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Why the Africa Climate Summit can’t afford to overlook conflict

‘Conflict isn't merely a side issue; it is an integral part of the equation.’

This photo is taken in South Sudan and shows two men looking inside a house with water reaching their knees. This picture was taken on December 9, 2021, it shows the flooded areas after the rains. SSRCS/Handout/Latin America News Agency
The conflict in South Sudan is just one of many around the world where climate impacts – in this case the worst flooding in 60 years – are acting as a crisis magnifier.

African leaders aren’t just pleading for help on climate change, they’re offering solutions too – but as they do so it’s critical to understand the role the issue is playing in fuelling conflict, and to develop solutions with that in mind.

Kenya is preparing to rally support for this green vision at the Africa climate summit, which opens today in Nairobi. It is also expected to focus on green investments and urge richer countries to follow through on their financial promises. But discussions about climate change can no longer afford to overlook matters of peace and stability.

At the summit for a “New Global Financing Pact” in Paris in June, Kenya’s President William Ruto proposed the establishment of a green global bank – a multilateral development bank funded by global carbon taxes. The idea is to assist developing countries in fighting the debilitating effects of climate change without pushing them further into debt.

Ruto’s calls took inspiration from the Bridgetown Initiative, spearheaded by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, who has underscored how the current international financial architecture is failing developing countries ravaged by climate change and has offered several steps forward

Many climate-vulnerable regions, particularly in Africa, are also grappling with conflict. The hosts of the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) – to be held from 30 November to 12 December in the United Arab Emirates – recognise the need to integrate questions of peace into the climate agenda. They have included this issue for the first time on the Recovery, Relief, and Peace thematic day on 3 December.

Kenya well knows how climate shocks can escalate tensions or conflicts. A severe and protracted drought in recent years in Kenya's Rift Valley set off a cycle of violence as herders and landowners clashed over resources. More than 200 people have died in the region since May 2021. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that temperatures in Kenya will have risen by around 1.7°C by the 2050s, and by approximately 2.8°C at the end of the century. Rainfall is expected to be extremely variable and uncertain. Addressing the environmental consequences of climate change should go hand in hand with the Kenyan government’s attempts to tackle resource-based and cattle-related insecurity.

More broadly, the nexus of climate, peace, and security needs strategies that address vulnerabilities, promote inclusion, and adapt to climate change with conflict sensitivity. 

Neighbouring Somalia has likewise borne the brunt of climate stresses, which have a bearing on conflict. In 2022, during the country’s punishing drought, al-Shabab militants imposed harsh taxes and blockades, and targeted food and water, which spurred resentment against the group in certain vulnerable areas. While al-Shabab’s harsh behaviour during the drought was not the sole cause of a popular uprising and ensuing Somali government offensive against the militants in central Somalia, it certainly played a role.

In South Sudan, which also shares a border with Kenya, four years of flooding has impacted two thirds of the country. The flooding has forced many people, including ethnic Dinka armed to safeguard their herds, to move in greater numbers to the Equatoria region in the south of the country. This movement has amplified the existing conflicts between Dinka migrants and native Equatorians. Efforts to manage climate change in Africa are an integral part of providing security as climate shocks often magnify the factors driving conflicts.

More broadly, the nexus of climate, peace, and security needs strategies that address vulnerabilities, promote inclusion, and adapt to climate change with conflict sensitivity. Consider the energy transition, which is high on the summit’s agenda. Access to energy isn't just about power; it is about empowerment, as about half of Africa’s population has limited to no access to electricity. A transition to renewables would not only fight climate change but also create jobs and bridge gaps between rural and urban communities. The aim is to connect 90 million Africans a year to electricity and shift 130 million people from dirty cooking fuels such as firewood and charcoal.

That can only happen if African governments plan the transition well and develop the required skills locally, although not all governments look capable of doing so due to internal strife or state failure. The continent is home to a third of the world’s mineral reserves including minerals critical to renewable and low-carbon technologies like copper, lithium, and nickel. These hold economic promise if responsibly managed, which is unrealistic if states do not have the capacity to do so. African nations could benefit economically, if they can negotiate fairer deals with say China or the EU. Unchecked exploitation, though, can lead to environmental destruction, spark conflicts, or leave areas open for manipulation by non-state armed actors.

Who will pay for the green energy transition in Africa? Climate financing is paramount, particularly in fragile contexts. While funding mechanisms should be rapid and adaptable, Africa faces numerous obstacles in accessing climate financing. First, there is not enough money. The world’s wealthier nations were expected to contribute $100 billion annually in "climate finance" by 2020, following a commitment made in 2009. While wealthy countries contend they will finally meet this goal this year, it is too little too late and, in reality, a far greater amount will be necessary in the long run. We are talking about trillions, not billions of dollars.

Next, the distribution of climate finance funds from donors is grossly unequal. Crisis Group's analysis reveals that countries grappling with both climate change and conflict receive, on average, only a third of the climate financing per capita of those at peace, because of donors’ risk aversion and the inherent difficulties in generating bankable projects in conflict zones. Bridging this gap and ensuring conflict-sensitive support is crucial for peace and stability.

Observers do not expect many bold financial commitments during this week’s Africa climate summit, which runs Monday through Wednesday (4-6 September). But the fact it is happening at all is at the very least a good step forward on the path to COP28 in Dubai. Thanks to Mia Mottley and William Ruto, reforms of the international financial system are a mainstream topic now. 

Focus should now extend beyond climate and energy alone to address the conflict dynamics that are intertwined with climate change. Conflict isn't merely a side issue; it is an integral part of the equation. From energy transition to climate financing, the impact of conflicts must be woven into strategies if they are to succeed.

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