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Activists hoped Egypt’s COP27 would bring a focus on Africa. They were disappointed

The crowd was loving what Bhekumuzi Bhebhe had to say, cheering loudly as he yelled “don’t gas Africa!” into the megaphone.

Standing under the baking Egyptian sun at the COP27 UN climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh on Tuesday, Bhebhe, a South Africa-based climate campaigner, was protesting against what he says is an attempt by rich countries to bribe Africa into investing in planet-warming fossil fuels.

In his mind, it’s yet another example of the hypocrisy western countries have showed toward the continent – which has barely contributed to the climate crisis but is experiencing some of its most devastating effects.

“Is this justice?!” he asked his fellow protesters. “No!” the crowd yelled back.

The Egyptian government, which is hosting and presiding over the UN-sponsored climate talks, had promised this year’s summit would finally be the “African COP” that would put the needs of the continent front and center.

Unfulfilled promises

But according to many representatives of countries across Africa, that promise remains largely unfulfilled.

Mohamed Adow, the director and founder of Power Shift Africa, a non-governmental organization focused on accelerating renewable energy there, said at an event on Sunday that the developments so far show the conference was “African in the name only.”

Any hopes that the summit would really focus on Africa were dashed early, when the conference participants denied a request by a group of African governments to include a discussion about the continent’s “special needs and circumstances” on the official agenda.

Philip Osano, the director of the Africa Center at the Stockholm Environment Institute, told CNN that the recognition of the special circumstances was one of the top three priorities for many African governments, along with climate finance and the clean energy transition.

“Africa contributes less than 4.8% of emissions, but the impacts have now become very serious, that’s why this is a priority item,” he said. 

“The bad news is, it’s off the agenda. But it’s very complicated, because other parts of the world – especially small island states, developing countries – everybody is kind of having a special circumstance when it comes to climate.” 

Mithika Mwenda, the Kenyan co-founder of the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance, said he was “outraged” by the decision not to include the discussion on the agenda. Speaking after the item was struck, Mwenda said the development “set the stage for another COP that will fail millions of Africans dying unjustly” from climate change.

Paying for loss and damage

Some of the leaders of countries that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis – many of which are in Africa – have come to Sharm el Sheikh with high hopes that developed countries would finally agree to pay for the loss and damage already caused by climate change.

The idea is simple: countries that got rich using fossil fuels that have caused the crisis should help those that are most affected by it deal with the devastating consequences.

Going into the summit, leaders of climate-vulnerable countries said this was their number one priority, and there was hope that a new funding facility could be established this year. But negotiations have proven tough. Some of the richest countries are united in pushing against the idea of setting up a new fund. 

The United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have all been trying to kick the can down the road, saying they want to establish a “process” that would lead to an “outcome” by 2024.

But for countries that are seeing their coasts disappear and their people drown in devastating floods or starve because of droughts, that is not good enough.

“We had pledges, statements and commitments. But we need comprehensive proposals. We already have concept notes, we already have proposals, we already have our [emission cutting plans], we need to move into implementations,” Edward Bendu, the chief environmental officer at Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Lands, Country Planning and the Environment, told CNN in an interview at the summit.

Bendu, who is representing a country that is among the most impacted by the climate crisis, said that access to existing climate finance is difficult and that the current financing options are not fit for purpose. 

“It takes about three four years to access funds,” he said. “That’s too late for us, we can’t address the loss and damage issues that way.” 

There have been some positive movements coming from the summit. Germany has been spearheading a new loss and damage program called the Global Shield that it hopes would make money available faster for countries suffering from weather disasters. 

The EU and several of its member states announced Wednesday they “will provide over €1 billion ($1.04 billion) for climate adaptation in Africa.” The bloc also said it would add €60 million ($62.2 million) to the loss and damage pot.

But as is often the case with climate finance announcements, the devil is in the detail.

Delving into the figures, it emerged that of the €345 million ($357 million) the European Commission would contribute to the package, only €220 million ($228 million) is a “new commitment,” according to a statement released Wednesday.

The rest of the €345m was already pledged elsewhere in the past. And as for the €60 million for loss and damage, that money is included in the €220 million rather than being an additional sum. The EU didn’t give a breakdown on the contributions from individual states. CNN has contacted the bloc for comment and more details on the announcement. 

For the developing world, the bottom line remains that the promise of funding remains unfulfilled. Under the Paris Agreement, rich countries pledged to provide $100 billion a year in climate financing to developing world by 2020. Two years after the deadline, the target has still not been met.

Energy front end center

The battle over Africa’s future energy infrastructure has emerged as one of the key issues at the summit.

Around 600 million Africans don’t have access to electricity and almost a billion don’t have clean cooking facilities, relying instead on burning solid biomass, kerosene or coal as their primary cooking fuel, according to the International Energy Agency.

Experts and activists are stressing that many African countries are getting locked in fossil fuel investments that are polluting and will likely prove uneconomical in a few years.

It is not a hypothetical issue. Many of the world’s richest countries are pushing for more fossil fuel investments in several African countries as they try to wean themselves of Russian gas because of the war in Ukraine.

The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz flew to Dakar earlier this year and held talks with the Senegalese president Macky Sall – the chair of the African Union – about the development of a new offshore natural gas field. And earlier this month, the Italian energy giant ENI started exporting natural gas from a new deep sea gas field in Mozambique.

These developments are making activists particularly furious.

“It’s a hypocrisy and we are calling it out,” said Omar Elmaawi, a Kenyan activist who has spent years campaigning against the planned East African Crude Oil Pipeline, which is meant to transport oil from Uganda to Tanzania, where it could be sold on international markets.

“Africa has contributed very little to the climate problem, but the fossil fuel companies are using that to their advantage. They say Africa has been left behind and therefore they want to explore the potential so that they can help us develop,” Elmaawi told CNN. 

“But that narrative doesn’t hold up because although they’re calling it ‘development’ they want to exploit these resources and send them into the Global North,” he added.

Elmaawi said he understood the money big fossil fuel companies are offering may look like a lucrative option to some African governments. But he and his fellow activist say they want their governments to think about the future.

“My assessment has always been either our government leaders are really ignorant and stupid, or, some of them have been compromised and they are not working in the best interest of their people,” he said. 

What Elmaawi, Adow and other activists want is for the COP27 conference to help African countries foster more investment into renewable energy. 

According to the IEA, Africa has around 60% of the world’s best solar-energy resources, but only 1% of installed photovoltaic capacity. 

Adow said Africa could easily become a renewable energy superpower.

But instead, he said, “European countries want to turn Africa into their gas station.”