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Op-Eds Oct 03, 2022

Five Hard Truths for African Leaders at COP27

Originally published in the Continent, October 1, 2022. The shadow of Europe’s energy crisis – and the rich…

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Originally published in the Continent, October 1, 2022.

The shadow of Europe’s energy crisis – and the rich world’s resurgent hunger for fossil fuels – looms over COP27 to be held in Egypt in November. With COP27 hosted on the African continent, expectations are high that the summit will finally deliver for a region where energy shortages are not just bad this year, but a chronic obstacle to economic development. Debates are raging over the adequacy of climate finance, the responsibilities of high emitters to the most vulnerable countries, and investment rules for natural gas. This should be Africa’s year to get the best deal possible. But it is evident that African and European views are sharply diverging over the shape and ambition of the continent’s energy transition.

African negotiators are now at great risk of making a major tactical mistake if they cede ownership of their technology choices in exchange for vague new pledges of climate cash. In May, ten African energy ministers endorsed a higher 1,000 kWh per person electricity goal and declared gas to be a transition fuel. In July, the African Union Commission adopted a similar assertive common position on the energy transition. But some African climate activists and negotiators have pushed back out of a concern that a fight at COP over gas financing would distract from other issues like pledges for more climate finance and compensation for climate-related damage. For African leaders, giving up control over their energy future would be a moral and strategic surrender. Here are five hard truths that explain why:

1. Rich countries will always prioritize their own energy security over climate…

All countries have to balance multiple national goals, but when push comes to shove, energy prices and domestic jobs have always superseded emissions cuts – a phenomenon that one political scientist calls the Iron Law of climate policy. That explains why, just months after pledging aggressive timelines for reaching net zero emissions, Germany restarted its coal plants, Norway ramped up gas production, and other Europeans scrambled to secure long term gas contracts. Germany’s Chancellor even traveled to Senegal, in part to secure his country’s access to West African gas. Whatever is pledged at climate summits, rich countries themselves are not yet abandoning gas.

2. …yet rich countries will nevertheless continue to object to Africans accessing financing for gas projects on climate grounds.

Prior to the Ukraine crisis, the remaining tolerance for financing gas projects in Africa was growing thin. The World Bank stopped investing in upstream oil and gas in 2019, while agreeing to allow exceptions for some downstream gas projects under certain stringent conditions. In 2021, influential European shareholders proposed sunsetting all gas exceptions by 2025 on climate grounds. Of course, none of these policies – designed deliberately to dissuade poor countries from building infrastructure for gas-fired power, fertilizer production, or cooking gas – applied to rich countries. And none of these policies have changed since the onset of the European energy crisis and its African gas shopping spree. The naked hypocrisy is not lost on anyone. In a candid moment, EU’s climate czar Frans Timmermans explained, “Many of our citizens in Europe will not buy [the moral] argument today because their worries are linked to their own existence in this energy crisis…”

3. A windfall of new climate finance for poor countries is not happening…

At the 2009 COP, rich countries promised to mobilize an additional $100 billion per year in climate finance for poor countries. Not only has that figure never been reached, little of the billions reported as climate funding is actually new. Most are just standard aid projects relabeled for climate. Indeed, the whole notion of massive flexible transfers from North to South to enable countries to invest in their own climate futures has been misleading. Aid, even when additional, is mainly controlled by donors – and they aren’t giving up control. That’s why African leaders trading away policy flexibility for new promises makes little sense. Big climate checks are not coming.

4. …while rich countries will never agree to pay for loss and damages.

The ‘polluter pays’ principle means the case for massive transfers from wealthy emitters to vulnerable poor non-emitters is ethically strong. Huge amounts of resources are needed for African countries to grow their economies, repair damage, and to build climate resilience. But rich countries have already made clear that they reject the notion of legal liability for climate reparations. US special climate envoy John Kerry recently declared, “Mother Nature does not care where those emissions come from.” Some token compensation programs, like Denmark’s $13 million pledge, may be announced, but nothing of any scale – and little, if anything, will go directly to governments.

5. Thus, Africa yielding control of its own policy choices in exchange for big payouts is a recipe for failure.

The pattern at climate and development summits has become familiar: moral arm-twisting, agreeing to a large aid number, a flurry of relabeling, missed targets, finger pointing, rinse, repeat.

Conclusion: A strong common position is the only way to avoid divide-and-conquer. Some of the larger economies like South Africa and Egypt are negotiating their own energy transition packages with the major economic powers. Such deals may help those specific countries but will provide nothing for the others and could have the effect of splitting the continent and watering down demands. Africa needs a common position on the energy transition that asserts its own agency to set policies and pursue development, even if it means some countries will experience short term increases in emissions. Anything less would only widen the global inequality gap and create even worse climate injustices. Africa’s leaders must be clear-eyed about what they can get at COP27 and not trade away their peoples’ future development for more empty promises.