Regional solutions on climate change

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Tuesday 9 Aug 2022

The first of a series of regional roundtables on climate change took place this week with a view to gathering recommendations and listing projects in the run-up to the COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh.


The presidency of the UN COP27 Climate Conference, in collaboration with the UN and climate leaders, has taken the unprecedented initiative of arranging for five regional forums to meet in August and September to prepare for the conference that takes place in Sharm El-Sheikh in November.  

The first of these was held last week in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Organised by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the activities took place over three days and were attended by 400 representatives of African governments, the private sector, financial institutions, consultative bureaus, and civil society organisations. 

The initiative aims to furnish practical proof that climate-change mitigation and adaptation efforts can provide solutions to current global crises, especially rising food and energy prices, and that funding climate action can offer excellent opportunities for investment. Fighting climate change does not have to come at the expense of heavier debt burdens on developing countries that are already reeling beneath large amounts of debt. 

The developing nations have been severely disadvantaged by an approach that reduces sustainability to lowering greenhouse-gas emissions and carbon-pricing and that limits the amount of funding they need for mitigation and adaptation efforts to just $100 billion a year. That is the amount the developed nations pledged in Copenhagen in 2009, and they have yet to meet this commitment in full. 

It is on a par with the innumerable pledges made by various government, business, and financial sectors, which have become proficient in producing buzzwords about making the land green and the oceans blue again and bringing the planet’s temperature down. Then come the scientific reports warning that the world is way off target and that the goal of keeping the planet’s temperature from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius higher than it was at the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution may be getting out of reach. 

The African countries as a whole account for no more than three per cent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. This is not because they have suddenly adopted technologies compatible with the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Rather, the low figure speaks of a continent-wide tragedy of declining production and consumption rates while prevailing technologies remain largely unchanged. 

Surely, the world’s poorest continent should not be expected to remain mired in a degree of poverty in which half of its people are deprived of electricity and clean energy. Out of every four persons in the world without electricity, three are Africans. While the EU has justified its own use of natural gas as a “transitional” energy source, African countries are greeted with frowns for wanting to use their natural gas resources, even though this would not increase their emissions by more than half a percentage point, bringing their contribution to total harmful emissions to 3.5 per cent.  

To make the point clearer, we need only compare the African to the developed nations in terms of per capita share of carbon emissions. For example, the per capita carbon emissions of Chad, Niger, and the Central African Republic do not exceed ten per cent of a single ton of carbon. This is 160 times less than the per capita share in the US and Australia and 55 per cent less the rate in France and the UK. 

This is not about a contest over who takes first prize in harming the climate. The idea is to promote a process of inclusive and balanced growth for developing countries that engages technologies compatible with achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2015 Paris Agreement and that ensures the equitable and efficient management of energy. Without such a process, the developing nations will achieve neither growth nor development.  

These priorities were translated into themes for the sessions and workshops held at the first African Regional Roundtable on Climate Initiatives, the title of which was “Towards COP27: African Regional Forum on Climate Initiatives to Finance Climate Action and the SDGs.” They included equitable energy transition, food security, carbon markets, digital transformation, the blue economy, and water and urban management.

In addition to discussing general policy frameworks for the investments needed in these six vital areas, the participants reviewed 19 concrete projects out of a list of 140 proposals submitted by African governments, institutions, and NGOs, as well as the African Union (AU), the African Development Bank, and various investment banks operating in the continent. 

The selection was made by a working group consisting of representatives from the Boston Consulting Group, the African Climate Pioneers Group, and the Glasgow Net-Zero Alliance, commonly known as Gfanz and that brings together 450 organisations representing $130 trillion in assets that the alliance oversees or advises on. A major feature of the projects is that 70 per cent of them have an African regional dimension with benefits transcending the borders of the country hosting the investment.

Renewable energy projects, green hydrogen, and carbon emissions containment and reduction technologies received the lion’s share of attention in the discussions at the African Roundtable. These also show promising investment opportunities in collaboration with three investment banks that have already expressed interest in taking the projects forward to the planning, timetabling, and budgeting phases. The UN Economic Commission for Africa’s economic committee, headed by Vera Songwe, will follow up on the pledges in this regard and announce progress at the COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. 

More generally, the discussions at the African Regional Roundtable underscored the need for the forthcoming Climate Conference to prioritise previously made binding pledges and commitments. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, president-designate of the COP27, affirmed in his speech that this would indeed be one of the conference’s priorities. Other African officials stressed the importance of ensuring that climate measures are in line with the SDGs. UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohamed pointed out that the measures should simultaneously address current crises, especially soaring food and fuel prices. 

As I said in my speech at the closing session, the event had brought together participants who would rarely meet under one roof otherwise. I spoke of the need for collaboration and partnerships in fostering and funding development projects. I identified isolated islands: some with access to willing and sufficient funding sources but without projects that show the feasibility that merits funding, and others responsible for investing in production and infrastructure that announce opportunities for development projects in this or that field but then are unable to find serious funders. 

The solution is to build bridges and close the information gaps between these disparate islands, making it possible for supply to meet demand. Then intentions can then be put to the test and carried out. As a folk saying in Egypt goes, “here’s the camel, and here’s the rider.” Only when you bring the two together can you assess the credibility of advertised skills and prowess. In this case we might think of the camel riders as being the authors of projects proposed in energy, infrastructure, agricultural production, and water resource management, for example, and the camels as the much-needed funding sources to make them work. 

Unfortunately, the huge amount of investments required dwarves the modest Copenhagen pledges. The $100 billion per year pledged then barely meets five per cent of the developing nations’ actual needs for climate mitigation and adaptation. Clearly this situation demands a review and a search for additional public and private financing. 

In the process, it is important to bear in mind the need to avoid encumbering developing nations with further debt as much as possible. This means prioritising investment, grants, and facilitated loans as a last resort. It also means optimising opportunities to promote innovative and integrated financing, debt-reduction in exchange for climate action, and the development of carbon markets commensurate to the needs of developing countries. All such topics were discussed at the roundtable sessions. 

The winning horse (or camel) in the climate race will be the one that invests in people and their skills in the technology sectors, especially digitisation and digital infrastructure. The interdependence between technology and sustainability is now self-evident. It is particularly essential to minimising the cost of producing energy from renewable sources and developing means to reduce carbon emissions. This in turn requires an integrated strategy that capitalises on the advances of the digital age. 

The African Regional Roundtable with its vibrant discussions and exciting proposals was a very fruitful experience. In the coming weeks, four other regional forums will follow hosted by the UN Social and Economic Commission regional headquarters in Bangkok (Asia), Santiago (Latin American and the Caribbean), Beirut (West Asia), and Geneva (Europe). The results of these and their recommendations and lists of projects they nominate for investment will be presented at the COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, which will work to promote the implementation of the pledges. 

* An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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