What African Leaders Want at Biden’s Climate Summit
April 21, 2021
President Joseph Biden has invited five African presidents and 35 other world leaders to join him at the Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22-23. The African contingent—consisting of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) president Félix Tshisekedi, Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, and South African president Cyril Ramaphosa—will likely press for financial support to undertake climate change mitigation and adaptation initiatives. In addition, each will seek to advance domestic and personal goals at this high-profile event.
Africa’s participation in the summit reflects the continent’s indispensability as an actor in the world’s efforts to reduce emissions and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Whether it is deforestation, desertification, or rising sea levels, it is impossible to address the worst impacts of climate change without Africa’s input and cooperation. Even though the region’s contributions to global greenhouse emissions are small, African countries are the most vulnerable to and least prepared for the extreme weather patterns brought on by a warming climate. During the 2019 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) speeches, sub-Saharan African leaders across 48 countries used the term “climate change” 212 times, suggesting they are eager to work through climate change issues on the world stage.
To move forward on President Biden’s climate agenda, U.S. policymakers should prominently feature African leaders in the discussion and in the summit’s outcomes and commitments. It is imperative to factor in the economic, development, and political dimensions to climate challenges in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as understand how each leader intends to benefit from the high-profile engagement.
President Tshisekedi to Plug Congo’s Centrality to Climate Mitigation
DRC president Félix Tshisekedi probably will use the summit to promote his country’s importance in the global response to climate change. President Tshisekedi has signaled his commitment to mitigating the effects of a warming climate by making the Ministry of Environment a key, strategic portfolio in his administration and by elevating the new minister to the vice-premiership level, among other policy initiatives. As the African Union (AU) chair in 2021, President Tshisekedi also can argue that he speaks for the continent’s 54 countries and Western Sahara. He is likely to have one principal request: grants, technology transfers, and capacity-building packages from the world’s major powers to the DRC and other African countries.
Relative to other leaders participating in Biden’s summit, President Tshisekedi presides over one of the most energy-deficient countries represented. With only 19 percent and 1 percent of urban and rural populations having access to electricity, respectively, over 80 percent of the nearly 100 million Congolese rely on the forest for energy. And yet, DRC has outsized importance in climate mitigation. According to Phillip Van Niekerk, DRC’s Cuvette Centrale peatlands are estimated to contain 30 billion tons of carbon. Some studies suggest that if one-third of it were to burn, it would double atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and raise global temperatures by 5 degrees Celsius.
President Tshisekedi, as AU chair, is likely to sell his leadership as essential to forging an African consensus and his country as pivotal to preserving the planet. His request for financial support will likely be in return for reforms, commitments, and protecting the Congo Basin rainforest and its extensive peatlands.
— Mvemba Phezo Dizolele
President Ondimba to Disprove the Doubters
Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba probably intends to use the summit to cement his position as the leading African voice on climate issues and to counter perceptions of his ill health following his 2018 stroke. Ondimba, who in 2009 ascended to power following his father’s four-decade rule, has made climate, as well as forest and wildlife preservation, a defining priority of his presidency.
Ondimba regularly promotes his country’s green ambitions, including during his 2010-11 stint on the UN Security Council and when he served as the coordinator of the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change. His government currently chairs the African Group of Negotiators, which will play a key role ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference this fall. Ondimba almost certainly will highlight his country’s election to the UN Human Rights Council and the AU’s endorsement of Gabon’s nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council to underline his global influence.
Although Gabon is not one of Africa’s most vulnerable countries to climate risks, the African Development Bank has warned that extreme weather events, coupled with increasing temperatures, may reduce access to safe drinking water and impact Gabon’s agriculture sector. In addition, Gabon is 88 percent rainforest, the second-most forested country in the world behind Suriname. Ondimba pledged to halve his country’s carbon emissions, and the government has established 13 national parks that cover around 11 percent of the country. In 2019, Gabon became the first African country paid by international funds—from Norway—to preserve its forests.
In addition to burnishing his standing as a leader on climate, Ondimba probably regards the Leaders Summit on Climate as an opportunity to put to rest persistent rumors of his poor health. In 2018, Ondimba suffered a stroke and has since carefully managed his public appearances to quiet concerns about his capacity to rule; in 2019, junior officers launched a failed coup attempt while the president was abroad receiving medical attention. He has since shuffled his Cabinet to regain control, and as he recently assured The Africa Report, he is focused on his duties as head of state because “a captain cannot abandon his ship.”
— Judd Devermont
President Kenyatta to Link Climate to Domestic Priorities
At the summit, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta will likely emphasize the need for a unified approach to security, developmental, and economic challenges posed by climate change, as well as garner support for his “big four” development priorities—food security, affordable housing, manufacturing, and healthcare. President Kenyatta has emerged as one of the most outspoken leaders on the threat climate change poses to the region’s socioeconomic development, consistent with his domestic agenda. At this year’s Climate Adaptation Summit, he stressed that “we can only succeed if we all, as a global community, collaborate in this noble endeavor.”
Despite being responsible for less than 0.1 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions as well as its position as one of the leading producers of geothermal power, Kenya bears the brunt of climate change consequences. The country is facing cyclical periods of drought and flooding, and in 2020 endured its worst locust infestation in 70 years. The rural poor are most vulnerable, and these costly devastations are only expected to intensify. Kenya’s annual GDP is expected to drop 2-2.4 percent as a result of floods and droughts.
President Kenyatta has integrated climate adaptation initiatives into Kenya’s “big four” agenda and Vision 2030, the country’s development program launched in 2008. In addition to an ambitious goal to raise tree cover to 10 percent in 10 years—despite persistent deforestation by property developers in and around Nairobi—Kenya has also begun working on green innovations in the transportation sector, such as the non-motorized Bus Rapid Transit. The country also has a $34 million Green Climate Fund project underway that aims to combat the effects of drought in 11 counties over 5 years.
At the summit, President Kenyatta also is expected to join African counterparts in demanding that wealthy countries fund existing and upcoming efforts to curb global warming in Kenya. As a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2021-22 period, he may demand greater concessions on behalf of the Africa bloc. President Kenyatta almost certainly will make the argument that there is a need for development partners to financially support ongoing (and new) climate initiatives in Kenya and the broader region to mitigate these security, developmental, and economic challenges, which have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
— Topaz Mukulu
President Buhari to Use Summit to Kickstart His Climate Program
Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari may use the summit to push wealthier countries—particularly those that emit high levels of greenhouse gasses—to commit to emission reduction goals and increased transparency on climate issues. While lagging in climate policy prioritization compared to his fellow African leaders, President Buhari may also use this platform to call on his country’s foreign partners to invest in climate security in Nigeria, and the Sahel more widely, as a key part of conflict mitigation strategy in the region.
Nigeria’s economy is vulnerable to climate change in part because agriculture makes up 20 percent of the country’s GDP and employs over two-thirds of the workforce, mainly in smallholder farming. The escalating threat of extreme weather events, such as droughts or floods, places a large number of Nigerians at risk of a loss of livelihood or falling into poverty. In addition, conflicts over the control of resources are on the rise in Nigeria, most notably between farmers and herders. This competition over land and water, driven by changing climatic conditions, is fueling tension among ethnic group across the country.
However, President Buhari will need to do more at home to be more effective at the summit. He should reconfirm his intention to prioritize climate change in a domestic context—including by implementing Nigeria’s National Policy on Climate Change. President Buhari should also begin to invest in initiatives such as tree planting to reduce deforestation and erosion, as well as flood mitigation and warning systems.
— Idayat Hassan
President Ramaphosa to Spotlight Climate and Economic Trade-offs
At the summit, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa almost certainly will point to an impressive amount of climate research, planning, and target-setting. However, he will underline that recovering South Africa’s economy—which took a serious hit under Covid-19—and simultaneously greening it will be an exceptional challenge.
South Africa is Africa’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses. Globally, South Africa ranks 13th in carbon dioxide emissions, ahead of Brazil, the United Kingdom, and France. Plants fired by South African coal generate more than 90 percent of the nation’s electricity and more than half its emissions. The country’s heavy use of coal is resulting in adverse climate conditions. Average temperatures in South Africa are rising twice as fast as globally. Heat waves, droughts, and wildfires have become more common and costly. Already a “water-stressed” country, South Africa could face severe freshwater shortages this decade.
Ramaphosa is serious about tackling these threats, but he faces a triple dilemma.
- South Africa lost 1.7 million jobs and GDP contracted by 6 percent in 2020. Rapid recovery is President Ramaphosa’s highest priority. In February, he called for a massive rollout of new infrastructure and a rapid expansion of energy generation capacity starting this year. Pre-Covid-19 plans called for a major shift to renewables to meet dramatically lowered emission targets by 2050. However, post-Covid-19 recovery measures point to large carbon-intensive investments, notably in coal and liquified natural gas.
- ESKOM, South Africa’s electricity parastatal, is in a dismal state. Years of neglect and mismanagement have led to rolling blackouts and a current shortfall of 4,000 megawatts (about 10 percent of demand). The goal for ESKOM to close this gap, deliver increased capacity, and cap emissions by 2025 (South Africa’s target before Covid-19) is a tall order.
- South African labor, while supporting of low- or zero-carbon future, is insisting on a “just transition.” Any shift from fossil fuels that does not generate employment offsets will be resisted by the ruling party and its labor allies.
President Ramaphosa will likely reaffirm his commitment to climate change while pressing international partners to grapple with the political and economic consequences for coal-dependent economies still reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic.
— William Mark Bellamy
Judd Devermont is director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. William Mark Bellamy is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program. Mvemba Phezo Dizolele and Idayat Hassan are non-resident senior associates with the CSIS Africa Program. Topaz Mukulu is program manager with the CSIS Africa Program.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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