COP: Don’t make difficult lives impossible

Elison Karuhanga

What you need to know:

  • Poverty and lack of access to energy are serious challenges that Africa faces and must confront.  

This week the 28th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change takes place in the United Arab Emirates.  This annual meeting is dubbed COP28 where world leaders come together to find and review solutions to what has been dubbed the climate crisis.

World leaders try to generate consensus guided by science and under the principle that different countries are at different stages of development and, therefore, while we have a common challenge we have differentiated responsibilities.

Uganda is a party to all the agreements made at COP and is part of the global consensus to fight climate change. The country is currently in the middle of publishing its Energy Transition Plan. The big challenge in Uganda and indeed in much of Africa is lack of access to energy and lack of access to clean cooking technologies.

Uganda’s population will more than double in the next 25 years, increasing the demand for energy solutions. If access to energy is not rapidly increased then there is a serious risk that Uganda will lose all its forest cover as people cut trees for firewood and charcoal. This is a serious problem. 

Almost half of all Africans have no access to electricity and almost 75 percent of all Africans have no access to clean cooking methods. Meanwhile, Africa contributes less than four percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Africa is also the continent most affected by climate change. This is on account of the rampant poverty across the continent. The people of China stopped dying of famine, not because Chinese weather became better, but because China lifted its people out of abject poverty.

It is in the particular context of Africa that some of our fossil projects must be seen as energy transition projects. In Africa we need to transition from darkness to light. While there is an urgent need for the world to decarbonise, Africa urgently needs to industrialise. It is a great injustice for one American to use more energy than 307 Tanzanians. It is unacceptable for all 44 million Ugandans to use less energy than the heated swimming pools and hot tubs of the US state of California.

The imbalance of energy makes conversations about cutting emissions and stopping projects in Africa a difficult sell. Take, for example, a refinery in Uganda. It would produce Liquefied Petroleum Gas for the domestic market and thereby help to transition away from firewood and charcoal. The refinery would also reduce the need for imported petroleum products moving on the high seas. The refinery would go a long way in meeting challenges in a totally energy insecure country. An oil project in Uganda is, therefore, part of Uganda’s energy transition plan. 

There was a proposal that the industrialised world would pay $100b a year to help mitigate the impacts of climate change to Africa. Indeed, this was subsequently agreed at COP. Is that (less than $2b per country per year) sufficient to meet the challenges of energy security and the impacts on climate change in Africa? Frankly it is not. 

However, even that modest promise has not been fulfilled and frankly will not be fulfilled. The world has gone through a tough economic period with global inflation, worsening living standards and shrinking economic space. 

To expect, in the current global economy, anyone to send to Africa an annual $100b is to display almost unrivalled naivety. Even at the best of times that promise would never have been fulfilled. 
As for private sector investment, we have enough experience in Africa to know that climate conferences cannot unlock the taps of private sector money. 

Africa’s unique challenges must not be brushed aside during this COP meeting. Poverty and lack of access to energy are serious challenges that Africa faces and must confront. Failure to light up and industrialise the continent would be a monumental blunder of epic historical proportions. 

For some, COP is about how to reduce emissions while maintaining their very high standard of living. For us it must not be about how to make already difficult lives impossible.

Elison Karuhanga is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates 
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