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Africa must be positioned front and centre at upcoming COP27 talks, not sidelined

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Mshai Mkoji is COP27 Project Manager at the African Climate Foundation.

Africa needs to be unshackled from old forms of climate diplomacy and position itself as a centre of innovation, where both climate-resilient and other transition solutions are trialled and tested to shape a new development pathway.

In five months, the world will meet in Egypt for the annual global climate talks: COP27. You’ve heard about it every year and every year it seems as though little changes. Developed and developing nations can never quite agree on who is responsible for what.

In the gridlock that ensues, we lose sight of a much larger prize: the economic opportunities we can unlock for both investors and developing countries by putting development at the centre.  

The problem is that the Paris Agreement — and every COP that has come and gone — has failed to build a bridge between the climate imperative and the economic development imperative.   

That’s why we need a very different COP from those that have come before: we need a COP that puts development at its core. But to do that we need to hear what those developmental needs are — from those who know it best. Yet voices from the developing world have been sidelined for too long. 

Africans are not being heard

This is particularly true in Africa, as I’ve written previously. Those at the forefront of discussing African climate issues tend to be people outside of the continent, research has found. And our experts aren’t being drawn on enough. Reuters recently released its much talked about “Hot List” of “the world’s top climate scientists”. Of the 1,000 people listed, only five were from Africa

That’s a problem — and not just because it just looks bad in terms of representation and inclusivity. There’s a real cost associated with this lack of diversity. By excluding these voices, we’re losing out on hearing more informed ideas and solutions to a crisis that needs us to all come to the table in equal measure.  

Consider this: last year South Africa was able to leverage its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) into a platform to secure large-scale climate finance. Before that NDCs — countries’ climate action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts — were largely seen as simply a set of targets. Tying these to investment opportunities was a game-changer. The country’s watershed multi-billion-dollar climate finance deal created a dramatic shift in how we think about country platforms and NDC targets.   

The continent’s enormous potential

For too long, Africa’s role has been reduced to that of an effective beggar at these talks. The vast opportunities that the continent offers potential investors are lost in this framing. Developed economies have hit a ceiling, but ours has plenty of room to grow, plus we bring our enormous resource base to the table — in terms of our actual minerals and resources, and our human capital as the youngest population in the world.  

Combine that with the nascent nature of new technology waves from renewables, electric vehicles and green hydrogen production, and Africa offers a winning proposition to investors from developed countries.

So, it’s time to shift the narrative. Advanced economies and blocs like the EU have already done so — they’ve gone beyond a siloed environmental and emissions-only perspective since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.   

Instead, the EU’s Green Deal has overtly economic aims: making Europe the leader in new technology and making decarbonised sectors the new standard for competitiveness. They’ve achieved this through several interventions: from scaling clean solutions to penalising flows of carbon-intensive goods into Europe.   

Africa too needs to be unshackled from old forms of climate diplomacy. The upcoming COP27 can help achieve this by pivoting discussions on adaptation and climate finance to larger questions of economic trajectories and competitiveness.  

Think: using climate finance to catalyse other sources of finance. This will create an opportunity-filled COP that will not only meet emission targets, but tackle economy-wide challenges such as green industrial development and manufacturing, enhance employment and, in those countries that are fossil fuel dependent, embark on a just transition.   

Broken promises on finance

Climate finance continues to remain a sticking point at climate talks, especially when it emerged that rich countries had not kept up their end of the bargain. In 2009 the developed world committed to transfer $100-billion a year to the developing world to aid its transition to low-carbon economies by 2020. That target was missed.  

Imagine if these countries understood the returns on investment that would come with that financing. Would they still be dodging their responsibilities and commitments?

Africa needs to position itself as a centre of innovation, where both climate-resilient and other transition solutions are trialled and tested to shape a new development pathway.

We should stop seeing this as a cost but rather an opportunity to co-create growth with new types of environmentally oriented investments; ones that are integrated with global and regional economies and support economic diversification, entrepreneurship and job creation.

We can craft a new world, one that is ripe with opportunity — together. DM

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