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COP28 and Africa: Getting real about climate action and its barriers in Africa

November 21, 2023

This article is part of our COP28 series. Learn more about CATF at COP28.

The recently released UNFCCC global stocktake report notes just how far behind we are on our Paris Agreement goals. Global emissions have been climbing steadily since the first conference of parties was held in Berlin in 1995. Today, as was the case at the first COP, 80% of the energy we consume still comes from fossil fuels, and we have failed to mobilize sufficient capital to fund climate action across the world.  

The global stocktake report should serve as a call to the climate community at COP28 in Dubai to get real about climate action. This is even more crucial for the African continent. In many ways, African nations are walking a path that other countries have never walked. While most developed world regions turned to climate after achieving significant levels of development, Africa is responding to climate while attempting to simultaneously lift millions out of poverty and build out the region’s energy system. This balancing act requires a great degree of pragmatism and a full awareness of the opportunities and trade-offs between energy, development, and climate action in Africa.   

As we head to COP28 here are three things to keep in mind if we want to get serious about climate action in Africa.  

Getting real about the scale of the infrastructure challenge

Earlier this year, a national power outage plunged more than 50 million Kenyans into total darkness. The national utility attributed the outage to a system imbalance triggered by the loss of power from the Lake Turkana Wind Farm, the largest Wind Farm in Africa. The management of the project also blamed the outage on overvoltage in the grid system — which took the wind farm offline.  

Not long after this incident, Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, also experienced a total grid collapse, which significantly impacted businesses and households. This was the second grid collapse in the country in 2023; Nigeria experienced four such incidents in 2022.  

While it is typical for crises such as these to trigger blame games amongst local power agencies, the outages in both Kenya and Nigeria were important pointers to the limits that inadequate and weak infrastructure can place on both energy access and climate goals in Africa, no matter how well-intentioned and ambitious these efforts are.  

The Nairobi Declaration, adopted at the African Climate Summit in September, articulates a vision to increase Africa’s renewable energy capacity from 56GW in 2022 to 300GW in 2030. While laudable for its ambition, the reality is that this vision will be hard to achieve given the current state of African grid infrastructure. An IRENA study on the renewable energy transition in Africa identifies the prevalence of weak and inadequate grid infrastructure as a critical barrier to the scale up of variable renewable energy in the region. Significant investments are needed to modernize and build flexible grid systems and facilitate integrated and well-functioning regional power markets to drive a clean energy future in Africa. Without reliable energy infrastructure in Africa, there is little hope for a clean energy revolution. 

Getting real about the money  

Mounting debt is constraining the ability of African governments to invest in development and climate action alike. Africa must mobilize more than $200 billion annually for its climate response by 2030. The continent also faces a $1.2 trillion financing gap for its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Several African countries are teetering on the brink of a debt crisis. In 2022, more than half of the low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa were either classified by the IMF as being in debt distress or at risk of debt distress. The region’s ratio of interest repayment to revenue is said to have doubled since 2010 and is currently four times that of developed countries.  

As we head to COP28, we will hear increased calls for developed countries to honor their past climate pledges to developing countries and set up a loss and damage fund to alleviate some of the financial challenges. Regardless of the outcomes of these finance negotiations, it is obvious that the scale of Africa’s finance needs far exceed what has been pledged in the past – much of which has not been honored anyway. African countries need to embrace a new strategy that will grant better access to capital for the region’s climate response. This cannot happen without a fundamental restructuring of the current global finance architecture, which, in its current form, applies unequal rules that disadvantage African economies and deepen the region’s debt crises. 

Getting real about development 

The climate crisis is, in part, a development crisis. African countries lose an estimated $7-15 billion annually to the impacts of climate change. Likewise, African economies with constrained budgets and mounting debts are less able to invest in climate action.  

Achieving the SDGs could potentially unlock an estimated $12 trillion market opportunity and create about 380 million new jobs by 2030. Africa needs a climate strategy that works hand-in-hand with a clear development strategy and draws on new trade opportunities through the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement, the growing market for critical minerals, and Africa’s young workforce. Speeding up economic growth and building domestic wealth can position Africa better to meet climate adaptation and mitigation goals.  

We may have missed the mark with global climate action in the past, failing to consider the way emissions reductions efforts must work within the realities of imperatives like regional development, energy access, energy security, and poverty alleviation. In Africa, we still have an opportunity to center the systemic issues that have stalled climate progress – underdevelopment, inadequate infrastructure, and the lack of access to capital- squarely in the debate. COP28 provides an important platform for a course correction, and we’ll be there pushing for it with leaders from around the world.  

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