Africa needs a people-centred approach to climate action

3rd October 2023 By: ISS, Institute for Security Studies

 Africa needs a people-centred approach to climate action

In September, Africa was struck by a devastating climate event when heavy rains caused two dams to collapse in Libya, flooding the east coast city of Derna. An estimated 4 000 people died and 46 000 were displaced, making the flood the most deadly in Africa in the past century. Despite contributing the least to global greenhouse gas emissions, crises like these are increasing across the continent.

The annual Africa Climate Week hosted by Kenya and the African Union in Nairobi from 4-8 September was an opportunity to develop solutions to the crisis impacting Africa. Attended by governments, businesses, international organisations and civil society, it was the first of several regional convenings leading to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) negotiations in the United Arab Emirates later this year.

The inaugural Africa Climate Summit of African heads of state was held at the same time in Nairobi. It produced the Nairobi Declaration, which called for economic development plans to focus on climate-positive growth, and emphasised the link between the economic advancement of developing nations and their commitment to climate action.

The declaration is largely in line with Kenya’s perspective, which Cabinet Secretary Roselinda Soipan Tuya said should end the ‘blame game’ against industrialised nations, and view the crisis as a collective challenge needing investments into Africa that lead to greater global decarbonisation.

Despite the great promise of these two meetings, they failed to produce innovative ideas for effective climate adaptation. An over-emphasis on market-based solutions and the predominant involvement of Western institutions resulted in uninspired outcomes, eroding confidence in the events’ ability to truly advocate for the needs of Africa’s people.

The summit agenda lacked systems-change thinking and did not adequately tackle adaptation and recovery from already-incurred losses and damages – potentially the most pressing concern for Africans. The declaration lacked a plan of action to phase out fossil fuels, and didn’t address the environmental degradation and human rights violations in Africa due to crude oil extractions. There was also no mention of the payment of climate debt by historical polluters.

Until these pressing issues are adequately dealt with, Africa’s aspiration to lead the world in renewable energy – as set out in the Africa Climate Week and Nairobi Declaration – will not be possible.

The civil society-led ‘Real Africa Climate Summit’ ran concurrently with these two gatherings in Nairobi. The ‘People’s Assembly’ provided an alternative vision that directly challenged the economics-first approaches of Climate Week. The civil society focus was largely on how to put ‘African people in the driver’s seat of the climate and development action agenda.’ It platformed the voices of marginalised groups most at risk of climate-related effects, including farmers, indigenous people, youth and women.

While world leaders at the heads of state summit tried to make space for African leadership in an inhospitable global economic order, the People’s Assembly proposed an African solution and criticised the private sector-led global north-driven climate agenda. This overlapping discourse highlights the pressing need for an African position at COP28 that is both economically conscious and people-powered.

The disconnect between civil society and political leadership was clear throughout the week. Civil society warned that Africa Climate Week and the Africa Climate Summit should not just reiterate Western approaches of carbon markets and carbon sequestration, which are ‘false solutions … led by western interests.’ But Kenya’s President William Ruto put his weight behind carbon markets and said Africa’s carbon sinks were an ‘unparalleled economic goldmine.’

Activists argued that these markets would not decrease global greenhouse gas emissions and would encroach on African sovereignty through land concessions. Industrialised countries’ extractive measures to procure fossil fuels in Africa and a global carbon market scheme could lead to a ‘green colonialism’ that neither addresses the climate crisis’ causes nor benefits the millions of people living with its effects.

Solutions require moving away from practices that have led to the global climate crisis, including a phase-out of fossil fuels altogether. Africa urgently needs new models that centre adaptation measures for the continent’s 33 million smallholder farmers, 30-million Africans living within flood hazard zones, and the estimated 140-million facing climate-related acute food insecurity.

Ahead of COP28, Africa needs a stronger negotiating position that does not rely on market solutions that have the potential to re-colonise Africa. The continent must emphasise the UN principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities,’ and move away from the extractive exchanges that continue to disadvantage Africa.

It is clear that the old models no longer work. By prioritising and amplifying the expertise and interests of Africa’s people, countries on the continent can succeed in redefining discussions on economic growth, development and climate change.

Africa is well positioned to lead talks about new solutions at COP28. But the continent must present a united front that champions equitable responsibility, resilience to climate impacts, and the needs of people and vulnerable communities. Whether these goals can be met by a continent contending with pressing security and economic concerns remains to be seen.

Written by Ilhan Dahir, Senior Researcher, Climate Risk and Human Security, ISS Nairobi