Energy for Growth Hub
Blog Dec 06, 2023

Where Are Africa’s Experts at COP?

Shaping Energy Transitions

It’s COP season, and with fossil fuel giant UAE hosting, COP28 is being met with more than the usual dose of cynicism and critique. On an existential level, many are starting to question the point of COP in the first place, built around a strategy of ambition cycles and competitive target setting that doesn’t seem to be delivering the follow-on actions it is intended to spur.

Over the past few years, I’ve become less interested in what happens during COP — the announcements, pledges, events, and even the negotiations. What is more interesting, and not talked about enough, is what happens before and after COP — what’s behind the flurry of announcements and pledges, who sets the agenda for discussions at COP and global climate policy more broadly, and what this means for actually tackling the climate crisis.

These are complicated questions to answer, but one angle that I’m obsessed with recently — that doesn’t get the attention that it should — is the underrepresentation of researchers from African and other developing countries in the technical processes that shape what happens at COP and beyond.

This may seem like a niche consideration — but in global climate policy, experts are much more influential than we think. Politicians, celebrities, activists, and business leaders may be the public face of climate discourse, but behind the scenes, experts play a big role in setting the terms of the debate. And Africa’s science, policy, and modeling experts should be a much, much bigger part of that process.

African Experts Are Sidelined at Every Level of the Climate Process 

Take the example of the first ever Global Stock Take (GST), which has been described as the “heart” of COP28 and the Paris climate accord. The GST is a huge technical assessment of global progress on climate change, and is intended to inspire countries to raise ambition to address the shortcomings. The findings from this technical process are at the center of political negotiations happening at COP right now. But recent findings from the think tank IDDRI found very low participation and engagement of Africans in this process, largely due to limited technical capacity and resourcing.

This issue is not unique to the GST. In fact, non-Western expertise is widely underrepresented across all the major technical processes that shape climate negotiations and other discussions at COP. Recent analysis from the Carnegie Endowment showed that at the IPCC — the body charged with providing the scientific basis for climate negotiations and policies — 61% of authors are from North America and Europe, which represent 16% of the global population. In contrast, only 9% of IPCC authors are from Africa, despite Africans making up 18% of the global population. African experts are sidelined even in their own national energy and climate plans announced at COP and other global fora, which are largely developed by external experts under the direction of foreign funders. These gaps are true not just for Africa, but many other developing countries as well.

This absence of experts from Africa and other poor countries is important, because rich and poor countries have different priorities in the energy transition. Rich countries need to decarbonize their high-emissions economies and protect high standards of living, while poor countries, who contribute least to global emissions, must create economic opportunities and build climate resilience. When experts from Africa and other poor countries are sidelined, then global energy policy and investment will largely marginalize the priorities and ambitions of the people in those regions.

On the Margins in Technical Discussions, Agenda Setting, and Achieving Our Goals

Developing countries have made significant progress expanding their influence at COP — the growing prominence of climate finance, including the more recent demands around loss and damage, is a notable example of this. In recent years, African countries have also been more vocal in their calls for agency and fair treatment at COP, which are all welcome developments.

However, this continued absence of experts from the global south in the technical processes that underpin the COP negotiations and climate action more generally undermines these efforts to give poor countries their say at COP. What we are left with is political posturing and hollow pledges, while the detailed technical thinking that can actually shape solutions is left to western countries who have different concerns entirely.

Unless African and other poor countries can participate meaningfully in technical discussions, they will remain on the margins of agenda setting at COP, and struggle to achieve their goals both at home and in global fora. This is a tragic failure for people in energy poor countries, who are already suffering the brunt of climate impacts, and also undermines the global vision of a prosperous, equitable, zero emissions future.

My colleagues and I recently shared some ideas for how to start changing this dynamic by investing in technical capacities from the ground up. I look forward to continuing this conversation with like-minded folks in 2024 once the dust has settled from COP28.

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