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Emission targets, climate finance and ecological trade-offs led the agenda at Washington summit

Africa's involvement is key to making a success of the latest wave of green tax, finance and technology initiatives

United States President Joe Biden's virtual climate summit on 22-23 April, in which he pledged to cut US fossil fuel emissions by up to 52% of 2005 levels by 2030, prompted a raft of other pro-green promises from the biggest economies. It also put Africa at the centre of a global carbon reduction strategy over the next 50 years. That is central to the idea of a just and green transition.

Negotiations started at the summit about setting a carbon price (which the US is yet to do) and international coordination on cutting fossil fuel subsidies, as recommended by the International Monetary Fund and sundry climate campaigners.

With the latest round of emissions targets set out by most of the biggest economies, the hard bargaining over financing green transitions is starting ahead of the COP26 summit in November (AC Vol 62 No 4, Green tax blow to Africa).

Africa will have the fastest growing population and labour force of any continent this century. Charting a path for its economic growth and development without a massive hike in carbon emissions will test technological ingenuity.

Africa with its vast expanse of rainforests has some of the richest carbon sinks in the world. Preserving them while meeting development needs of countries such as Congo-Kinshasa will require far-sighted trade offs and innovative technology.

Much of that was in South African President Cyril Ramaphosa's speech to the summit in which he said his country's emissions would peak in 2025 and then decline after 2035. South Africa also planned to generate more than 17 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, he added. That would amount to almost half of the state utility Eskom's current output (AC Vol 61 No 20, Private capital, green shoots).

Meanwhile South Africa will remain Africa's biggest generator of greenhouse gases. It depends on coal for 90% of its power, making it the 13th biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, ahead of Britain, Brazil and France. Navigating from this coal-dependent present to a dominant role for renewables with loss of jobs and export income (South Africa is one of the world's biggest exporters of coal) will be a gargantuan task.

Congo-Kinshasa President Félix Tshisekedi, who gave the ministry of environment a strategic role in his new government, talks about trade-offs. There are the tens of thousands of hectares of tropical rainforest at the heart of a country the size of western Europe. The tropical peatlands in the Cuvette Centrale store about the 30 billion tonnes of carbon and a plan to drain them for oil exploration would release as much carbon dioxide as Japan emits annually.

Without drawing a clear equivalence with Brazil's demand for a billion dollars a year to protect the Amazon rainforest, Tshisekedi is calling for incentives to adopt sustainable policies such as a wave of green investment in Congo-K along with technology transfer. On the other side of the ledger, Congo-K has about 70% of the world's stocks of cobalt, a key component for batteries in most electric cars. That is drawing more US commercial interest.

Gabon, whose land area is 88% rainforest, joined the green bargain when it struck a deal to protect its trees, backed by Norway. Gabon, a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council will also lead the African Union's negotiating team at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November.

Fellow oil producer Nigeria, whose President Muhammadu Buhari also attended the US climate summit, faces competing pressures on the green transition. Global warming, galloping desertification, drought and floods are undermining the country's farming sector in which over a third of Nigerians work, and which produces a fifth of national income. It is also at the base of the government's national resource-led industrialisation and import-substitution plan.

Yet oil and gas exports still earn over 90% of Nigeria's foreign exchange and this year the government is pushing through its much-delayed petroleum industry bill, offering incentives to for major oil companies to boost exploration and production. Local and international environmental groups are calling on the Buhari government to implement to implement the National Policy on Climate Change, with a clear timeline for its planned green transition.

It was Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta who spelled out most graphically the cost to Africa of climate change, partly because his country could lose over 2% of its national income from the recent wave of droughts and floods. Home to digital innovation in areas such as mobile money, Kenya is launching a new green transportation plan as well as a Green Climate Fund.

Also a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council this year, Kenya will use this forum ahead of the UN's Cop26 conference to press Africa's case for a larger slice of the climate change adaptation and compensation finance.

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