Hijacking the climate cause

The first Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi from September 4-6 was billed as a major gathering “to address the increasing exposure to climate change and its associated costs”. “Championed” by Kenya’s President William Ruto, the summit culminated in the adoption of the Nairobi Declaration, forming the basis of a shared African position on climate change ahead of COP28 in November.

African climate leadership is a welcome development, but scepticism about who was really driving the summit’s agenda dogged the run-up. A coalition of 500 civil society organisations from across Africa issued an urgent call to reset the focus of the summit, which had been “seized by Western governments, consultancy companies and philanthropic organisations”.

African experts were sidelined in the planning phase, with global consultancy firm McKinsey appointed as the technical lead on climate finance.

African leaders bemoan their exclusion from global dialogues, but the summit demonstrated their willingness to adopt similar exclusionary practices. Any potentially dissenting voices were kept firmly outside the barricades around the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC). Access roads were closed to all but the army of black Prados for VIPs, worsening the normal traffic chaos in gritty, gridlocked Nairobi.

Ruto appeared to be living his best life, rubbing shoulders with global VIPs such as John Kerry and António Guterres and making rousing speeches about Africa’s potential to lead the world in tackling climate change. He arrived at the KICC each day to much fanfare in a tiny yellow electric car. The moment he left the venue, he was surrounded by his entourage of dozens of diesel-belching 4x4s.

On day two of the summit legions of delegates found themselves unexpectedly barred by the Kenyan army from accessing the main event venues. This appeared to be a last-minute decision, presumably driven by the security concerns of the many his and her excellencies in attendance. But it was appallingly executed and communicated, with many people supposed to be hosting or speaking at events unable to get in.

While the Nairobi Declaration recognises the disproportionate impact of climate change on Africa, this was not a gathering to find solutions to the humanitarian crisis extreme weather events have already unleashed across the continent. Justice – supposedly the most crucial component of the energy transition – is not mentioned in the declaration, and it did not feature on the agenda. Perhaps unsurprisingly at a McKinsey-organised event, the focus was on monetising the climate crisis to drive growth and development.

Carbon markets featured prominently, with their potential to allow big polluters to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by paying to offset them against the carbon sequestration effects of Africa’s forests and mangroves. But hundreds of activists who had gathered in Nairobi from across the continent asserted that carbon markets are really a mechanism for shifting the burden of emission reductions to the global south, while giving the rest of the world a licence to continue polluting.

There was also a huge focus on “clean cooking”, with speakers from the political and business elite expressing newfound concern for the hundreds of millions of Africans who cook with wood, charcoal and kerosene.

This is a crucial problem to solve. But events at the summit, such as the launch of a joint report by the International Energy Agency and the African Development Bank, indicate that the admirable objectives of those working to address it are at serious risk of being hijacked by the global gas industry. It is obvious that some bright spark (at McKinsey?) has realised that the “clean cooking” campaign is a beautiful vehicle for legitimising plans for huge fossil gas expansion across the continent.

A new era of extractivism?

The Nairobi Declaration’s call for reform of the global financial system is depressingly ironic when all the market solutions showcased at the summit are firmly part of that system.

The declaration also conspicuously fails to mention oil and gas. Considering the extent to which the oil majors are ensnaring Africa in a constricting net of “major discoveries”, the omission is an ominous clue to African leaders’ real stance on fossil fuels. As is the fact that only 17 of Africa’s 54 heads of state attended. (President Cyril Ramaphosa chose to go to the inauguration of Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa instead.)

As activists have pointed out, the declaration fails to articulate a strategic vision for African energy sovereignty and sustainable energy access. Will these emerge as ancillary benefits of plans for the colossal monetisation of Africa’s forests and mangroves, its sunshine and minerals? Or has the summit merely set the stage for a new era of extractivism in the name of Western “green” development?

This article was first published in the Financial Mail on 14 September 2023.

By: Tracey Davies

IMAGE: Gallo Images / Contributor

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