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Africa Climate Summit: Kenya’s green growth pitch sparks justice concerns

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Outcry over McKinsey’s role and unease with Ruto’s focus on finance raises questions as to whether the summit will truly be “by Africans for Africans”.

African leaders have been invited to attend the continent’s first climate summit in Nairobi on 4-6 September. The summit has been pitched as a moment to unify Africa’s position on key climate and finance issues ahead of the COP28 climate talks in December.

Co-hosted by the African Union Commission and Kenya, its president William Ruto is calling on his peers to champion a new narrative for climate action on the continent: positioning Africa not as a victim but a bearer of solutions to address the climate crisis.

For that, Africa needs investments that can spur an economic transformation – not aid, he argues.

“The rest of us from the African continent we have always been in the corner of problems and victimhood. We don’t want to be in that corner anymore. We want to be at the table where we are all looking for solutions,” Ruto told the Paris summit for a new global finance pact in June.

A key part of this shift, says Kenya’s environment and climate change cabinet secretary Soipan Tuya, is to end the “blame game” between developed and developing countries. The priority, she suggests, is to unlock the investments Africa needs to tap into its potential and resources to support global decarbonisation efforts.

This framing has ruffled feathers among climate negotiators and campaigners, who are concerned the summit’s agenda neglects African priorities, such as enhancing adaptation and adopting a mechanism to help poorer countries recover from climate-induced losses and damages.

The optics of the summit, billed as a political moment “by Africans for Africans”, have been made worse by campaigners’ outcry over the involvement of consulting giant McKinsey.

More than 400 civil society groups across the continent have signed an open letter accusing the US-headquartered firm of having “unduly influenced” the summit by “pushing a pro-West agenda and interests at the expense of Africa”.

In response, minister Tuya told African Arguments this was “extremely far from the truth”.

Because of the global nature of the discussions, the Kenyan government sought contributions from global players, she says. Consultancy firms “have come and listened to what we are saying and [made] inputs and suggestions. But I can confirm that this is an African position that we are presenting.”

Ruto’s pitch to African leaders

More than 13,000 delegates have registered to attend the summit at the Kenya International Convention Centre in the heart of Nairobi’s central business district.

Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley and Brazil’s President Lula are among 35 leaders outside Africa who have been invited. Cop28 president designate Sultan Al Jaber and US’ climate envoy John Kerry are expected to attend. As of mid-August, 15 African heads of state and government had confirmed their participation.

In the days ahead, an African Youth Climate Assembly will gather thousands of young people in Nairobi and online to compile their views on how to address climate and development issues. The resulting youth declaration will be handed to leaders.

The summit’s concept note sets out how climate action can drive green growth in Africa by investing in five key areas: renewable energy, green minerals, sustainable agriculture, sustainable infrastructure, and natural capital.

Climate adaptation and the finance instruments to unlock such investments have been earmarked as cross-cutting themes. At the end of the summit, leaders will sign the Nairobi Declaration, a document setting out a common vision for achieving green growth on the continent.

The summit further aims to unify nations behind proposals to address the debt crisis and reform the international financial system – an agenda championed by Ruto, who chairs the African Union’s committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change.

In Paris in June, Ruto put forward concrete ideas to finance long-term, low interest loans in struggling developing economies and called for new climate finance mechanisms funded with global taxes on fossil fuel, aviation, shipping and financial transactions.

“And we want to pay. We don’t want anyone to pay for us,” said Ruto.

Some diplomats are concerned these proposals disregard the strongly held principle of common but differentiated responsibilities – the notion that nations bear different degrees of responsibility in addressing climate change based on their historic emissions and income levels.

Sources close to the summit say the issue is one of messaging: calling for investments and global taxes shouldn’t replace demands on rich countries to deliver on their climate obligations but complement them.

For Hannah Ryder, a Kenyan national and CEO of development consultancy Development Reimagined, Ruto’s proposals offer “a fairly radical remaking of international financial architecture”.

But, she warns, climate negotiators will be reluctant to depart from long-held positions if specific asks are not put on developed countries. “That’s part of the issue for Ruto: what’s the demand on richer countries?” she asks.

“It looks like trade conference on carbon credits”

The summit is giving a large space to public and private organisations to showcase successful initiatives and connect with investors in “deal rooms” to pitch investment opportunities.

“The summit is more of a trade and development summit with African opportunities at the fore,” Kenya’s Tuya told a media briefing earlier this month.

That hasn’t reassured civil society groups concerned about Western influence on the summit.

A planning document names McKinsey as a “technical lead” on the cross-cutting theme of “climate finance”, where carbon markets will be flaunted as a tool to leverage private finance, according to a  draft programme.

McKinsey helped design the Africa Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI), which aims to dramatically scale up the voluntary carbon market on the continent. It supported the Kenyan government assess its carbon credit potential and draft principles for regulating the market.

The consultancy firm is also providing “strategic support” across the energy transition and natural capital tracks.

Campaigners have criticised the reliance on carbon markets as a “false solution” and an escape route for companies in rich countries to continue to pollute while trampling over the principles of climate justice.

“We had a lot of hope this summit would put African priorities at the heart of climate negotiations, notably adaptation finance. It should have been a summit by Africans for Africans. Instead, it looks like a trade conference on carbon credits,” says Cameroonian activist Augustine Bantar Njamnshi, of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.

Omar Elmawi, co-facilitator of the Africa Movement Building Space, argues that the continent has sufficient capacity and experience to address climate and development issues without having to rely on McKinsey, whose clients include fossil fuel companies.

“Even if McKinsey came in with the best intentions they are coming in with their own biases. They can’t understand Africa better than Africans do,” he says.

McKinsey didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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