Kenya dispatch: Inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi shapes the global climate justice discourse Dispatches
© JURIST / Edwin Gakunga
Kenya dispatch: Inaugural Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi shapes the global climate justice discourse

Edwin Gakunga is a student at the Kenya School of Law and a JURIST Assistant Editor. He files this dispatch from Nairobi. 

Filing from the vibrant city of Nairobi, Kenya, I find myself privileged to be a part of history, reporting for JURIST at the inaugural Africa Climate Summit (ACS) hosted right here at the iconic Kenyatta International Conference Center (KICC). This monumental gathering, which commenced Monday and is set to continue until Wednesday, has drawn stakeholders from every corner of Africa and the globe. They are converging to engage in critical deliberations, all centered around the paramount issues of climate change and climate finance, in alignment with the ambitious UN Sustainable Development Goal 13 – a global commitment to combat climate change and its far-reaching effects. The ACS stands as a beacon of hope and collaboration for Africa, as the world’s collective gaze turns towards the urgent need for innovative solutions to tackle this existential challenge.

At the heart of this historic gathering, it’s worth noting that the ACS is not merely a solo endeavor; it’s a collaborative effort emblematic of the unity needed to address global climate change effectively. Hosted by Kenya and co-hosted in partnership with the African Union, this summit signifies the importance of regional and continental cooperation in confronting one of the most pressing challenges of our time. Together, Kenya and the African Union are setting the stage for global discussions on climate action, emphasizing the shared responsibility that extends beyond borders and transcends geopolitical divides.

A quick glance at the summit’s website reveals that the organizers’ commitment to providing a comprehensive platform for information dissemination aligns with the transparency and accountability principles embedded in international climate agreements, where nations are obligated to share emissions data and climate actions. The ACS also aims to frame commitments and pledges that resonate with the legal concept of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement, crucial for defining each nation’s climate-related obligations. The goal of influencing commitments and outcomes mirrors the consensus-building processes inherent in climate negotiations, ensuring collective actions adhere to the legal obligations of these agreements. Lastly, the mission to develop the Nairobi Declaration on Green Growth and Climate Finance holds legal weight as a foundational document guiding future actions and legal obligations.

The President of Kenya, H.E. William S. Ruto, speaking during the ACS opening ceremony Monday, emphasized that Africa will not shy away from confronting difficult conversations and uncomfortable realities. The difficult conversations span policy regulations, taxation, trade, and climate justice, all of which will be scrutinized on national, regional, and global scales. However, Ruto urged a shift in the way we approach these discussions—an opportunity-lens approach. His rationale is that within these climate challenges lie immense opportunities that can benefit the people of Africa. The summit’s purpose is not merely to catalog grievances and problems but to scrutinize ideas and assess perspectives to generate solutions.

Significantly, the summit’s import becomes evident through its departure from conventional climate discourse, as emphasized by President Ruto as host. Ruto asserts that it is time to move beyond the blame game—North vs. South, developing vs. developed, and polluters vs. victims dichotomies. This assertion does not diminish the undeniable fact that Africa’s contribution to global carbon emissions is relatively small, even as the continent bears the disproportionate brunt of climate change’s devastating impacts. In fact, Africa’s share of global carbon emissions stands at just four percent, yet it grapples with some of the most severe consequences of rising global temperatures. Regardless, the urgent imperative to address these challenges lies at the core of the summit’s mission – to unite individuals worldwide, crossing generational boundaries, in envisioning a future anchored in principles of equality and shared responsibility for sustainable climate action.

The remarks made by President Ruto first point to the principle of equity in climate law, emphasizing the need for a fair distribution of the responsibilities to combat climate change, particularly considering historical emissions. This aligns with the legal doctrine of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR), a fundamental principle of international environmental law that acknowledges that all countries have a responsibility to address global environmental problems, even though this responsibility is not equal. The CBDR principle is based on the recognition that countries have different levels of development, different contributions to the problem, and different capabilities to address it. Secondly, Ruto’s emphasis on the disproportionate human toll of climate change invokes the concept of climate justice, a legal principle that highlights the protection of human rights in the face of climate impacts. It calls for equitable solutions that safeguard vulnerable populations. Lastly, his call for global unity underscores the legal principle of shared responsibility, emphasizing cooperation among nations, regardless of their historical emissions.

In my observation of the ongoing Summit, it is evident that this gathering transcends the realm of climate discourse—it delves deep into the intricate and vital domain of climate justice. The Africa Climate Summit (ACS) emerges as an arena wherein the quest to safeguard the fundamental human rights of individuals and communities already bearing the brunt of climate change’s devastating consequences takes center stage.

As per Amnesty International, the effects of the climate emergency are glaringly evident in Africa. Many individuals are experiencing forced relocation, uncertainty in crop yields, and challenges in accessing adequate food. Additionally, water supplies are under growing strain. What makes this situation remarkably unfair is that the people least responsible for causing the climate crisis, often lacking sufficient resources to shield themselves, are consistently enduring the most severe consequences.

President Ruto’s emphasis on addressing challenging legal aspects within the climate discourse underscores a critical imperative in the pursuit of effective climate governance. The examination of policy regulations, taxation, trade dynamics, and climate justice, across various scales, reflects a holistic approach to climate law and governance. Ruto’s advocacy for an opportunity-driven perspective within these discussions highlights the legal community’s role in harnessing the transformative potential inherent in climate challenges. This approach could translate to the creation of legal frameworks that not only address grievances and challenges but also proactively facilitate innovative solutions, ultimately serving the best interests of the people of Africa in alignment with principles of equity and justice.

As I see it, the call for a just energy transition away from fossil fuels resonates as a clarion call for climate justice. It acknowledges the environmental, social, and economic disparities inherent in the fossil fuel industry, which has disproportionately affected marginalized communities. Shifting towards cleaner, sustainable energy sources not only mitigates climate change but also rectifies historical injustices and ensures equitable access to energy for all.

The prevailing discussions on climate change adaptation are a testament to the commitment of this Summit to addressing climate injustices. As climate change continues to disrupt lives and livelihoods, it is imperative to devise strategies that empower vulnerable communities with the tools and knowledge to adapt to the evolving climate reality. In doing so, we are not merely mitigating environmental challenges; we are also safeguarding the basic human rights and dignities of those most vulnerable to these changes.

The intrinsic interconnectedness of climate justice and gender justice has notably been advanced here at the ACS. During the inauguration ceremony, Memory Kachambwa, the Executive Director of the African Women’s Development and Communications Network, passionately declared, “We cannot genuinely discuss a just transition unless women are at its core. The discourse on climate justice must encompass everyone, as the climate crisis has touched us all.” She added, “African women have borne the brunt of the climate crisis, experiencing loss and devastation, and their unique perspectives must never be marginalized. Climate justice cannot exist without gender justice.”

Gender equality and the empowerment of women are enshrined in numerous international agreements, including the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Therefore, the insistence that women’s perspectives and experiences be integral to climate discussions aligns with both legal mandates and the broader notion of justice. Climate justice, as a legal concept, necessitates addressing the disparate impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities, and women often form a significant part of these marginalized groups. In essence, these statements underscore the legal imperative to ensure that climate policies and actions are gender-responsive, respectful of human rights, and equitable, thereby advancing the goals of climate justice on a global scale.

The ACS has also advanced a discourse on green energy as a means to reach net-zero targets. I have heard concerns regarding displacement for accommodating green energy projects surfacing within the ACS discourse. Notably, with the accelerating transition to green energy, the active involvement of the public takes on heightened importance. Kenya provides a pertinent example, where public participation is a fundamental constitutional principle. Therefore, as new laws and policies take shape in the aftermath of the Africa Climate Summit (ACS), it is imperative that they prioritize and facilitate robust citizen engagement throughout the implementation of green energy initiatives. To my mind, a public participation approach should not only advance sustainability objectives but also place significant emphasis on protecting the rights and interests of the communities affected by these transformative climate action initiatives.

Concurrently, African Climate Week, organized in tandem with the Africa Climate Summit, offers an additional platform for consideration of climate issues. Here, policymakers, practitioners, businesses, and civil society representatives converge to exchange ideas on climate solutions, tackle barriers, and explore opportunities realized in various regions. These efforts are instrumental in shaping the first global stocktake, set to conclude at COP28 in the United Arab Emirates later this year.

As I close this dispatch, I would say that the true measure of the Africa Climate Summit’s efficacy lies in whatever tangible outcomes and policy developments that follow in its wake. While the summit has undoubtedly paved the way for crucial discussions on climate justice and the protection of human rights in the face of climate change, its enduring impact will hinge on the extent to which these dialogues translate into concrete policy measures and actionable solutions. The international community must vigilantly track the implementation of policies arising from the ACS, ensuring that the voices of those most affected by climate injustices are heard, and their rights safeguarded. Only through meaningful policy changes and sustained action can the summit’s ideals manifest as a catalyst for transformative climate action on the African continent and beyond.

In summary, the Africa Climate Summit stands as a milestone, uniting African nations in unprecedented ways and aligning their voices to confront the complex challenges posed by climate change. This summit offers a distinct opportunity for the African continent to foster unity and exert a meaningful impact on the global climate action agenda. As Africa steers through these crucial dialogues, the world watches with eager anticipation, acknowledging that the Africa Climate Summit could indeed unlock the door to a more sustainable and equitable future for all.