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Africa wants its climate money. Will rich countries pay?

Sanfo Karim sits next to his pump-irrigated farm in Burkina Faso, which is classified as one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on earth in ND-GAIN rankings.

  • This year’s U.N. climate conference, set to be held in Egypt, is being seen by negotiators and climate advocates in Africa as an opportunity to push the continent’s needs up to the top of the agenda.
  • The conference will take place as a new analysis shows that wealthy countries are falling far short of their commitments to finance climate coping strategies in Africa.
  • Negotiators from the African bloc are pushing for an agreement on “loss and damage” funding, which has been described as a form of climate reparations, to be reached at the conference.

In just over a month, the world will gather in Egypt for the United Nations’ annual climate summit. This will be the 27th Conference of Parties, or COP, which has met every year since 1995 to negotiate international climate action. Once attended mostly by meteorologists and other scientists, as the impacts of climate change have become undeniable the gathering has grown in significance. Trillion-dollar financial commitments and major energy initiatives are now unveiled at each COP — however effective they wind up proving in the long run.

This year’s summit is the first on the African continent since 2017, when it was held in Morocco. For negotiators and climate advocates based there, many of whom are deeply frustrated with the direction of international climate policy, COP27 is a crucial opportunity to make Africa’s case for more financing and support. And for their wealthy-country counterparts, distracted by geopolitical crises as they may be, the window is narrowing to prove that they’re willing to turn sympathetic rhetoric into a plan of action for the continent.

Despite producing less than 4% of the world’s carbon emissions, on the whole Africa is already facing some of the worst and most tangible effects of climate change so far. Temperatures on the continent have risen at a faster pace than the global average, and this year alone a warming climate has been linked to devastating tropical storms in Madagascar and Mozambique, flooding in South Africa, and one of the worst droughts ever seen in the Horn of Africa. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation estimates that 40 million people in Africa could be pushed into extreme poverty by 2030 due to the ripple effects of climate change.

For years, climate negotiators who represent the world’s wealthy countries have promised African and other low-income countries that they would come up with the funds needed to cope with the crisis. And for years, they’ve fallen short of their pledges. Patience is now wearing thin, with negotiators representing the African bloc saying it’s long past time for countries that have produced the bulk of carbon emissions to stop pushing the costs of climate change onto the world’s poor.

“Climate change is happening, and it’s affecting our countries. People are losing their lives and properties, so let’s leave the political negotiations aside, accept the science, and take action,” said Gabriel Kpaka, director of the Sierra Leone Meteorological Society and a climate negotiator who represents least-developed countries.

Displaced persons flee the aftereffects of 2019’s Cyclone Idai in Mozambique. Image by Denis Onyodi for IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Frustrations over the pace of rich-country financing for Africa has been a part of the international climate policy landscape for years. In 2009, those countries promised to provide $100 billion a year in financing to help low-income countries implement their climate plans. By even the most generous accounting, they’ve fallen far short of that pledge. OECD figures show that the highest single-year total was in 2019, when less than $80 billion was delivered; in other years, it’s been closer to $50 billion. And even those figures might be overinflated, depending on how they’re measured.

One recent analysis of climate financing for Africa carried out by the Climate Policy Initiative, for example, calculated that inflows to countries on the continent stand at only around $30 billion per year — just a tenth of the $277 billion per year they need to address climate change. And a large chunk of that funding is being given in the form of loans, which add to large preexisting debt burdens.

“We found that loans dominated grants by nearly two-to-one as a share of total financing,” said Chavi Meattle, one of the report’s co-authors.

In the parlance of climate finance, there are two primary categories of activity that receive international funding: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation covers projects and actions that are expected to reduce emissions, like building renewable energy grids or providing alternatives to forest-destroying charcoal production. Adaptation is about dealing with the unavoidable consequences of climate change ahead of time, like creating resilient food production systems that can withstand drought and erratic rainfall.

Much of the debt being accrued via climate financing falls into the mitigation category, since it’s where the profits are: solar panels require capital investment, but will eventually generate revenue. Adaptation, on the other hand, typically attracts less interest from investors since helping a community build a seawall or an irrigation system isn’t likely to be a moneymaker. Yet, for people who are most likely to deal with the immediate effects of climate change, having the resources to develop a coping strategy ahead of time could be a matter of life and death.

According to CPI’s research, fully funding Africa’s mitigation needs would cost $1.6 trillion by 2030, along with an additional $580 billion for adaptation and $242 billion for “dual benefit” measures. Those numbers could well be an underestimate — nobody knows for certain what the costs of climate change will be in the long run.

“We need more analysis at the country level that’s similar to what we’ve done at a global or regional level so countries can understand where they stand and what the opportunities or gaps are,” Meattle said.

The debate over how much Africa is owed by countries that caused the climate crisis doesn’t typically reach the top of the agenda at COPs, but that’s not for lack of effort by the continent’s negotiators. In addition to adaptation and mitigation, a third category of climate finance has picked up steam in recent years as its supporters push for it to be placed at the center of international policy: loss and damage.

Sometimes called the “third pillar” of climate change — or, occasionally, “climate reparations” — loss and damage payments would be intended to cover the immediate costs of climate change disasters on an ongoing basis. African negotiators, along with international climate justice activists, don’t just want wealthy countries to make good on their $100 billion a year pledge — they want them to create a standing fund to compensate people whose lives have been upended by tropical storms, sea level rise, desertification and other disasters caused by climate change.

So far, countries in the Global North have staunchly resisted the inclusion of loss and damage on the climate agenda, partly due to fears that making the payments would be tantamount to an admission of legal liability for climate change. At last year’s COP26, China and the G77 group of less-industrialized nations, which collectively represent about 80% of the world’s population, pressed for the creation of a standing loss and damage fund. The proposal was defeated after strong resistance by the U.S., EU, and others.

“Wealthy countries have been blocking the issue of loss and damage finance for over 30 years now,” said Lyndsay Walsh, a climate policy adviser with Oxfam. “It is unbelievable that in 2022, the same year that the IPCC starkly laid out how losses and damages are already happening and disproportionately affecting those living in poverty, finance for loss and damage is not even a permanent agenda item.”

In a widely shared clip from New York City’s climate week, which took place alongside the U.N. General Assembly last week, Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate excoriated representatives of wealthy countries for failing to back up what she called their “sweet nothings” with the establishment of a loss and damage fund.

“Loss and damage is happening right now, we can’t adapt to the loss of our cultures, identities, and histories,” she said.

South Sudan experienced its worst flooding in 60 years in 2021, displacing thousands. Image by Francesca Mold for UNMISS via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The increasingly urgent calls from African negotiators for wealthy countries to do more to help Africa prepare for and adjust to the effects of climate change come at a fraught geopolitical moment. Europe looks likely to fall into a recession due to sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and tensions between the U.S. and China — two of the continent’s primary aid benefactors — have been ratcheting up, potentially jeopardizing collective climate action. But many in Africa aren’t in the mood for excuses.

“The pretext is that these countries don’t have the money to [help Africa] build resilience against climate change, but that’s not true,” said Ken Henshaw, a Nigerian environmental activist who works with communities in the Niger Delta. “It’s because they don’t consider it to be as important as other things.”

Some governments complain that even when grants are made available by donors and international institutions, the requirements are challenging and lengthy. Then, when funds do arrive, they’re often placed in the hands of international development agencies like the UNDP rather than the government itself.

“Under mechanisms set up by the UNFCCC, we can get funding to implement our projects. But the rules can be so cumbersome. Sometimes you send your project proposals and it can be one, two, three, or four years before it’s approved,” Kpaka said. “The disbursement of funding to [least-developed countries] is very, very slow.”

Proponents of a loss and damage fund say their countries shouldn’t have to beg for help every time a climate-related disaster hits, especially since the countries they’re asking are at least partly to blame. The incremental and often glacial pace of climate action, along with their limited power at the bargaining table, can be exasperating for negotiators who are seeing the worsening effects of climate change at home firsthand.

“It’s really frustrating,” Kpaka said. “Sometimes after a negotiation I go back to my hotel and can’t sleep, you know? You get pissed off. But there’s nothing you can do, you have to go back.”

West Africa’s largest solar photovoltaic farm, the 50MW Kita solar power plant in Mali. Image by Akuo Energy.

Details surrounding climate finance and aid negotiations can be difficult to follow for casual observers. Dense proposals for mobilizing private sector investment, or debates over which aid packages can be counted as climate finance, are often maddeningly byzantine.

For some, this complexity obscures the true terms of the negotiations along with the history they’re ultimately rooted in. Nearly all of the countries that are being asked to open their checkbooks are former colonial powers that built their economies through easy access to cheap resources — often in Africa — and which are almost wholly responsible for the damage they’re now reluctant to pay for.

Funding the development of renewable energy in African countries and compensating them for climate change-related disasters, many on the continent say, is a matter of justice, not charity.

“For me, the politics of climate change are a repeat of the same old nasty, unfair colonial politics, simply put,” Henshaw said.

Banner image: Sanfo Karim sits next to his pump-irrigated farm in Burkina Faso, which is classified as one of the most climate-vulnerable countries on earth in ND-GAIN rankings. Image by Olliver Girard for CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).