. (AN/Larry Li/Unsplash)

World leaders representing Africa's 1.3 billion people in 54 countries lined up behind a global carbon tax and sweeping changes to the world's financial architecture ahead of November's COP28 climate summit.

The first Africa Climate Summit drew more than 10,000 participants from governments, organizations, the private sector and civil society, and ended with a consensus "Nairobi Declaration" announcing the continent's aspirations as a major clean energy player and plans to hold the world's biggest polluters to account.

U.N. Climate Change Executive Secretary Simon Stiell, whose organization hosts the global climate summits, said on Friday that African leaders "identified creative solutions that can attract investment, facilitate technology transfer, build and strengthen capacities and position African nations as leaders in sustainable development and climate action."

"Going forward, let us push for ambitious outcomes at COP28, where we can turn the outcomes of this summit into a global consensus and, most importantly, into reality," he said.

Stiell's organization also published a new assessment on Friday showing the world is far from fulfilling its binding commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

"Against forecasts made prior to its adoption, the Paris Agreement has led to contributions that significantly reduce forecasts of future warming, yet the world is not on track to meet the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement," the world's first "global stocktake" on climate change says.

The inventory of collective progress by the almost 200 nations that signed onto the Paris treaty shows what actions they need to take to meet their climate targets. It's based on the national strategies along with climate adaptation plans, technology and financing needs.

COP28 aims to fulfill nations' obligations under the Paris treaty, which committed the world to an upper limit of 2° Celsius average temperature rise, and, preferably, no more than a 1.5° increase.

The new assessment found the national pledges to cut emissions will be insufficient to keep temperatures within 1.5° threshold, and to meet that target more than 20 billion metric tons of further carbon reductions will be needed this decade before the world reaches global net zero emissions by 2050.

"There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all. Losses and damages to human and natural systems have already been observed," it says. "Climate impacts are eroding past human development gains and, without sufficient adaptation action, will impede the ability to make such gains in the future."

The Nairobi declaration demands that the international community resolve Africa's crushing debt problem by reforming the global financial system and encouraging greater investment in the continent's potential as a powerhouse green energy producer.

"Africa is not historically responsible for global warming, but bears the brunt of its effect, impacting lives, livelihoods, and economies," the declaration said in calling for a global carbon tax on fossil fuels, aviation and maritime transport and demanding that wealthy nations spend more to help developing countries.

It also appeals to wealthy nations to fulfill their broken pledge at the 2009 U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen to provide US$100 billion annually in climate finance for developing nations.

"Africa possesses both the potential and the ambition to be a vital component of the global solution to climate change," it said. "Our continent has the fundamentals to pioneer a climate-positive pathway as a thriving, cost-competitive industrial hub with the capacity to support other regions in achieving their net zero ambitions."

Leaders staked out their positions for the nearly two-week long U.N. climate summit that the United Arab Emirates will host at Expo City Dubai. The Bonn-based U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, also known as UNFCCC or U.N. Climate Change, is a platform for the Conference of Parties, known as COPs.

The Gulf nation is a major petroleum producer that advocates for carbon-capture technologies and, already, conference leaders in the UAE are maneuvering to limit public discussion of climate change and human rights issues.

The Nairobi summit, convened by the African Union and hosted by Kenya in its capital earlier in the week, coincided with the declaration by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service that the summer of 2023 has been Earth’s hottest ever “by a large margin.”

As a land with tremendous mineral and other natural-resources wealth, but also with tens of millions of people trapped in poverty, political violence and food insecurity, Africa's population is on track to double by 2050.

Historically, the continent’s riches have been shamelessly exploited by foreign colonizers, greedy bankers, unwelcome outsiders, homegrown dictators and corrupt regimes. But now African countries' skyrocketing debt costs are adding to the pressure on the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to bring more investment and climate finance.

“In Africa, we can be a green industrial hub that helps other regions achieve their net-zero strategies by 2050,” Kenya's President William Ruto, who hosted the summit in Nairobi, said. “Unlocking the renewable energy resources that we have in our continent is not only good for Africa, it is good for the rest of the world.”

Africa's goal: 'green growth'

The three-day Nairobi summit aimed to draw a new global spotlight on Africa and its people, who produce little in the way of heat-trapping greenhouse gases but are disproportionally hammered by their effects. With that aim it generated grand promises and drew influential attendees from around the world.

“Green growth and climate finance solutions,” was the stated theme. As the summit concluded, African leaders' declaration pressed the West to free up access to affordable capital for development rather than wait to dole out more aid for the next major extreme weather event or natural disaster.

Summit organizers say Africa is uniquely positioned to play a role in combating climate change by “leveraging its abundant resources, including renewable energy, critical minerals, agricultural potential and natural capital.” The continent also presents investment opportunities to promote local development while cutting carbon emissions.

“We must see in green growth not just a climate imperative but also a fountain of multibillion-dollar economic opportunities that Africa and the world is primed to capitalize,” said Ruto, who pushed for a market-based climate plan that would be financed largely through new taxes on global business sectors, such as aviation and the maritime industry and possibly some financial transactions.

All fossil fuel subsidies would be eliminated and a new global fossil fuel tax imposed. Money generated would be collected and deposited into a single fund with allocations financing projects that have the greatest climate impact and support technological innovation.

While Africa has vast potential for renewable energy such as solar power, hundreds of millions have little or no access to electricity. In some regions, the sole source is an unreliable, pollution-spewing generator powered by diesel trucked in from hundreds of miles away.

Historical roadblocks to financing

Financing for large-scale energy, manufacturing and agriculture is crucial for progress and Africa desperately needs capital investment at reasonable terms. But those investments are often deemed high risk by bankers who look at Africa and see a history of corruption, mismanagement, excessive national debt, civil wars and political violence.

“Right now, there is no capital, and when there is capital, it costs way too much,” says Stephen Jackson, the U.N. resident coordinator in Kenya.

African leaders are betting on market-based initiatives, like carbon credits or offsets, to fund growth as outlined in the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative, or ACMI, established during COP27, the U.N. climate summit held last year in Egypt.

At the Nairobi summit, investors said they were prepared to offer some US$23 billion. But strings were attached, and many past promises have been broken.

The UAE said it would commit US$4.5 billion toward Africa’s “clean energy potential" and pledged another US$450 million in carbon credits, but with fine print saying it was a “non-binding letter of intent.”

A burning injustice

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who speaks often about the threat of climate change, told the summit it is time to “break our addiction to fossil fuels.”

“An injustice burns at the heart of the climate crisis, and its flame is scorching hopes and possibilities here in Africa,” he said.

Turnout for the summit was largely encouraging, but leaders from some of the continent’s major economies, including oil-rich Nigeria, as well as Egypt, South Africa, Uganda and Congo, did not attend. Several other nations embroiled in internal conflict were absent.

Brazil also had high ambitions for its Amazon Summit on the environment and climate change. Last month’s gathering in Belem produced a plan to help protect the South American rainforests but ended with little in the way of firm commitments.

This story has been updated with additional details.