‘Africa is the solution for global net zero’

Former Vice-President of Nigeria Yemi Osinbajo and Ibrahima Cheikh Diong, United Nations Assistant Secretary General and Director General of African Risk Capacity Group, share their views on climate change with us.

Conversation with


The inaugural Africa Climate Summit, hosted by Kenya and the African Union Commission from 4-6 September, has established several important benchmarks. It is a signal that Africa has decided to grasp the climate-change issue and lead the conversation on it rather than be a passive passenger. There were important discussions around energy transitions, green growth and climate finance.

Among other things, the Nairobi Declaration issued at the end of the conference has called for a global carbon tax system; progress on meeting the 2009 pledge to provide $100bn in annual climate finance; and operationalisation of the loss and damage fund agreed at Cop27 last year.

An estimated 30,000 people, including African heads of state, ministers, NGOs and the UN secretary-general, António Guterres attended the event. 

Two of the high-level delegates – former Vice-President of Nigeria Yemi Osinbajo and Ibrahima Cheikh Diong, United Nations Assistant Secretary General Director General of African Risk Capacity (ARC) Group – met with us to discuss their views on climate change.

What does the African climate summit mean to you?

Professor Yemi Osinbajo (YO): Well, first there is the intangible – this is the first time Africa has hosted a climate summit; and it’s important because Africa needs to be front and centre of the climate conversation.

Aside from the fact that we have been characterised as victims, and rightly so, I believe the thinking now is how Africa can be the solution in the future to some of the climate change issues and, of course, how we can attract the kinds of resources that will be required to enable us to become that solution.

Ibrahima Cheikh Diong (ICD): It’s extremely important, as we approach COP28, that we begin to have the right conversations among ourselves and with our partners.

Secondly, and I have said this time and time again, it’s not just about mitigation, it is also about adaptation and the fact that the bulk of the conversation now is around adaptation says a lot about how African concerns are being addressed and that’s something we need to salute.

I am particularly looking forward to our partners honouring their commitments in terms of the funding and secondly, Africa is also getting ready building the capacity, when the funding is actually available, to disburse it where it’s needed.

And, more importantly, I’m also looking forward to making sure early warning systems are actually accessible to the whole continent so that our policy makers can make informed decisions with regard to climate change.

Professor Osinbajo, last year you wrote an op-ed in Foreign Affairs and gave a speech about a just energy transition. Has your thinking changed in terms of the energy transition and how we should go about it? 

YO: I think it hasn’t changed at all. As a matter of fact I strongly believe that a just transition must first take into account issues of poverty and energy access. I think that in many ways this fits with the vision of GEAPP as well, where the aspect of justice is important. [Prof. Osinbajo is a global advisor to the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP).]

So for me justice is critical. Energy access is critical. It makes no sense whatsoever to talk about energy transition without taking into account the existential issue of poverty that is caused by the lack of access to energy.

Ibrahima Diong, we see the impact of climate change being much worse where the levels of poverty are highest. Can you tell us a little bit about the nexus between poverty and climate change?

ICD: I’m actually old enough to have attended, in 1992, the United Nations conference on the environment and development in Rio de Janeiro. So I think the nexus between the two has been established for many years now. We can’t just talk about adaptation without talking about debt reduction.

Prof. Osinbajo, what was your approach in dealing with climate change adaptation given your budgetary constraints and what do you think of the pledges made by organisations and governments for billions but which have not materialised?

YO: The approach that we adopted was more about energising the private sector and in some of the projects we developed, especially in renewable energy, we depended a great deal on enabling the private sector. An example that comes to mind is in Kano, the Sabon Gari Market, where we decommissioned several diesel generators and replaced them with solar panels. We did the same in Ariaria market in Aba and a very similar thing has been done by GEAPP in Lagos state. This was entirely private sector funded.

In respect to the pledges and promises that have been made by some countries, especially since the Paris Agreement, frankly, my personal view is there is no room for self-pity or recriminations.

Countries of the world will always look after their own interests and they are not as forthcoming when it comes to donations to others, which is one of the key reasons why I think this conference is important.

Africa is the solution ultimately to reach net zero by 2050 and ignoring Africa or not investing in the renewable resources in Africa and allowing Africa along the same carbon-intensive industrial trajectory that the global North has done, will mean that no one will achieve net zero. So, there is a global need, today, to invest in Africa and make Africa possibly the only truly green civilisation. The investment must come not as a handout, but because we can be the answer to net zero.

ICD: If my memory serves me well, most of our countries lose about 3% of their GDP because of energy problems. So if you can’t fix that you can’t industrialise and develop. Now, a wise man once said to me that the government should be in the business of facilitating business and not in the business of getting business.

What role do other stakeholders such as DFIs play?

YO: A lot of the work that GEAPP, for instance, does, is really around catalysing capital. The type of funding that GEAPP has, with large philanthropic funding, makes it easier to take some of the risks that many of the more commercially oriented private players would not take.

Ibrahima Diong, what is the role of international organisations and African institutions such as yours in driving the climate agenda?

ICD: There’s a very famous statement within the African Union – African solutions to African problems. In our particular case, once you understand our risk exposure in terms of the droughts, floods, cyclones and others, [our role is] to put forward solutions.

You cannot address a problem unless you understand the magnitude of the problem and risk profiling and access to the early warning system is the first step to finding a solution.

What we do [at ARC Group] is pool the risks of African governments (facing climate change crisis) and take it to the insurance market so when a particular risk has been triggered, a country gets a payout within two weeks.

We have been around for 10 years and have provided a billion dollars’ worth of coverage with about $120m paid out to member states, and more importantly, 100m people protected.

From a policy maker’s perspective, Prof. Osinbajo, what are the lessons learned?

YO: The important thing is to see climate change as an opportunity and I think that really should be the emphasis because there are indeed huge opportunities. For example, carbon markets present a huge opportunity, along with all the other systems that we need to monetise our ecosystem. I think we should spend a lot more time developing these ideas into proper business concepts.

Sometimes we will find that climate change isn’t given the sort of priority that it ought to be. Now it is evident that there are – aside from, you know, the various consequences of it – also huge opportunities in creating jobs and also huge opportunities for saving our planet.

Some argue that developing countries are not able to absorb the billions of dollars  of support and pledges out there. What is your view on this?

YO: This is not about aid; this is about looking at commercial propositions. Look at carbon markets for example. Today at the African Carbon Markets Initiative, for example, I have seen over $600m being discussed – and for markets that have just been created.

The reason why these kinds of funds are coming is that everyone can see the problem and everyone knows where this is going to end up. So I don’t see that the argument around capacity to absorb all this money is one to be taken too seriously.

ICD: I think we need to appreciate that we can’t paint all African countries with the same brush. Some countries are quite advanced in designing transactions and projects and taking them to the market. There are other countries that don’t have capabilities and we need to build their capacity.

If you want to fix this institutionally, the governments need to put in project preparation facilities whereby we don’t have to push the international community to provide funding and commitment when we don’t have the capability to absorb it.

How strong is Africa’s presence in the global arena regarding climate change and do you think we have a coherent single voice?

YO: I think that’s the point of this summit and we are all looking forward to the Nairobi Declaration. This will synthesise some of the great ideas African countries have had over the years, thought through and put together.

One of the reasons why this conference is important is because Africa’s voice has not been heard and has not been strong enough on the conversations on climate change.

We are beginning to see the rise of an African narrative around climate change and this summit is important in that respect. We hope that it will produce the results that we anticipate.

ICD: I agree with the Vice-President that crafting the message is important and that is why we are here. We will leave Nairobi with an African position and we can all carry out our respective responsibilities.

The challenge is what we do with the message. What you want to avoid is all of us going to COP28 to say different things about African priorities. It dilutes the message and will eventually lead to some confusion about what Africa really wants.

We need to make sure that the commitments made by the developed countries are not only honoured, but that we are able to fast-track whatever commitments come out of COP28.

We need to make sure that the AU uses its political voice to carry the message across the African continent and make sure that Africa is in the driver’s seat as a leader as opposed to being at the receiving end.

I think if we do that, then the message will be understood and the rest of the international community will know that we mean business.

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