#55 - If Africa leads, others will follow
By Mat Hope in Nairobi, Kenya
I first met Mohamed Adow at the annual UN climate talks in Marrakech in 2016. COP22 (as it’s known) is probably best remembered for Donald Trump being elected smack bang in the middle of the conference. But many people worked tirelessly to ensure the conference didn’t get derailed.
Mohamed was a prominent voice who stuck to his aim -- to ensure developing countries that have done the least to cause climate change but face the worst impacts didn’t get forgotten about on the international stage. I was little more than a cub reporter at the time, but while much in demand working as Climate Policy lead for Christain Aid, Mohamed was always generous with his time and words, patiently explaining complex negotiating points. Such sources are invaluable to journalists desperately trying to fathom the ins and outs of the opaque negotiations, and I am forever grateful to him for his insight.
Now, as Founder and Director of Power Shift Africa, Mohamed was recently awarded the prestigious, multi-million dollar, Climate Breakthrough prize to continue his groundbreaking work. He agreed to tell me his story and outline his vision for the continent. This is an edited transcript of our interview.
Mohamed, many thanks for agreeing to talk to me. For those that don’t know, could you just outline who you are, and what first piqued your interest in climate change?
I grew up in a pastoral community in the northeast of Kenya, a part of the country that has been ravaged by extreme weather events, including droughts. And growing up in northern Kenya gives you a certain clarity about the climate crisis; not the kind of thing that you learn abstractly, but a lived experience of your family, your neighbours. Everybody’s livelihoods getting destroyed by climate change.
At the beginning of 2000, there was a major drought in that part of the country that killed not just my father's herd, but destroyed my neighbours’ and everybody in that location’s livelihoods. After school, the first job I took was to distribute parcels of food to starving people, knowing that whatever supplies we provide them may actually keep them alive only until the next inevitable droughts.
That challenged me and started bringing into question what it is that we’re doing as an international community. And the challenge that came to me was: if the best of the world, including humanitarian agencies, can provide our people, is food parcels to people affected by droughts and not address the root causes, then I needed to challenge that and change that.
So how did you face up to that challenge?
My approach to the climate challenge was: how do we help these people actually articulate the problems that they're facing, but in the way that the rest of the world can take more seriously, and address at the source.
A good part of my job at the beginning was just communicating that fact and appealing for more global cooperative action that allows us to bring together more countries and more voices so that we can actually address climate change. Christian Aid gave me a global platform when I moved to London in 2011, and then I worked on a series of international climate change issues such as the U.N. climate negotiations, where I was promoting the voice of the voiceless and climate vulnerable.
I realised we needed to engage decision makers at the highest level. We needed to ensure that we could show the human cost of climate change that the industrialised countries’ actions will actually cause so that poor people in developing countries, including children who have been hit hardest, can effectively get support.
What made you decide to come back to Kenya?
I felt my services were required much closer to home. And so I decided to come back to Nairobi and set up my own organisation, Power Shift Africa. We set it up to provide support to the African governments and African civil society organisations. I’m now trying to be much closer to the people of developing countries and help mobilise and create climate action in Africa.
We can help build the collective moral, economic and political voice of Africa so that we can exert pressure in the international community around climate action and help this continent transition away from dirty fossil fuels to renewables. We can also prioritise lifting the population that is currently poor out of poverty on the back of tapping the incredible potential of renewable energy that is available.
On a continent where many political decisions, such as the recent agreement to let the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline proceed, are based on short-term economic gains, how do you persuade leaders to embrace low-carbon development?
African policymakers can lift their people out of poverty while at the same time tackling climate change. They can do both things simultaneously and be able to deliver greater progress, greater prosperity, and clean air at the same time.
What I'm trying to do is create a vehicle that we can use to deliver a new compelling set of African voices that can make the case for rapid and equitable phase out of fossil fuels, and that can promote people-centred, social and environmentally appropriate, renewable energy investment. And for us to reclaim the notion of development in terms of well-being, equity and sustainability, rather than what the World Bank, for example, uses as its benchmark for short for development policy.
The biggest challenge we face on this continent is that we don't have African-owned, native, climate analysis. So we jump into the climate bandwagon based on what development partners tell us, and what the climate conferences tell us. Power Shift Africa can help this continent become not just informed, but one that recognises the urgency of climate change in a way that helps shift Africa’s direction. And in shifting its direction, it can carry the rest of the world with it.
So we can grow this continent to become a leader. When we do that, we can build on that momentum so that Africa races ahead and becomes an example for other places to follow in their efforts to transition away from fossil fuels and into renewables.
You asked for what i’d change in one word, but i’ll give you two: African leadership.
Some argue that the most effective way to combat climate change is through economic development, even if it is driven by fossil fuels. What do you say to them?
This continent is fortunately incredibly blessed with renewable energy potential. If you take the vulnerability that Africa faces seriously, then you realise that to be able to keep it safe and allow it to continue to grow and prosper, we need to prevent the creation of coal, oil and gas. The way to do that is to end the exploration and production of fossil fuels, but also phase out all fossil fuels.
Now, if you go for such a thing, which effectively results in the non-proliferation of fossil fuels, then you need to provide an alternative. The alternative that we have is renewable energy. And so we need to foster green solutions and a just transition for every community, every worker, and every country. We need to realise if we're going to be able to build adaptive capacity and limit the global temperature rise to a safe level, then we need to help this continent tap the clean energy resources that it has available. And these are currently largely untapped.
There are, of course, fossil fuel lobbyists and laggards that would like to put Africa on a dirty fossil fuel path. They are looking for a new market because the rest of the world is moving away from fossil fuels. So we need to counter that and build political support and grassroots demand and try to motivate the kind of policies and investments that aim to advance renewable energy development through a shift away from fossil fuels. And the way to do that is to ensure we can have communities up in front of climate advocacy efforts.
Disclaimer: Mat Hope is Editor of DeSmog UK, and Mohamed Adow sits on the Board of Directors of DeSmog UK Ltd.
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Must reads from the region:
The Nigerian government has shown its commitment to ‘building back better’ in its new Economic and Sustainability Plan, says a former chairman of the House Committee on Climate Change. Through its commitment to ending energy poverty through renewables and using indigenous materials for building, it shows Nigeria remains committed to sustainable growth despite the economic impact of COVID-19.
In West Africa, Climate Change Equals Conflict, Robert Muggah, Foreign Policy
By increasing food insecurity and accelerating displacement, climate change is becoming a key driver of conflict in West Africa, this report claims. Combine that with delicate ecosystems and pastoralists competing for new lands and you can see hotspots of conflict emerging from Burkina Faso, to Mali, to Nigeria. Natural climate solutions such as the continent’s Great Green Wall plan can help, but it’s unclear if they’ll be sufficient to counter the growing security impacts of climate change in the region.
Lessons from Africa on climate change adaptation, Declan Conway and Katherine Vincent, Carbon Brief
From Malawi to Zambia, new ways of gathering and sharing information are informing climate adaptation strategies. Here, two academics share case studies of innovative ways communities on the continent are adopting ‘participatory scenario planning’ and other risk methodologies to make the right adaptation choices.
A Surprise in Africa: Air Pollution Falls as Economies Rise, Shola Lawal, New York Times
Levels of dangerous nitrogen oxides in the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa have declined sharply as wealth and population in the area have increased, a new study has found. This goes against what is often assumed: that economic development means more pollution. The reason for the inversion of that expectation appears to be simple: As pollution from industry and transportation has increased, farmers have been burning less biomass to clear the land for planting -- a situation that isn’t guaranteed to continue.
What else I've been reading:
The first factsheet in a series from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) and Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) on climate insecurities, with this one focussing on Somalia. It’s a detailed analysis of how climate change is driving insecurity in an already unstable country. It says climate-related displacement is likely to significantly increase, and that armed groups like Al Shabaab can take advantage of climate impacts by positioning themselves as service and relief providers following droughts and floods. As the world is understandably distracted by the short-term challenge of tackling COVID-19, it is a sobering reminder of the long-term challenges some people face.
Who we are
From A Climate Correspondent is a weekly newsletter exploring the climate crisis from around the globe run by four journalists. We regularly feature guest writers.
Lou Del Bello is an energy and climate journalist based in Delhi, India.
Jocelyn Timperley is a climate journalist based in San José, Costa Rica.
Purple Romero is a climate change and human rights journalist based in Hong Kong.
Mat Hope is investigative journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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