Climate change is “relentlessly eating away” at Africa’s economic progress and it’s time to have a global conversation about a carbon tax on polluters, Kenya’s president declared Tuesday as the first Africa Climate Summit got under way.
“Those who produce the garbage refuse to pay their bills,” President William Ruto said.
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Ruto said the rapidly growing African continent of more than 1.3 billion people is losing 5% to 15% of its GDP growth every year to the widespread impacts of climate change, The Associated Press reports. It’s a source of deep frustration in the resource-rich region that contributes by far the least to global warming.
The summit’s opening speeches included clear calls to reform the global financial structures that have left African nations paying about five times more to borrow money than others, worsening the debt crisis for many. Africa has more than 30 of the world’s most indebted countries, said Kenya’s cabinet secretary for the environment, Soipan Tuya.
The U.S. government’s climate envoy, John Kerry, acknowledged the “acute, unfair debt.” He said 17 of the world’s 20 countries facing the worst climate impacts are in Africa—while the world’s 20 richest nations, including his own, produce 80% of the world’s carbon emissions that are driving climate change.
Asked about the Kenyan president’s call for a carbon tax discussion, Kerry said U.S. President Joe Biden has “not yet embraced any particular carbon pricing mechanism.”
Ruto said Africa’s 54 countries “must go green fast before industrializing and not vice versa, unlike (richer nations) had the luxury to do.” Transforming Africa’s economy on a green trajectory “is the most feasible, just, and efficient way to attain a net-zero world by 2050,” he said.
But speakers said all of that will depend on international climate finance, with richer nations’ promise of US$100 billion a year in climate finance to developing countries still unfulfilled. Ruto said the summit declaration would “firmly encourage” everyone to keep their promises.
The United Arab Emirates, which will host this year’s United Nations climate summit, COP 28, announced plans to invest $4.5 billion in Africa’s “clean energy potential.”
The African continent has 60% of the world’s renewable energy assets, and more than 30% of the minerals key to renewable and low-carbon technologies. One goal of the summit was to transform the narrative around the continent from victim to assertive, wealthy partner.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to explain to our people, particularly to our youth, the contradiction: resource-rich continent and poor people,” Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde said.
Africa’s GDP should be revalued for assets that include the world’s second-largest rainforest and biodiversity, added African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina.
“Africa cannot be nature-rich and cash-poor,” he said.
But divisions are evident around an issue that was little mentioned in the opening speeches and yet is at the heart of the tough conversations ahead: fossil fuels.
Adesina said Africa must use its natural gas resources—a growing interest of Europe—along with renewable energy sources. “Give us space to grow,” he said.
Ruto, however, has criticized the “addiction” to fossil fuels. His country now gets more than 90% of its energy from renewables.
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said African nations could produce enough clean energy to power the continent and export abroad, “but for this, Africa needs massive investment.”
“We don’t have to do what the developed countries did to power their industries. It will be harder to use renewable energy exclusively, but it can be done,” said one local summit attendee, Martha Lusweti.
UN Secretary-General, António Guterres told the summit it’s time to “break our addiction to fossil fuels.” The world spent $7 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Some of Africa’s biggest economies rely on fossil fuels. South Africa’s coal-fired plants are struggling. Parts of Nigeria’s Niger Delta are slick from oil extraction. Some of Africa’s cities have the world’s worst air pollution. TotalÉnergies’ pipeline project in Uganda and Tanzania is being challenged.
Missing from the summit were the leaders of a number of Africa’s largest economies, including South Africa, Nigeria, and Egypt, as well as forest-rich Congo.
Also missing from the leading speakers is China, the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases, Africa’s largest trading partner and one of its biggest creditors.
Some African leaders gave passionate descriptions of climate change’s toll.
“The seas that once serenaded us with lullabies now warn of rising tides,” said Sierra Leone President Julius Maada Bio. “It is an African story, and I daresay it’s a global story, too.”
This Associated Press story was republished by The Canadian Press on September 5, 2023.