The Promises of COP28

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This transcript is from a CSIS podcast published on January 11, 2024. Listen to the podcast here. 

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Welcome to Into Africa, my name is Mvemba Phezo Dizolele. I'm a Senior Fellow and a Director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. This is a podcast where we talk about everything Africa. Politics, economics, security and culture. Welcome.

The United Nations Conference of the Parties, also known as COP, hosted its 28th edition, COP28 in Dubai, from November 30th to December 12th. The conference offered Africa a wide range of opportunities. Some of Africa's wins at the COP28 include the passage of the loss and damage fund. Climate change negotiators agreed to allocate over $700 million towards the loss and damage fund to support climate mitigation and recovery. United Arab Emirates committed $100 million to the fund, Germany $100 million. The United Kingdom committed 40 million euro and Japan committed $10 million. The United States, not to be outdone, committed $17.5 million.

Even though the loss and damage fund promises an actionable step toward climate mitigation, Africa will require between 290 and $440 billion between 2020 and 2030 to finance loss and damage needs, which went to the huge gap between what's been promised and the reality on the ground. For instance, in 2009 during COP15 in Copenhagen, developed nations pledged to mobilize $100 billion annually to support developing countries in tackling the global climate crisis, while considering the needs and priorities of developed nations. However, the developed nations in questions have barely honored those pledges. Africa's climate financial needs remain acutely underserved and yet, the impacts of climate change continue to pose unprecedented threat to the continent.

We need to remember that Africa plays a critical role in global decarbonization. Africa's forests, particularly the Congo Basin rainforest is the largest carbon sink, absorbing 4% of global carbon emissions. Africa is also endowed with the largest shares of rare earth minerals, such as lithium and cobalt, essential to climate energy transition. About 70% of the world's cobalt used for batteries in mobile phones and electric cars comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a significant percentage comes from Madagascar. Countries such as Zimbabwe and Namibia have among the largest lithium reserves in the world. These minerals are critical for clean energy transition, if countries are to achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degree centigrade above pre-industrial period.

Some questions then have been asked: What did African countries expect to get out of COP28? The UAE consensus calls on parties to transition away from fossil fuels. How will phasing out of fossil fuels affect African countries? How has the climate finance gap impaired climate adaptation and mitigation in Africa? Of what consequence is the loss and damage fund? And what is the correlation between Africa's debt burden and climate finance gap?

Joining me on Into Africa to help address some of these questions is Denis Owiny, a graduate student at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C., and an intern at the Africa Program here at CSIS. Denis just returned from COP28 in Dubai. Denis, welcome to Into Africa.

Denis Owiny: Thank you so much Mvemba for having me on Into Africa.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: How was your experience? This I suppose was the first time you attended COP28. What was it like?

Denis Owiny: So, personally, for me, my interest at COP, being the first COP I attended has been climate finance because looking at how African countries are grappling with debt. And also back of my mind, I had the Nairobi Summit in which African leaders made some declarations but specifically, they were pointing to the global financial institutions, multilateral development banks and how those institutions can be reformed to finance their needs. But just to give you a little bit of background, if you look at how climate change affects Africa, then you realize that despite the emission level of African countries, climate change disproportionately affects them at a level that if you compare to the historical countries that emit like the developed countries, it is unmatched.

So being there at COP, my interest was on how can African climate needs be financed? And so most of the events that I attended were on climate finance needs. And that's how I felt maybe COP28 did not meet my need, because again, I looked at some of the promises which were made, and probably we'll get to that. I felt these were the same promises which were made in Copenhagen, for example. And those a hundred billions which were promised, most times were not met by the developed nation.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: And what was the mood of the place? Was it, uh, optimistic? Did you get the sense, I suppose, like the conferences you sat on, a lot of meetings, panel discussions, and the likes?

Denis Owiny: There were a lot of optimism, but also the mood was kinda divided. This is a country that is one of the largest emitters. It's an oil producing country that is hosting COP. So there were expectations that people had in mind and I think it also goes to the text of the- the declaration. A lot of countries, a lot of parties had hoped that instead of transitioning away from fossil fuel, the final text would read phasing out fossil fuel. So there was a lot of enthusiasm about COP28, but the disappointment at the end of it was that instead of writing the final text as phasing out fossil fuel dependency, the final text came out as transitioning away. And I think that is how a lot of people got disappointed because fossil fuel is the biggest culprit of global warming. It is the single most... Like it is the biggest influencer of global warming, and a lot of countries had hoped.

But then again also, let me say this. To maybe some of the African countries that produce oil, phasing out fossil fuel comes with responsibility and the question has been, how just would that transition be? Are we going to transition into clean energy in a fair and just way? Because a number of countries... Let's look at Nigeria. Let's look at Uganda. Uganda, for example, is yet to start exporting oil. So if you say we faze out fossil fuel now, some of these countries would say, "Well, it is not fair for us because we are still developing," and unlike some of these other developed countries that have already industrialized. So it was a divided mood. A lot of people, a lot of parties were saying let's face out, but a number of other countries, especially from least developed countries were saying it has to be a fair transition. That means it has to be a slow transition.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So originally, you said, uh, at the beginning here, you said there was a lot of optimism. Just which side of the house had optimism and which side was not? 'Cause what you've just described now, looks like it was actually a house that was divided.

Denis Owiny: So for African countries, they went with- with the hope that first, their climate finance would be met. Coming from the Nairobi Declaration. If you'd study closely the Nairobi Declaration, you'll realize that a lot of these African countries are grappling with debts as I said earlier on. You have a country like Zambia that has already defaulted, and it is struggling to- to achieve debt restructuring so that they can be able to fund some of these climate needs. Most of the Sub-Saharan countries, actually half of the Sub-Saharan countries are already debt distressed. That means they have to prioritize either investing in social spending, or climate mitigation and adaptation.

So the optimism I mentioned earlier is about these countries, the African countries going to COP28 hoping that it will be different from the COP27 in Egypt. That to them was disappointing. And they went with a single position of, "Can we achieve a level of climate financing that would satisfy our needs?" And I think they achieved one thing: The loss and damage fund that was agreed to on the first day of COP. That was... To Africa, that was a big win, because the loss and damage fund will directly support them in climate mitigation and adaptation.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: That's good, but then, like we said at the top of this program, there were a lot of pledges and COP15 in Copenhagen was the mother of all pledges. A lot was given there and, uh, promised that have not come into realization. When you were in Dubai, there were more pledges or promises. So when you say this was a big achievement, when you speak of loss and damage fund, how realistic, how optimistic do you think that is, knowing the past?

Denis Owiny: I think personally for me, I'm not very optimistic in the promises that a number of these developed countries have made. But also outside my optimism and pessimism, I think the most important point is the realization of the- the developed nations that they need to support African countries in, uh, financing climate mitigation.

The disappointment that these African countries have faced all through from the Copenhagen agreement is that the developed nations that pledged to contribute 100 billion annually have not honored that agreement. To me, that is where the rift between the Global South and the Global North keeps growing, because a lot of these pledges which were made remain unmet. And if they... If to some extent they are met, then probably like 80% or less. So if you look at the trend in terms of financing Africa climate needs, I would say there is a lot of questions to be answered by the developed nations, but Africa has... Africa has optimism because first they are looking at it as a chance for them to contribute instead of going there as a needy continent. They're saying, "Hey, look, we have a contribution to make. We have a fair-”

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: And what is, what- what is that contribution?

Denis Owiny: So now, it goes back to the critical resources, mineral resources that African countries have, like cobalt, like lithium. These are critical minerals for battery production. And in the clean energy transition, you're looking at all these minerals that will help the globe shift away from fossil fuel consumption to now clean energy sources, including...

I mean, like if you look at, first of all, car manufacturing alone, lithium and cobalt will form a significant part of the electrical car production. And so Africa has the largest share of these minerals. So in the end, you're looking at a continent that is willing to participate, but it is also ready to take off. And yet on the other hand, you have developed countries that have not been... I mean, they have be reluctant to contribute to helping Africa gear up for mitigation and adaptation in terms of climate change.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So when you're talking about mitigation and adaptation, we say that the needs of Africa require investment in the magnitude between 290 to $440 billion within the 10 years between 2020 and 2030. We are already in 2023. So it's only seven years to go and time goes very fast. What is your read, your assessment of where this commitment to the needs of Africa may stand today?

Denis Owiny: First, we have to go back to COP28 and look at what were the essential, uh, points that the parties were going to address? Part of it is the global stocktake. Countries went to COP28 to revisit the Paris Agreement and say, "Hey, let us go back to our commitment in the nationally determined contributions." Because under the Paris Agreement, every country, every five years, prepares a nationally determined contribution like, "These are the things that we will do based on our capacities to minimize warming to 1.5." Because they have to regulate global warming to 1.5, like regulate the- the rise of global temperature to 1.5 pre-industrial period. Like you have to regulate it to that level. By then, when these nations gathered, the idea is that they were going to look at the global stocktake and look at every country's contribution, like their fair share.

Now, past 2025, based on what commitment these nations have made, because now you're saying the 100 billion will cease in 2025. So what next? Africa needs more than 100 billion to accommodate, to finance their needs. So the 100 billion that the developed nations have promised, it barely scratches the surface of what these African countries are putting in place or they need to do. So, regardless of the commitment of the 100 billion ending in 2025, if you look at what some of these African countries are demanding, they need... The loss and damage fund alone, they promised 792 million, but what they need is over 2.8 trillion between 2020 and 2030. So clearly-

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Just the African country needs 22 trillion? How many trillions?

Denis Owiny: 2.8 trillion just the Afr- Yeah.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: 2.8 trillion-

Denis Owiny: Yeah.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... just for African countries.

Denis Owiny: Yeah.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: How are they going to generate that amount of money?

Denis Owiny: There are ways that they can generate this. One of those... Well, unfortunately, a lot of Africans are contracting concessional loans, which is also part of their financing mechanism. And concessional loans can only add to their debt burden. But a number of other smart, uh, innovative financing mechanisms also include carbon market from Africa. A number of countries are now going into carbon market because corporations can buy carbon credits. Like some of these countries that have rainforest, they emit less- less that other countries or other corporations. So basically what this corporation will do, they will go to those countries and buy credits from them, carbon credits from them. And that is also another smart way of how these African countries can raise finances. But also, a number of it is dependent on what the developed countries have promised to contribute, but through also multilateral development banks, these African countries can raise funding from those places.

But I think one thing that a number of African countries can benefit from is, uh, debt-for-nature swap, or debt-for-climate swap. If you looked at what Seychelles did in 2016, they literally traded their debt with the nature conservancy to invest the discounted amount of money that they got from that trade, that- that swap in ocean, uh, conservation. There are those innovative, uh, financing strategies that a number of these Africans can take but-

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Do you see a lot of this in- innovation across the continent or the Seychelles stand alone in that way?

Denis Owiny: No, Seychelles doesn't stand alone. I think if you look closely, the problem with Africa's debt is that a lot of these countries are borrowing expensively from the capital market. And that even if they were borrowing from like multilateral like the World Bank or the IMF, it is still costly for them. Most of those African countries end up having unsustainable debt levels. So in the end, any additional debt that they're contracting only adds to their debt burden, and it makes it harder for them to create a fiscal space where they can put money aside to invest in climate mitigation or climate adaptation, but also at the same time put money on like health care, education, and all those. So in the end, most of the- these African countries have to prioritize social spending over climate adaptation and mitigation.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So do you see, do you see a risk there, Denis? Do you see a risk that if these pledges continue to generate this huge gap between the promises and the investments, that some of these African countries will say at one point, "We- we gonna do our own things. Forget you."

Denis Owiny: I don't think the African countries can say, "We will forget you. We are going to forget you." Because the climate cha- the impact of climate change affects everyone regardless of whether you do your own things alone or stand with the crowd. And I think again, one lesson I can pick from COP28 is that a climate diplomacy is hard and long, but it works. Considering the- the situation like- like the global politics we are going through, the war in Ukraine and all that, what is happening in Gaza and all, and all other conflicts that have divided countries along their political, uh, political interest, but Africa will still have to work together with the rest of the world.

What happened in Nairobi was Africa just determining their position saying, "Hey, look-"

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Nairobi as in the summit that, uh-

Denis Owiny: Yes, the Nairobi-

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: ... was hosted earlier this-

Denis Owiny: Yeah, climate summit in September.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Yes.

Denis Owiny:

 The African countries took a position saying: One, we need to reform the international financial system because it is not working for us. Also, a lot of this international financial system is built on ideas which nearly look like the colonial setup, in which resources are extracted from Africa for the development of the Global North. Meanwhile, the Global South, I'm speaking for Africa, are left behind to grapple with their economic needs. So in the end, regardless of how whether the developed nations have not met their needs, whether the Africans have taken their position, the African blocs will have to work with the rest of the world to mitigate climate change. They can't do it alone. They need to work with the rest of the continent.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: But if you describe that system as kind of colonialism point, 2.0 or some new restructured version, restructured version of colonialism, what are Africans going? One point you were just mentioning earlier, was this friction between transitioning your way and the other options that maybe be there. That is a serious problem because of all Africans I've seen, by that I mean African countries, we've just discovered a lot of these reserves of fossil fuel that they want to work on. But then the narrative is saying, "Don't touch those. In fact, we won't give you loans for that or investments is not gonna come." Was there any signs of a resolution of that issue, that- that friction at COP28?

Denis Owiny: If you're looking at Africa's needs and what their priorities are, then probably you'd say, well, COP28 touched on some of those, uh, priorities. For example, food security is a big issue in Africa. And a just transition would require that you protect the indigenous people, you protect like the staple food of these communities. A just transition would mean that you need to consider the financial needs of some of these countries that are yet to exploit their oil resources, fossil fuel.

Again, I think the biggest risk for some of the African countries is that even if they are to take a slow transition, a number of them that are just investing in oil exploitation, for example, probably they will have a stranded asset because now the world is moving away from fossil fuel, but it's not going to happen as fast as the rest of the other parties would want. So for Africa, one of the most important issue that they expected at COP besides what I mentioned earlier, climate finance, they expected an agreement on food security. They had an agreement called COP28 Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action. Because if you look at the Sahel, the way the continent is warming, it is warming faster than the rest of the world. Those regions like the Sahel goes through prolonged drought. They do not have access to water because water crisis is perennial. They do not have access to livelihood.

A number of the African regions, the regions in Africa are struggling with food insecurity, and number of the discussions I attended at COP was on revamping food crops like rice, millet, sorghum, because first those are climate resilient but also those are the kinds of food that can sustain the population in Africa. But then, there's also a problem of how agriculture- agricultural mechanization is being encouraged in Africa. A lot of emphasis is being made on crops like coffee, uh, which to some of these African communities, they can't sustain them. So the emphasis has been for a lot of these African countries is how do we ensure that our people have food, have the proper nourishment that can sustained them through seasons as we figure out how to mitigate and adapt to climate change?

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: So in that sense then this entire friction between transitioning away from fossil fuel or phasing out fossil fuel, it's very real, and particularly on the African continent, because everything that you've described with food security or insecurity, the means to provide for the populations and so on, will require resources that are internal to those countries. Developing countries cannot continue relying on donor countries, given the experience that we've just outlined here and then just going back COP15 in Copenhagen.

You also talked about the Global South. Is it your sense from COP28 that there is a bloc of countries from the south looking at things the same way? Or actually there is a diversity of positions because the Global South is a term that we use a lot, relays a lot of other problems. China is China, India is India, but then Vanuatu is Vanuatu. And Tonga is Tonga, and DRC is DRC, or Uganda is Uganda. So do we talk about these countries as a bloc, or these countries often have their own diversity in terms of needs, uh, also, in terms or is there room for everybody?

Denis Owiny: When we talk of the Global South, you're basically looking at all the countries that are still developing, which includes China. I mean, when it comes to need, African countries need is different from China's need. It's far different from India's need because again, China is one of the- the biggest lenders to Africa. It has the financial muscles. So some of the problems that African countries are facing, China necessarily doesn't. To some extent, China is actually contributing to some of the problems in Africa in terms of debt- debt level, unsustainable debt levels.

I'm speaking about the Africa bloc because their needs is very specific. And like I said earlier, my interest at COP was how can COP contribute to the financial needs of the African countries. So most of the events that I went to were on climate finance because I know for a fact that a lot of these countries cannot alone fund their climate strategies. They can't because they have to either give up, uh, social spending or they have to service their debt. And on top of that, they are facing the prolonged drought, flooding, they are facing food insecurity, like all these other problems that they face. So those are the needs that some of these African countries are dealing with. And probably these are not the problems that some of the other Global South countries deal with.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Okay, so Africa needs to approach this with a clear understanding of its own needs and where the solutions can come. So it's really in many ways, it's a global problem, but self-interest still reign supreme. Going forward, are you optimistic or pessimistic or where do you stand?

Denis Owiny: I am optimistic that we know that climate change is real, that we are heading to danger, and that will rally people to take actions. I am also optimistic that for the first time world leaders have accepted that fossil fuel is the single most significant cause of climate change. I am also optimistic that African countries are now being assertive. They're coming out to say, "We can do something about climate change."

My only pessimism is about the reluctance from developed nations to honor their pledges. So when they make commitments like the over 700 million they raised, they committed to for loss or damage, you'd see that a country like the United States, that is very important in the fight against climate change, but also historically, it is the largest emitter of greenhouse gas, only committed 17 million in loss and damage. That is the kind of a stance that makes me wonder whether developed nations will honor some of the agreements that they have, they have made. and hopefully, everyone will come to the realization that if we do not do what we must, if we do not honor the agreements that we have put in place, if we do not raise the 100 billion for developing countries, if we do not reform the global institutions, the financial architecture. If we do not respond to the Africa's need in time, then we're heading into- into a dark time, and that is where I am pessimistic.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Well, on that note, unfortunately the pessimistic note, I would like to thank you Denis Owiny for joining us on Into Africa today to share your perspective from your recent experience at COP28 in Dubai. Thank you very much.

Denis Owiny: Thank you so much, Mvemba. And thanks for having me.

Mvemba Phezo Dizolele: Thank you for listening. We want to have more conversations about Africa. Tell your friends, subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts. You can also read our analysis and report at So long.