Africa’s Self-Appointed Climate Champion Makes the Hard Sell

By Bloomberg

Dec 08, 2023

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William Ruto at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, on Dec. 1. Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

William Ruto smiled broadly as he took the stage at the COP28 climate summit in Dubai on Saturday and, in front of a dozen heads of state and executives, announced an African investment initiative he helped launch has allocated $2.6 billion for clean power projects in just three months.

Kenya’s president sees the flow of cash for solar and wind energy projects in eight countries as the definitive sign that the rest of the world and — more importantly —  investors no longer see Africa solely as a region of “disease, poverty, conflict,” he said.

“I’m finally persuaded that Africa has a different narrative, that the world is beginning to see Africa as an opportunity, and not as a problematic continent,” Ruto told Bloomberg TV in an interview on the sidelines of COP28. “We’re packaging Africa differently.”

William Ruto at the COP28 climate conference in Dubai, on Dec. 1.Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg

Ruto’s pitch to the global community — the thing that has made him arguably Africa’s leading voice on climate — focuses on the continent’s many unexploited advantages: abundant land, sun, wind and water; 60% of the planet’s renewable power potential; and mineral resources key to powering the global energy transition. The world’s poorest continent is also the worst-impacted by the extreme events fueled by the warming of the planet, despite having contributed least to climate change. 

“What president Ruto has been able to do over the last few years in terms of climate action has been unprecedented,” COP28 President Sultan Al Jaber said at a press conference in Dubai last week.

WATCH: Kenya to Consider Sovereign Green Bonds to Fund Climate Projects

Many of Ruto’s peers on the continent — including Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu and Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi — have vowed to boost fossil fuel production to help their ailing economies. But Ruto has been a rare exception, urging his fellow African leaders just a month after taking office in September 2022 to embrace renewable energy. 

That’s easier for Kenya than most other countries. Its grid is already 92% renewable, though Ruto, who has a PhD in plant ecology, has pledged to push it to 100% by 2030. But his focus from the start has been on investment opportunities rather than compensation or aid, a stance that has earned him a sympathetic ear from leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and multibillion-dollar renewables behemoths like the United Arab Emirates’ Masdar.

“As Africa, we do not want to engage in North versus South, East versus West — ‘developing versus developed’ won’t help us,” Ruto said during the TV interview. “Either we end up figuring out together how to get out or we are in the mess together for the long run.”

The 56-year-old won Kenya’s presidential election with a narrow majority of 50.5% last year. He rose from humble roots as a streetside chicken seller to become one of the country’s biggest poultry farmers and served in various ministerial roles and as deputy president to Uhuru Kenyatta from 2013 to 2022. The pair rode to victory in part by framing International Criminal Court indictments that charged both with fueling ethnic violence following the 2007 election — in which more than 1,100 people died and about 350,000 were forced to flee their homes — as a foreign plot against them. 

Ruto’s run on the international climate stage has put further distance between him and his past, culminating earlier this year when he hosted the first Africa Climate Summit, where 17 African heads of state signed the Nairobi Declaration. It was the first time a group of leaders on the continent laid out a joint position on climate. They set a target for boosting African renewable power capacity to 300 gigawatts by 2030 from 56 gigawatts in 2022, made plans to reform carbon markets to secure more revenue domestically and called for wide-ranging debt relief including a 10-year grace period on interest payments.

But the gains remain largely rhetorical. “He’s trying to position himself as the one pushing these big agendas,” said Oulie Keita, Greenpeace Africa’s executive director. “He’s building momentum, but now he needs to act.”

Money is the key for Ruto to succeed. Last year, the unanimous approval by almost 200 nations of a Loss and Damage fund to help poor countries recover from climate disasters was seen as a historic victory three decades in the making. This year’s agreement on the fund’s rules at the start of COP28, and the first pledges by rich nations, are also seen as steps forward.

But just $650 million in funding has been announced, and not all of it’s new, according to BloombergNEF. Africa alone requires an additional $579 billion in funding this decade to adapt to a warmer planet, according to the Global Center on Adaptation. 

The fund is “a step in the right direction,” Ruto said during the interview. “Is that money enough? Is that fund alone going to sort this out? I don’t think so.”

William Ruto speaks during the Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sept. 6.Photographer: Fredrik Lerneryd/Bloomberg

Despite his international jet setting and speeches to foreign parliaments, Ruto has not yet publicly said where the rest of the money might come from and has so far failed to use his newly-gained prominence to push the leaders of rich countries harder, said Mohamed Adow, director of Kenya-based advocacy group Power Shift Africa.

“What you have is somebody with good rhetoric — but who is falling short on practical issues that would deliver real solutions for the continent,” he said. “He needs to really push leaders in the Global North.”

Raising private funds for renewable power projects in Africa is challenging. The continent attracted just 2% of the $3 trillion invested in clean energy in 2023, according to the International Energy Agency. These difficulties — together with Europe’s  hunger for new sources of gas following the global energy crisis sparked by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 — have led some African governments to favor fossil fuel projects. Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania, along with Nigeria and Senegal, are pushing forward with plans to produce more oil and gas.

The assets risk becoming stranded as global demand for fossil fuel declines in coming decades, said Wanjira Mathai, managing director for Africa at the World Resources Institute.

“The only reason countries are looking at exploiting fossil fuel reserves is because there’s no finance flowing for renewable energies, she said.

Fighting the climate crisis requires boosting renewable power globally, Ruto said. But also “a whole buffet of interventions” including bold commitments by rich countries, the reform and recapitalization of international finance institutions, carbon markets and a new approach to how credit rating agencies and financial institutions perceive country risk. 

Getting almost 200 countries at COP to agree on an effective way to slow down climate change in a way that’s fair to Africa and its people won’t be easy. The world faces one of the most complex geopolitical moments in recent history, and a cost of living crisis is tightening budgets everywhere. That includes Kenya, where protests against tax hikes have been heavily repressed, with police killing at least 30 protesters between March and July, according to Amnesty International Kenya.

Further complicating things for Kenya is a drought and floods made worse by climate change, which have resulted in 2.5 million livestock deaths and 2.8 million people experiencing food insecurity, according to the UN. Ruto’s presidency has been marred by controversial decisions on the environment too, including lifting a moratorium on logging in public and community land and the mass eviction of the Ogiek people in the name of protecting the Mau Forest.

Some investors question Ruto’s true motives. Churchill Ogutu, an economist at Ghana-based investment manager IC Asset Managers, noted that debt relief has always ranked high on the Kenyan president’s climate finance push. 

“There are a number of ways of going about climate financing progressively,” Ogutu said. “The emphasis of retrospective measures – such as debt restructuring – just shows how some countries are piggybacking on the climate financing agenda as an alternative to fiscal discipline.”

Public discontent with his leadership “is not a Kenyan situation, it’s a global issue,” Ruto said. Across Europe and Africa, leaders are being forced to make tough choices.

“Some of the decisions might not be popular, some of the decisions might be difficult,” he said. “But if they’re the right decisions, finally they will pull us out of this crisis.”

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

By Laura Millan , David Herbling


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