NAIROBI, Kenya — The first African Climate Summit is opening with heads of state and others asserting a stronger voice on a global issue that affects the continent of 1.3 billion people the most, even though they contribute to it the least.
Kenyan President William Ruto’s government and the African Union launched the ministerial session on Monday while more than a dozen heads of state began to arrive, determined to wield more global influence and bring in far more financing and support. The first speakers included young people, who demanded a bigger voice in the process.
“For a very long time we have looked at this as a problem. There are immense opportunities as well,” Ruto said of the climate crisis, speaking of multibillion-dollar economic possibilities, new financial structures, Africa’s huge mineral wealth and the ideal of shared prosperity. “We are not here to catalog grievances.”
And yet there is some frustration on the continent about being asked to develop in cleaner ways than the world’s richest countries — which have long produced most of the emissions that endanger climate — and to do it while much of the support that has been pledged hasn’t appeared.
“This is our time,” Mithika Mwenda of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance told the gathering, claiming that the annual flow of climate assistance to the continent is a tenth or less of what is needed and a “fraction” of the budget of some polluting companies.
“We need to immediately see the delivery of the $100 billion” of climate finance pledged annually by rich countries to developing ones, said Simon Stiell, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. More than $83 billion in climate financing was given to poorer countries in 2020, a 4% increase from the previous year but still short of the goal set in 2009.
“We have an abundance of clean, renewable energy and it’s vital that we use this to power our future prosperity. But to unlock it, Africa needs funding from countries that have got rich off our suffering,” Mohamed Adow of Power Shift Africa said ahead of the summit.
Outside attendees to the summit include the U.S. government’s climate envoy, John Kerry, and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has said he will address finance as one of “the burning injustices of the climate crisis.”
As Kenya’s president spoke, hundreds of people joined a “people’s march” on climate in Nairobi holding signs demanding the targeting of fossil fuels. Ruto in the past has said the “addiction” to them must end. One project being protested is the TotalEnergies-funded 897-mile (1,443-kilometer) East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline in Uganda and Tanzania.
The U.N. has estimated that loss and damage in Africa due to climate change are projected to be between $290 billion and $440 billion, depending on the degree of warming.
Ruto’s video welcome released before the summit was heavy on tree-planting but didn’t mention his administration’s decision this year to lift a yearslong ban on commercial logging, which alarmed environmental watchdogs. The decision has been challenged in court, while the government says only mature trees in state-run plantations would be harvested.
“When a country is holding a conference like we are, we should be leading by example,” said Isaac Kalua, a local environmentalist.
Kenya derives 93% of its power from renewables and has banned single-use plastic bags, but it struggles with some other climate-friendly adaptations. Trees were chopped down to make way for the expressway that some summit attendees used to travel from the airport, and bags of informally made charcoal are found on some Nairobi street corners.
Ruto made his way to Monday’s events in a small electric car, a contrast to the usual government convoys, on streets cleared of the sometimes poorly maintained buses and vans belching smoke.
Elsewhere, nearly 600 million Africans lack access to electricity despite the vast potential for solar and other renewable power.
Other challenges for the African continent include simply being able to forecast and monitor the weather in order to avert thousands of deaths and billions of dollars in damages that, like climate change itself, have effects far beyond the continent.
“When the apocalypse happens, it will happen for all of us,” Ruto warned.
Desmond Tiro in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.