World leaders are convening in Sharm el-Sheikh for COP27 at a distinctive moment in history, as a world recovering from the devastating impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic is battered by crises on all fronts: a possible global economic recession; Europe’s scramble for energy; extreme weather events in Africa, Asia, and North America; famine in the horn of Africa. All point to a world in crisis. Will this global instability dampen the resolve for effective climate action at the annual global climate conference?
As the interdependencies of these issues come into focus, I see an opportunity for Africa to take charge of its energy and climate future and establish its own priorities from a position of leadership. Recent global events offer important lessons that could allow for a critical reset that places Africa on a realistic and effective path to climate action.
Here are four important lessons that African leaders should consider as they head into the climate talks.
Africa must take charge of its climate and energy future
Climate finance is always a big topic at COP. It is premised on the notion that the richest countries that bear historical responsibility for climate change make secure financing available to developing nations to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This year, loss and damage, a historically neglected topic, is likely to be prominent in the finance conversations.
To date, developed countries have failed to live up to their climate pledges. The $100 billion per year promised by developed countries at COP15 in 2009 has not been fulfilled nor adjusted to reflect recent economic and climate developments. Despite the prominence of this topic at COP26 in Glasgow, progress has been slow. There is no indication that this will significantly change in Sharm el-Sheikh – quite the contrary, in fact. We have seen developed countries scale back foreign aid at a time when poverty is on the rise in Africa and the rest of the developing world.
Negotiations for climate finance must proceed at COP27. However, with climate impacts already being experienced across Africa, the continent can no longer wait for salvation to come from developed countries. It is time for African leaders to acknowledge the enormity of the challenge and its long-term economic impacts – and face the reality that they may bear this brunt alone.
Energy access, economic development, and climate change must be tackled together
Europe’s response to its energy crises offers important lessons. From opposing financing for fossil fuels in developing countries just a year ago, Europe is now scouting Africa for these same resources as it scrambles to meet its energy needs. This double standard shows that climate action is a far more complex endeavor than substituting high-emitting energy sources with cleaner ones. Rather, it is navigated within a complex context of energy security, geopolitics and – in places like Africa – energy poverty, and underdevelopment.
In Africa, climate action must be balanced with the need to provide access to modern energy for electrification, industrial applications, and transportation at scales which can enable meaningful development for Africans, especially as the region anticipates significant population growth by midcentury. With a young workforce and rising demand for consumer goods, the continent has huge potential to accelerate production and build wealth. Access to abundant, reliable, and affordable electricity as well as low-emitting fuels will be essential to this process. Across Africa, innovative energy market structures, robust electricity grids, and well-functioning utilities are needed to put countries on transformative pathways that are aligned with their unique resource endowments.
Economic development is the most critical lever for climate adaptation and mitigation in Africa
There is no denying that richer countries are better positioned to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. With a high dependence on natural resources and a limited capacity to respond to disasters, African countries are disproportionately vulnerable. By 2030, 90% of the world’s poor could be in Africa. Lifting African countries out of poverty is the first line of defense for adapting to a changing climate.
The technology requirements of a zero-carbon future will require significant investments. Analysis from the IEA, IPCC and other research organizations all point to the fact that we will need advanced technologies such as carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, and advanced nuclear energy, in addition to conventional renewable energy sources to decarbonize our global energy system. If African countries are to prioritize the adoption of these technologies and localize their application through research and innovation, they will need the infrastructure and financial capacity to do so. This can only be possible if African economies thrive and prosper.
Cultivate local knowledge and solutions as key success drivers
When it comes to the energy transition and climate change, context matters. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Understanding the complex interplay of technology, economics, politics, development, culture, and society in transforming energy systems requires a sophisticated understanding of local context. A forthcoming report by Clean Air Task Force on energy transitions modelling and research in Africa finds that intellectual leadership on energy transitions in Africa is largely led by non-African experts. This must change. It is time for African leaders to prioritize investment in developing local knowledge that can inform and shape reality-based, pragmatic approaches to the energy transformation in Africa.
It’s time to center the needs of the developing world in the global climate debate. COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh provides a promising platform for African leaders to assert these priorities on the world stage and lead us into a brighter future.