OPINION: Africa cannot afford for Britain to fail in its 2021 moment on the climate stage

by Karimi Kinoti | Christian Aid’s Africa division
Tuesday, 30 March 2021 10:27 GMT

ARCHIVE PICTURE: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and David Attenborough look at a projection of planet Earth during a conference about the UK-hosted COP26 UN Climate Summit, at the Science Museum in London, Britain February 4, 2020. Chris J Ratcliffe/Pool via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Here are 3 things Boris Johnson must do to make the Glasgow climate change summit a success

Karimi Kinoti is the head of Christian Aid’s Africa division.

Here in Africa we watch our friends in the UK closely. The legacy of Empire is still with us in our institutions, and cultural and economic ties, and so we take an interest in how our Commonwealth partner is getting on.  We hear the talk of Global Britain, and of the UK renewing old relationships, and creating new ones in the wake of departure from the EU. The UK’s hosting of the UN climate summit this November in Glasgow could be a turning point in these relationships, given how much is at stake for poorer, climate vulnerable countries, including my home country of Kenya.

However the early signals are not inspiring optimism. We’ve seen the UK government slash the aid budget by a third during a global pandemic that has led to spiralling poverty rates in Africa. This feels like closing fire stations in the midst of an inferno.

The UK breaking its aid commitment makes it harder for developing countries to trust the promises made by richer countries on climate change. Rich nations have promised to deliver $100 billion in climate finance to climate vulnerable countries but this is also being missed by a big margin. There’s a danger that African countries, and small island states, lose faith in the Glasgow summit before it’s even underway.

It’s obvious that poorer countries are first and worst affected by the climate crisis, but have done least to contribute to the problem. We see it as a basic matter of trust that the big carbon emitters like the UK support us to make the transition to green energy, tackle environmental degradation, become more resilient to the extremes of drought and flood, and deal with the unavoidable damage that climate change has already caused.

If the UK Government is going to make their Glasgow summit a success, here is what Boris Johnson needs to do, starting this week with the UK’s hosting of an international meeting on climate change and international development.

Firstly,  the UK should demonstrate that it’s serious, by reversing cuts to the aid budget.  Boris Johnson indicated that he wants to reinstate the target of giving 0.7% of national income in aid, when he launched the UK’s Integrated Review of Security and International Policy. But so far, nothing’s been committed in writing.

Secondly, we need to see progress in cancelling unpayable debts, which have accumulated during the pandemic as revenues have fallen and pressures on public spending have increased. Poorer countries don’t have the luxury of taking advantage of the low borrowing rates available to the UK, and without debt cancellation, they risk losing a decade to the pandemic and its economic fallout. With a fresh start, they will be better placed to make a green recovery and tackle poverty. 

Thirdly, we need to see the UK putting  the issue of ‘climate finance’ firmly on the agenda, as a key piece of the UN climate talks which poorer countries have been waiting on since it was promised in 2009, and then reiterated at the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015.  Even if we don’t get all the progress we want on climate finance in 2021, making a start now is crucial to the success of the next UN climate summit in 2022, which will be hosted in Africa.

Some people will inevitably object that the UK cannot afford to step up in this way, after the financial pressures created by COVID. I would say that it’s inaction by rich countries that’s unaffordable. Countries like mine have an abundance of solar and wind potential but we need help to harness it and leapfrog the dirty development of the 20th century. As our populations grow and our economies recover, it’s in everyone’s interest that we follow a green path out of poverty. The $100 billion climate finance pledge from wealthy countries sounds like a lot, but to put it in context, is less than the expected cost of the HS2 railway from London to Manchester.

2021 has to be the year is where the can-kicking stops and climate finance is finally delivered. There are few clearer tests of whether Global Britain is living up to its billing, and few better opportunities to set the world on a trajectory towards climate justice.