At Africa’s First Climate Summit, a Clear Call to the World: Invest in Us

Heads of state from across Africa concluded an inaugural climate summit on Wednesday in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, by issuing a declaration that called for an urgent restructuring of the way wealthier nations engage with the continent.

The declaration stressed numerous times that rather than being a hapless victim, Africa was primed for leadership on clean energy and environmental stewardship. But to make that happen, the statement said, the world’s industrialized countries, which are largely responsible for the pollution that is causing climate change, must first unlock access to their wealth through investments, instead of relegating their contributions to aid when disasters strike.

This lack of financing is one of the biggest issues dividing rich and poor nations as the world struggles to slash carbon dioxide emissions. It will be one of the main points of contention at the United Nations global climate summit starting Nov. 30 in Dubai. The historic gathering in Nairobi was partly an effort by poorer nations to amplify their argument.

At the event, investors announced what amounted to around $23 billion that would go toward projects including solar microgrids, carbon markets and reforestation. But it was unclear how much of that money represented commitments, as opposed to intentions.

Kenya’s president, William Ruto, who acted as the summit’s host and master of ceremonies, said that Africa had 60 percent of the world’s renewable energy potential and nearly a third of the minerals crucial to electrifying industries that are currently dependent on planet-warming fossil fuels. Meanwhile, 600 million people in Africa have little or no access to electricity.

“We must go green fast, before industrializing, and not vice versa,” Mr. Ruto said.

Multinational lending institutions have long considered many African countries too risky for investments in infrastructure like renewable energy because of concerns about economic mismanagement and heavy debt loads, coupled with issues like corruption and conflict.

The document, called the Nairobi Declaration, said it would serve as “a basis for Africa’s common position” ahead of the United Nations-sponsored climate talks in Dubai later this year.

The summit drew tens of thousands of delegates from around the world to East Africa’s commercial hub. Its events, which took place in the Kenyatta International Convention Center, downtown Nairobi’s most iconic building, an Afro-modernist skyscraper built in the 1970s, had the feel of a trade fair, except that the main audience was banks, private equity firms, philanthropies and donor governments.

Those potential investors, and particularly Western ones, were being asked to put their money where their mouth is.

Despite pledges in the past to infuse more than $100 billion in climate-related financing to the world’s least developed countries, the wealthy world has fallen far short of those targets while plowing trillions of dollars into renewable energy in their own countries.

“An injustice burns at the heart of the climate crisis, and its flame is scorching hopes and possibilities here in Africa,” said António Guterres, the U.N. Secretary General, who was one of many international dignitaries in attendance.

The tension underlying the summit was clear in speech after speech in which African leaders lamented the lack of urgency in fulfilling financing pledges.

The United Arab Emirates, one of the world’s main oil producers and host of the annual U.N. climate conference this year, made some of the largest commitments, including $4.5 billion toward clean energy and $450 million in carbon credits, though the fine print on the latter indicated it was a “nonbinding letter of intent.” The U.A.E. is seeking to recast itself as a renewable energy superpower.

Some African countries have long relied on renewable energy for most of their power generation. In Kenya, Mr. Ruto said, more than 90 percent of electricity is renewable, largely from geothermal sources in the Great Rift Valley.

But outside the halls of the convention center, Kenyans were asking tougher questions about whom the conference and its lofty goals really served.

“The energy discussion masks our economic crisis,” said Mordecai Ogada, an author and a leading Kenyan voice on environmental issues.

“Yes, we get most of our electricity from renewables. But we pay foreign companies to generate that power exorbitantly in foreign currency,” he said. “Manufacturing has become expensive, which drives inflation. As far as the lives of Kenyans are concerned, the source of energy is completely immaterial.”

Kenya’s currency has lost around a third of its value against the dollar over the past two years, and Mr. Ruto has raised taxes on gas and on small businesses that have deepened a cost-of-living crisis. More than eight out of 10 Kenyans live on less than five dollars a day, according to the World Bank.

The summit’s message of unity was undercut somewhat because the top leaders from some of Africa’s largest economies, including Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia and Egypt, didn’t attend. Leaders from countries that recently experienced coups, or that are embroiled in conflicts, like Sudan, Niger and Gabon, were also not present. And despite taking a leading role in past climate discussions, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi, also did not attend.

At the heart of the attendees’ request to the world was “concessional” finance — essentially, loans at below-market interest rates and with more lenient timelines for repayment. Huge amounts of concessional finance could in the near future come from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, among other large lenders, if they follow through on promised reforms to the way they assess risk and incorporate climate considerations in their loan structuring.

“As recently as eight months ago, it was still a debate on the World Bank board as to whether climate investments were a trade-off with economic development,” said a senior U.S. Treasury official attending the summit, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with Treasury Department protocol.

The official said that nearly $50 billion in funding that could go toward concessional finance from the United States via multilateral development banks was pending congressional approval. President Biden has said he wants Congress to earmark more than $11 billion for climate aid, but he managed to get only $1 billion in the last budget.

The official and others with experience working in those lending institutions pointed to the recent change of leadership at the World Bank as a likely accelerator of internal reforms geared toward releasing hundreds of billions of dollars in climate-positive investments in the world’s lesser-developed countries.

“The reason multilateral development banks were created was to take on these kind of risks, global ones,” said Andrew Steer, who worked for years in the World Bank’s risk department, and now heads the Bezos Earth Fund, a philanthropy founded by Jeff Bezos.

Instead, they became ever more cautious about protecting their credit ratings. That trend has finally begun to reverse, Mr. Steer said. “The special sauce is momentum — building a sense that the things banks thought were risky aren’t as much as they thought,” he said. “And as this summit shows, we are gathering speed.”

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