Fighting for climate justice and resilience

Fighting for climate justice and resilience

In a world where the promise of climate justice is entangled in the web of corporate greed, it's time to pivot from the Conference of Parties to the Conference of People, amplifying the voices that truly matter.

The global climate change movement is on its knees and will soon be in the ICU if radical changes aren’t enforced immediately. Billions raised for climate finance aren’t reaching the people deserving them most in Africa and elsewhere in the global south.

I parted ways with the official climate change movement during the seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 17), in November 2011 in Durban South Africa. Five years earlier I had applauded and celebrated this movement during the twelfth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 12), November 2006 in Nairobi.

During that session, I teamed up with several other young African leaders and we launched the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC). In doing this, we leveraged the power and prestige of a UN event to kick start a grassroots continental youth climate movement.  This rarely happens, since UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties sessions are simply not in sync with grassroots climate movements.

For several years, I burned the midnight oil, seeking to ensure that Africa’s only youth climate change movement could secure sufficient funding to ensure climate resilience in communities across Africa. Unfortunately, we didn’t secure even a dime. The best that happened was that individual youth secured travel sponsorship from time to time to attend UN Climate events that include the COPs. But that alone couldn’t move African communities an inch towards climate resilience.

That’s why by the time the COP 17 in Durban came along, I had already lost faith in the ability of the UNFCC COPs to engender real transformation and progress in Africa’s climate resilience journey. That’s why as founder of Kenya’s Independent Media Network (Kenya Indymedia)  I mobilized numerous grassroots organizations in Korogocho, one of Nairobi’s poorest neighborhoods to hold the first ever Conference of People (not parties). This was our answer to the rigid, unresponsive COP ecosystem.  

This Conference of People was a paradigm shift, a bold declaration that the voices of those most affected by climate change must be heard. It was an embodiment of the principle that solutions must emerge from the ground up, drawing on the lived experiences and indigenous knowledge of local communities.

Unlike the high-level deliberations of the COP17 in Durban (and subsequent COPs), which are top-down and disconnected from the African masses, the Conference of People vision was rooted in the realities of everyday life in African communities.

At its core, the Conference of People was about reclaiming agency and ownership over climate solutions. It sought to harness the vast repository of indigenous knowledge that African communities have developed over centuries – knowledge that has often been marginalized in scientific discourses on climate change. By inviting elders to share their experiences and ideas for adapting to climate change, and by engaging scholars of African history and culture, COPE aimed to integrate traditional wisdom with contemporary strategies for resilience.

Furthermore the Conference of People approach sought to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens who are most affected by climate change. Indeed, the Conference of People was a revolutionary step towards climate justice. It rejected the dismal failures of the traditional Conference of Parties approach, which has often left African communities bereft of the resources they desperately need. Instead, it championed a people-centric approach, grounded in local knowledge and lived experiences, and fueled by the determination to build a sustainable and just future for all.

However, the Conference of People project withered in light of zero funding. I take responsibility for the fact that my best efforts were not enough to mobilize sufficient resources for nurturing this nascent project and approach. Consequently, all we are left with at the moment is UNFCC-led Conference of Parties approach that anchors the mainstream global climate change movement. 

This climate change movement, once a beacon of hope and justice, is now losing its soul. For instance, behind the façade of wealthy nations pledging $100 billion a year to help poorer countries combat climate change lies a disturbing truth. Japan, France, Germany, the United States, and other affluent nations are reaping billions from a global program intended to assist developing countries. A Reuters review of U.N. and Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data reveals this troubling reality.

Developed nations promised to aid poorer countries in reducing emissions and coping with extreme weather. Yet, instead of genuine support, they're channeling money back into their own economies. In essence, they are giving Africa climate funds with the right hand and taking back some of that money with the left hand. Meanwhile, critical climate change adaptation projects continue to falter: African communities continue to rely on rain-fed agriculture as ever increasing fossil fuel prices continue to impoverish African consumers and small businesses.  This makes a mockery of the polluter pays principle that is somewhat enshrined in the Paris agreement.

The data is alarming. Wealthy nations have lent poorer countries at least $18 billion at market-rate interest: Japan leads with $10.2 billion, followed by France with $3.6 billion, Germany with $1.9 billion, and the United States with $1.5 billion. This is a stark departure from typical climate aid, which usually comes with low or no interest. Clearly, it’s about capitalism on steroids, not climate resilience. Furthermore, an additional $11 billion in loans, mostly from Japan, required the recipient countries to hire or purchase requisite materials from the lending nations. Similarly, at least $10.6 billion in grants from 24 countries and the European Union came with strings attached to ensure that money ultimately flowed back to wealthy nations.

This practice stinks. Grants with strings attached are less harmful than conditional loans since they don't require repayment, but they still benefit donor economies at the expense of developing nations. This approach undercuts the goal of aiding vulnerable nations to build climate resilience.

The promise to deliver $100 billion annually to poorer nations, first made in 2009 and reaffirmed in the 2015 Paris climate agreement, is technically being fulfilled but misses the intended spirit. From 2015 to 2020, around $353 billion was paid, with $189 billion in direct country-to-country payments. However, over half of this direct funding came as loans instead of grants. In this scenario, profits are the bottom line, not climate resilience. As such, a portion climate financing from rich countries flows back to them through loan repayments, interest, and work contracts. How does this scenario help a groundnuts farmer from Jinja, Uganda? It doesn’t. That farmer will continue to rely on rainfall and continue to reap the consequences of erratic rainfall.

Even as millions of African smallholder farmers continue lagging behind in climate smart agriculture, wealthy nations remain preoccupied with loans, not grants. Out of the $45 billion that Germany has contributed to climate funding, more than half – 52% - came in the form of loans, not grants. France isn’t any better.  It’s worse. France’s Development Agency (AFD) provides low-interest rates to developing nations, but loans constituted 90% of France’s $28 billion contributions. This was the highest loan percentage among nations. The U.S. provided $9.5 billion in climate funding, 31% of it loaned, defending loans as appropriate for revenue-producing projects.

Does this mean that climate financing is burdening Africa with even more loans? Yes. Which flies on the face of the Paris Agreement’s principles of ‘climate justice’ and ‘equity’. What good will climate financing be if African governments end up increasing taxes in order to repay loans that will partly comprise climate financing loans?

Developing countries are stuck in a vicious cycle: debt repayments choke their ability to invest in climate solutions, while extreme weather wreaks economic havoc, forcing them to borrow more. This delicate book balancing dance ends up stifling the livelihoods of millions of Africans. That’s unacceptable. That’s why, according to a 2022 United Nations Development Program Report, over half of the 54 most heavily indebted developing nations are also among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts.

To meet climate targets, at least $2.4 trillion a year is needed, a stark contrast to current spending. Wealthy countries likely met the $100 billion annual goal for the first time in 2022 through direct and multilateral funding, but much of it was loaned. According to a Reuters investigation, at least $3 billion of this spending went to projects unrelated to climate initiatives, such as coal plants and hotels. Such eventualities leave millions of Africans in vulnerable positions: one crop failure away from poverty; one fuel hike away from distress.

Yet their government become increasingly incapacitated to do help them due to rising debt occasioned by climate loans. About 18% of climate loans from wealthy countries were non-concessional, with high interest rates, further burdening recipient nations.

France’s $118.6 million loan to Ecuador for an aerial tramway in Guayaquil is a prime example. The loan, counted as climate finance, added to Guayaquil’s budget deficit and did little for environmental gains. The tramway’s components were mostly manufactured in France and Switzerland, funneling wealth back to developed nations.

Japan’s climate loans often require recipients to hire Japanese companies, funneling billions back to Japan’s economy. Aid with such hiring conditions deprives local businesses and eliminates chances for developing nations to build expertise in sustainable technologies.

This exploitation under the guise of climate finance needs to end. Developed nations must prioritize genuine support for developing countries, ensuring transparency and fairness in lending terms. The soul of the climate change movement depends on it.
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