Kenyan climate activist says Cop27 must deliver for ‘neglected’ Africa

Kenyan climate youth activist Elizabeth Wathuti told world leaders attending the Cop26 climate summit that her message would only land if they had the grace to “fully listen”.

Six months on, the 26 year-old environmentalist looks back at the Glasgow summit with growing frustration as she feels it failed to deliver concrete support for those living on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

Future promises, made in abundance at the summit, offer cold comfort to those on the African continent living with climate-fuelled hunger, flooding and extreme heat, she told The Independent, pointing to climate-related food insecurity in her own country, Kenya.

“They’re not waiting for climate change impacts to hit in the future,” she said. “It’s happening right now.”

A factory worker walks past rows of firewood used to power boilers at the Gitugi Tea Factory in Nyeri county in 2019.

(AFP via Getty Images)

As the dust settles after Glasgow, the next climate summit in Egypt is already looming on the horizon. In six months’ time, world leaders, activists, climate scientists and journalists will descend on the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh to attend the event being dubbed: ‘The African Cop’.

While it is by no means the first climate summit to be organised on the African continent, many hope it may be able to deliver climate justice for countries in the global south after many were disappointed in Glasgow.

Ms Wathuti remains sceptical, however.

“It cannot be framed as an African Cop just because it’s coming to Africa, that in itself is not enough,” she said. “It has to also make sure that the present needs of Africa –  that have always been neglected before – are prioritised in the outcome that we get.”

Now based in Nairobi, Ms Wathuti grew up in one of the most forested regions of Kenya and developed her passion for nature early.

At the age of 7, she planted a tree at her primary school in the Nyeri County, germinating her connection with the natural world.

Later, she says she remembers approaching a forest near her school and finding a collection of tree stumps where the canopy had been felled.

“I remember I was so frustrated, and I could not understand why anyone would destroy such a beautiful forest,” she said. “For me, it was the very first time I felt angry and frustrated seeing part of the forest destroyed.”

Factory workers recharge a kiln with firewood in Nyeri county.

(AFP via Getty Images)

At secondary school she set up an environmental club that planted trees, as she realised not everyone felt the same way about nature as she did.

Ms Wathuti believes those who abuse the environment are missing an emotional connection with the natural world. This is something she hopes she can change, at least for future generations, and it spurred her on to found the Green Generation Initiative. The group focuses on tree growing to help communities tackle the climate crisis, while addressing the issue of people not having access to sufficient food by growing fruit and nurturing young people to love and respect the natural world around them.

The young activist faces an uphill battle.

While Africa is home to close to a fifth of the world’s forests, every year deforestation destroys nearly 3 million hectares of the continent’s forests, according to the United Nations.

It is one of the issues on which Ms Wathuti hopes to see progress made at Cop27 – specifically a concrete plan for how Africa will end deforestation by 2030.

At Cop26 more than 100 national leaders pledged to stop deforestation and begin restoring the world’s forests by the end of the decade, in an agreement that encompasses 85 per cent of the world’s forests. While broadly welcomed by activists at the time, they also warned that action would be needed immediately.

“Giving a timeline is not enough in itself, we need a roadmap,” said Ms Wathuti six months on. “We need them [governments] to tell us how they’re planning to get us there by 2030, we need to know what happens to countries that fail to meet the deadline.”

If those commitments are not delivered it demonstrates world leaders are “running away from being held accountable”, she added.

For Ms Wathuti, accountability is key to the success of international processes such as Cop events, and she suggested that one mechanism to ensure accountability could be to make pledges legally-binding. Next week, she is headed to the World Economic Forum in Davos to remind business leaders and decision-makers what is at stake ahead of Cop27.

An aerial view shows wooden debris of the original location of the former tree house where Queen Elizabeth II of England stayed the night her father, the King, died and became Queen in 1952 in Nyeri, Kenya in 2021

(AFP via Getty Images)

Her hopes for Egypt also include a concrete roadmap for Africa to transition to renewable energy, and for rich countries to double the money they’ve given to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change – as they were urged to do in Glasgow.

She also wants developing countries on the frontline of the climate crisis to be compensated for the “loss and damage” they incur – long a contentious issue on the world stage.

Poorer countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate change argue that they bear the brunt of the climate crisis despite having done little to contribute to global heating. Rich countries have historically strongly opposed the idea, though a dialogue was established at Cop26 to allow formal discussions on the issue to continue.

“What we saw at Cop26 was that the leaders were acknowledging all these gaps – the gap on climate finance, the gap on loss and damage,” she said. “But then no one seemed to be wanting to step up to fill the gaps.”

Asked if she thought holding Cop27 on the African continent would ultimately make a difference on issues such as loss and damage and adaptation finance if people have Africa front of mind, Ms Wathuti said there was no guarantee.

“If they [Africans] are not the ones who are leading and they’re not being heard, and what they bring to the table is not being taken into account, then it’s not going to make any real difference that it’s coming to Africa,” she said.

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