What to Watch at the First Africa Climate Summit
Solar mini-grids are a solution offering low-cost access to reliable power in communities across Africa. Photo: Sebastian Noethlichs/Shutterstock

Climate change is already having a significant impact on Africa’s ecosystems, economy and society. This year alone, 1.8 million Africans were displaced during a prolonged drought, the Democratic Republic of Congo experienced catastrophic flooding, and Cyclone Freddy left a trail of destruction in Malawi and Mozambique. And these kinds of devastating events are expected to worsen as temperatures rise.   

Yet just as Africa is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, so, too, can the continent be a big part of the solution. Africa’s abundant natural resources, youthful population, critical minerals and arable land offer many opportunities to drive low-carbon green growth and spur climate action throughout the continent and the world. Visions of what this green growth could look like are expected to emerge at the Africa Climate Summit in Kenya next week.

What to Expect from the First Africa Climate Summit

The world’s first Africa Climate Summit, hosted by Kenya and co-organized with the African Union, will take place September 4-6, 2023, providing a space for Africa’s multi-faceted voices on climate solutions to convene. It’s a major moment for the future of climate action in Africa — not only because it is the first summit of its kind, but because it is anticipated to yield a roadmap for low-carbon development throughout the continent. By the end of the conference, African governments are expected to sign on to a “Nairobi Declaration on Climate Change,” detailing numerous commitments for renewable energy development, sustainable agriculture, forest conservation and more.

If ambitious, the Nairobi Declaration can help spur momentum for climate action heading into the UN’s Africa Climate Week (September 4th – 8th) and subsequent regional climate weeks, the UN General Assembly and G20 meetings at the end of September, and the UN climate summit (COP28) in November 2023. It will also set the first formal green growth agenda in Africa that can position the continent as a globally powerful climate solutions hub.

A woman tends to her cassava field. Additional climate finance is essential for African farmers and others to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Photo: golero/iStock 

5 Issues to Watch at the Africa Climate Summit

Both the Africa Climate Summit and UN Africa Climate Week will provide a platform for policymakers, practitioners, businesses and civil society to exchange ideas on climate solutions, overcome barriers and put forward bold new plans. But for the discussions and resulting Nairobi Declaration to be successful, it will be particularly important to make progress on five key issues:

1) Climate finance for adaptation and loss and damage

The African continent is heating up faster than any other place on Earth, with impacts in the form of withering drought, lost crops, famine and more. Research shows that Africa will require $579 billion in funding for adaptation through 2030, yet the world provided only $11.4 billion on average annually for the continent in 2019 and 2020, with most funds coming from the public sector.

Meanwhile, Africa’s share of global debt rose from approximately 19% in 2010 to nearly 29% in 2022. Countries are being forced to direct a greater share of their budgets toward servicing debt at the expense of financing their development and building climate resilience.

The Africa Climate Summit and Africa Climate Week present opportunities for a consolidated push towards finance reforms for climate and sustainable development. African leaders are already calling for a new global finance deal that serves the continent’s growth goals and allows it to effectively mitigate and adapt to climate change. The summit represents the only forum where every African country has an opportunity to have its voice heard on this debate.

We expect civil society and other groups to also push wealthy nations to honor the climate finance commitments they have already made, such as their pledge to provide $100 billion in climate finance annually by 2020, double the amount of finance for adaptation, and establish a dedicated fund for countries grappling with unavoidable losses and damages from climate change.  

2) Africa’s energy transition

Access to clean, affordable and reliable power is essential for human health, education and economic prosperity. Yet in 2021, only 50.6% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa had access to electricity, with varying rates per country. What Africa requires is a balance between urgently increasing access to electricity and building out low-carbon energy systems for the future.

Solar mini-grids are a solution offering low-cost access to reliable power and have great potential to reach underserved rural areas. At the same time, AlgeriaEgyptMorocco and South Africa are developing the continent’s largest utility-scale solar power plants, while Namibia launched a mega-hydrogen power project in May 2023.

But scaling up both distributed and larger, centralized clean energy resources — as well as the physical infrastructure, policies, jobs and skills that go with them — will require significant investment. Investment in clean energy technologies globally is now beginning to rival that spent on fossil fuels, but Africa still accounts for less than 1% of the $434 billion invested globally.

Discussions on how to mobilize development finance and private capital for clean energy solutions at scale across the continent will be on the table at the Africa Climate Summit, with announcements of major renewable energy initiatives and investments expected.

3) Equitable and sustainable cities

Research shows that avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change requires that all cities be carbon-neutral by mid-century. This goal will be particularly difficult to achieve in Africa, where urban residents face vast inequities and populations are growing rapidly.

The population of Africa’s cities is expected to double by 2050, reaching 1.5 billion people. Three-quarters of the infrastructure that will exist in these cities by mid-century has yet to be built. It’s essential that this development is not only low-carbon and climate-resilient, but also enhances access to essential services such as running water and sanitation, electricity, decent housing, transport, and dignified, healthy urban jobs.

It’s imperative that discussions at the Africa Climate Summit and the Nairobi Declaration lay out actions that will scale up low-carbon initiatives to help cities become more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Among other things, we expect announcements on investments in e-mobility as a way to reduce emissions and improve air quality in cities.

4) Critical minerals and other clean energy resources

As countries around the world transition to low-carbon economies, they’ll need increasing amounts of critical minerals like lithium, graphite, cobalt and more to make electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines and solar panels. Africa holds about 30% of the world’s mineral resources, alongside abundant clean energy resources that can serve as the foundation for clean industries and commodities. But strong resource governance is essential for ensuring that Africa’s people directly derive the benefits of these resources.

At the African Climate Summit, leaders are expected to call for restrictions on the export of unprocessed critical minerals to help drive investments towards local industries, following in the footsteps of countries like Namibia and Ghana. Discussions should identify incentives for local processing to both decarbonize the critical minerals value chain and spur economic development. We also expect civil society groups to demand that the exploitation of critical minerals be done in ways that are safe for society and the environment.   

5) Nature-based approaches to sustainable agriculture, biodiversity and carbon sinks

Africa is home to remarkable biodiversity, by virtue of its remarkably diverse landscapes — tropical forests, savannahs, grasslands, mangroves, deserts, wetlands and more. These ecological systems support both rural and urban life across the continent. The Great Rift Valley’s many lakes, favorable climate, and rich soils, for example, provide food and livelihoods for more than 12 million people in the Horn of Africa.

Africa’s ecosystems also benefit the world. The Congo Basin tropical forest is one of the largest carbon sinks, storing around 29 billion tons of carbon, roughly 3 times the world’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.   

However nature and biodiversity in Africa are threatened by the rapid expansion of agriculture, soil depletion, trade of illegal forest commodities, and an insatiable demand for fuelwood for cooking. Investments in solutions to restore and sustain healthy landscapes are crucial for African communities, its ecosystems, its economy, and the world at large. At the Africa Climate Summit, we expect renewed commitments by governments to halt biodiversity loss and landscape degradation.

The Africa Climate Summit Is a Starting Point

This inaugural Africa Climate Summit is a crucial moment for the continent’s collective effort towards climate action and a low-carbon green growth agenda. We’ll need definitive outcomes, as well as a Nairobi Declaration that places people, climate and nature at its core.

But it’s imperative that the close of the Africa Climate Summit act as a starting point — not a finish line. Creating a roadmap and implementing the Nairobi Declaration will depend on the political goodwill of Africa’s leaders and the ability of the world to mobilize the financing and enabling environment required for its operationalization. It will also require the ongoing engagement of non-state actors, including civil society and the private sector.   

Africa has been seen as a victim of climate change for far too long. This Africa Climate Summit is about demonstrating and articulating the investment opportunity that African solutions represent for the continent and for the world. It’s time for leaders to show that Africa is one of Earth’s greatest climate solutions.

This article originally appeared on WRI’s Insights.

Wanjira Mathai is Managing Director for Africa and Global Partnerships at WRI.

Rebekah Shirley is Deputy Director for Africa at WRI.

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