London, United Kingdom

29 November 2021

Deputy Secretary-General's remarks at the 120th Annual Lecture at the Royal African Society: “Africa in a just transition: Investing in a sustainable recovery” [as prepared for delivery]

Excellencies, distinguished guests, Dear friends, Faculty.

It is a real pleasure to be here with you today to commemorate the 120th Anniversary of the Royal African Society.  I am grateful to my sister Arunma Oteh the Chair and Nicholas Westcott the Director of the Royal African Society for this gracious invite and the work to connect, celebrate and engage critically with a wide range of topics and ideas about Africa.  

I would like to share a few reflections as another challenging year comes to a close, but also to offer some hope.  Next year, 2022, will see Africa at the center of the global push for just and equitable climate action at COP27 in Egypt.

The global community continues to face a triple crisis of COVID, climate and debt – all exacerbated by unsustainable and rising inequalities within and between countries compounded by the absence of global leadership able to respond adequately on all fronts. However, let’s also remember that the world was already off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 prior to the onset of the pandemic.

The WHO reports of COVID resurgence across the globe show that the pandemic is not yet under control and that we still have a long road to reach equitable global access to vaccines.

The recent variant – Omicron – shows what happens when the virus is left to run riot. As we have said from the onset, unless COVID-19 is eradicated everywhere, somewhere will have it.

Many developing countries, especially countries in Africa, still do not have access to enough vaccines and continue to be constrained by limitations on global supply chains and unfair practices. In low-income countries, just about 6 percent of the population has received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine while many in the developed world are already receiving their boosters. This is a stark absence of the necessary solidarity.

It is clear that to end a global pandemic, we need a global vaccination strategy. The entire United Nations system is working in support of the WHO plan to vaccinate 40 percent of people in all countries by the end of this year, and 70 percent by the middle of 2022.

The socioeconomic impact on African countries and the recovery is another potential source of increased and entrenched inequalities.

Governments globally have provided 16 trillion dollars’ worth of COVID stimulus measures. Advanced economies are investing nearly 28 per cent of their Gross Domestic Product into economic recovery in their own countries.

For middle-income countries, that number falls to 6.5 per cent. For the Least Developed Countries, it’s less than 2 per cent – of a much smaller amount.

Eight out of every ten dollars of COVID recovery has been spent in the developed world. While the development gains in Africa are eroding before our eyes. Job losses, healthcare workers exodus, poverty levels, increased conflicts and instability.

Developing countries have been rocked by a COVID-fueled debt crunch that has reached crisis levels, making the recovery from the pandemic in many instances a distant mirage.

As some parts of the world are indeed recovering from COVID, others are wondering what the future holds. And in particular the young people in those countries.

As explained in the recently released Our Common Agenda by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, levels of inequality within and between nations are rising faster, further exacerbated by COVID-19 and an uneven economic recovery, due to the structural and systemic deficiencies in the global economic and financial system. A system that rewards short-termism, including the destruction of the natural environment, rather than advancing a social contract, managing better our critical commons and global public goods, and adopting an inclusive and just approach to global development.

Poverty and hunger are rising for the first time in decades with 150 million people in developing countries pushed back into extreme poverty since the start of the pandemic.

So dear guests, dear friends,

As the second most populous continent, net zero carbon neutral, Africa emits less than 4 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and about three-quarters of these come from just five countries.

Emissions per capita in Africa are among the lowest in the world. The average African emits just 0.8 megatons of carbon dioxide per year – less than 6 percent of the amount emitted by the average American. 

Although Africa’s contribution to the climate crisis has been and remains negligible, the continent is among the most vulnerable regions of the world, with 35 of the 50 most vulnerable to climate impact countries.

Africans paid for and continue to pay for the progress of wealthy nations. The stark reality is that Africans are being disproportionally affected by a global phenomenon that they contributed least to bringing about. Our women and youth are those who have borne the burden are even more.

Sadly, extreme weather events, including flooding, drought and heat waves, are only going to increase in frequency and intensity across the continent.

Projections indicate that by 2040, climate change will cause a loss of between 2 to 4 percent of GDP in the region. These are hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

And GDP – a measure that values fossil fuels - is an average that can hide massive disparities. Some areas could become completely uninhabitable.

I have witnessed this in my own lifetime around the Lake Chad Basin, where I grew up. Today, the lake is just 10 percent of its original size and millions of livelihoods have been lost – by farmers, fishermen and women, smallholders and market-place sellers.

As a result, there is now food insecurity, greater instability, and violence that makes headlines around the world.

It’s nearly impossible to see a harvest  – yet fertile ground for extremists including Boko Haram.

Unless we act now, we face a risk that versions of this story will be replicated across our continent.

But this is not inevitable.

We can still decide to write another story of our continent. We have the power to change the narrative and take a pathway for Africa’s recovery that reflects the aspirations of Africa’s 2063 Agenda.

Dear friends,

Despite this grim picture, there is still a silver lining in the dark covid cloud.

The Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement are still our north star and still within reach.

Through genuine international cooperation and solidarity, we can build back stronger, more inclusive and resilient communities and economies, bridge inequality gaps, and chart a prosperous future for people and planet, leaving no one behind.

I firmly believe that with international cooperation based on trust, collaboration and solidarity, we can bridge the enormous gaps that divide us and marshal a sustainable and equitable global recovery.

The challenge seems enormous, especially in Africa where it is compounded by decreasing international development assistance.

My friends, you may well ask me: where do we start, and what do we prioritize?

You may well ask where we start and what we prioritize. We first must change our mindsets. We have the human and natural capacity to flex muscle at many a table.

We start by investing in the huge opportunity of Africa’s young workforce, with much of the continent’s infrastructure and energy supply yet to be built. I saw this for myself when I visited the immense solar panel renewable energy field in Morocco.

Taken together, this means African countries can build a modern, competitive, low-carbon industrial base, while investing in a resilient and sustainable future. Green, blue and prosperous at the same time.

The African recovery can leapfrog over climate-destroying fossil fuel technologies to green, sustainable energy and infrastructure.  

This new economy will provide jobs to the 60 percent of the world’s working-age population who will call Africa home in 2030.

Distinguished guests, dear friends,

The first building block of a sustainable future for Africa is sustainable, clean energy.

SDG7 on providing access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all provides a twin challenge: Closing the energy access gap; and decarbonizing our energy systems. These are two sides of the same coin.

Close to 600 million people lack access to electricity in Africa. This represents almost 80 percent of the world’s energy poor. On current trends, this figure will increase to 90 percent by 2030. In sub-Saharan Africa, energy consumption per capita is 16 percent of the world average and 4 percent of the average in North America.

At the same time, most African companies and small businesses suffer chronic electricity disruptions and unreliable supply, impeding cost of delivery, economic growth and competitiveness.

Energy poverty in Africa is the cause of another deadly problem: 900 million people on the continent lack access to clean cooking solutions.

Using biomass for cooking causes indoor air pollution which is responsible for at least 500,000 premature deaths a year, second only to AIDS as a cause of death in Africa.

Clean cooking is also vital for combating global climate emissions and reducing environmental degradation. Open fires and inefficient stoves emit one-quarter of global black carbon emissions, a significant contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide. Integrating clean cooking into urban and rural design of housing. We need to think ambitiously for the poor.

There has been progress in electrification rates in Africa. But that progress has not kept pace with population growth, and people’s aspirations.

The African energy transition must be just, inclusive, and equitable. This means accounting for different contexts across the continent, and accommodating various pathways to net-zero by mid-century.

It must create opportunities not only to end energy poverty, but to grow a modern, competitive industry.

Given its exceptional natural resources, Africa could become the first continent to power its industrialization predominantly through locally available renewable energy sources.

Scaling up the use of modern renewables in industry, buildings and transport sectors would drive job creation, growth and sustainability, and provide a source of energy security for our continent.

Africa is in a better position to manage the intermittent nature of some renewables than many other regions of the world, because of its existing energy mix of, gas, hydro- and geothermal power.
But no two countries will take the same energy transition pathway. Each country must lean on its strengths and make optimal use of its assets and unique circumstances. However, every country must make a start, in order to be well-placed to take action as global energy markets shift to a more sustainable energy future.

In the longer term, technologies including green hydrogen and improved battery storage will further accelerate the decarbonization of the global economy.

Africa is also well-placed to adopt these new technologies, since it has vast deposits of strategically important minerals for the green economy, including manganese, lithium and cobalt.

But this time, instead of the commodity export-driven economies of the past, Africa has a unique opportunity to use these natural resources to build local manufacturing value-chains at the heart of the green economy.

For instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo produces 70 percent of the world cobalt. But currently, local value chains are limited to extraction and export of raw materials. With labour conditions which also need to be improved in many cases.

The phones and Electric Vehicles meanwhile are being produced elsewhere. This must change. These mineral resources must be a building block towards more industrial value addition locally.

Distinguished guests, dear friends,

The second building block of Africa’s transition is land restoration coupled with the sustainable transformation of food systems.

This means stepping up investment in climate-smart, resilient agriculture, agribusiness supply chains and soil improvement.

African forests, peatlands, mangroves and wild expanses serve as powerful carbon sinks and are essential to help the world limit its greenhouse gas emissions.

The Congo Basin, for example, provides a critical service to the world.

The Great Green Wall that is growing across the Sahel will have enormous benefits across sustainable development, from preventing desertification to building local value chains, strengthening economies, driving equality for women and girls and strengthening the social fabric.  

Such initiatives could also become a source of revenue for African countries, through market-based mechanisms that fund preservation and ecosystem services. A green economy born to transform the Sahel.

Distinguished guests, dear friends,

These building blocks could lead to a just and overdue transition to shared prosperity. 

But they require strategic investments at scale in key sectors, including energy, food systems and digitalization.  

Investments in renewable energy in Africa will need to be ramped up dramatically to achieve an energy mix compatible with a 1.5°C pathway. There is a funding gap to move away from coal and other highly polluting fossil fuels like diesel and heavy fuel oil.

In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, some $40 billion is needed annually – at least three times the current levels of financing.

We welcome the partnership agreement struck at COP26 in Glasgow earlier this month between South Africa, European Union member states, the United Kingdom and the United States, to decommission coal power plants and move towards green energy. South Africa is one of the biggest emitters on the continent. It has been able to leverage the needed partnerships towards green transition.

This is proof, as President Ramaphosa said, that countries can take ambitious climate action while increasing their energy security, creating jobs, and harnessing opportunities for investment, with support from developed economies.

But $8.5 billion of promised funding for the partnership pales in comparison to the needs on the ground. Current estimates vary, but investment needs in the power sector this decade alone are around 1 Trillion rands, or about 62 billion US dollars. Just Transition needs are estimated at $35 billion at least.

A just energy transition in Africa is about creating the conditions for a sustainable industrial emergence and real economic diversification. Africa cannot keep waiting for funding pledges to be fulfilled. The continent receives just 5 percent of total climate finance.

And accessing funds via dedicated institutions can be a lengthy and cumbersome process and experience, sometimes taking years, when the needs on the ground are immediate.

Excessive red tape and bureaucracy also needs to must addressed, conditions should be minimal, and processes need to be more efficient. If finance is not readily accessible, it might as well not be available.

The pledge made by developed economies twelve years ago to mobilize $100 billion per year for developing countries has not been delivered yet – and may not be for some time to come. To quote the Secretary-General, the message to the developing world is that the cheque is in the mail. God only knows when it will arrive.

This pledge is a handshake. Failure to honour it is a  breach of trust.

Distinguished guests, dear friends,

This brings me to one of the greatest challenges to international cooperation: a deficit of trust.

This has been brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine inequality, and the unequal recovery.

Pandemic recovery efforts have demonstrated the limits of global solidarity, from access to vaccines to stimulus funding.

But let us be clear: climate finance is not charity.

Africa doesn’t need donors; it needs partners.

Investments in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and the digital economy are profitable and will yield real returns.

What is needed is a reform of the financial architecture so that capital can flow where it is needed, at scale and under reasonable terms.

The cost of capital remains disproportionately high for African countries, while their European counterpart can borrow from capital markets at near zero percent interest.

This means borrowing and servicing debt can amount to as much as two thirds of the cost of renewable energy projects.

Such costs are a serious barrier to investment at a time when it is needed on a massive scale, so that African countries can adapt to climate change while accelerating low carbon growth.

Developing countries that are facing a growing debt burden and shrinking fiscal space cannot increase public spending to address their development needs, their climate commitments, their health and their recovery without fresh, highly concessional or grant finance. 

We welcome the recent round of $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights allocations by the International Monetary Fund last August. This has helped to alleviate some of the most urgent liquidity needs.

Some $33 billion of these SDRs went to African countries. For some smaller economies, this represented as much as 6 percent of their GDP.

In addition, the voluntary channeling of SDRs by countries with strong external positions will allow the IMF to further support low and lower middle-income countries.

The Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust and the newly created Resilience and Sustainability Trust, the RST, show some promise.  

The RST could mobilize more than $50 billion to assist countries in responding to the immediate health emergency and to invest in adaptation and resilience.

However, these measures are ad-hoc emergency interventions.

They do not address systemic shortcomings, structural inequalities and the biases built into the international financial architecture.

Africa’s current share of the global green bond market is less than 1 percent -- although these are precisely the type of financial tools that could help move the needle.

The global financial architecture needs long-term reform.

We need innovative solutions over the coming months and years to unlock trillions of dollars of investment in Africa.  The return, despite the perceived risks, is formidable.

Pathways could include ways of de-risking  investments in climate action; leveraging the balance sheets of multilateral development banks; attracting private capital;  and pricing carbon.

We should also consider new metrics that measure countries’ overall progress in alignment with sustainable development targets, rather than relying on GDP alone.

All public and private financial flows should be consistent with the Paris Agreement and the SDGs.

I know that my dear brother and sisters at the African Development Bank, the Economic Commission for Africa and the World Trade Organization, and in many other partner organizations, are teeming with ideas and proposals.

Distinguished guests, dear friends,

Before I close, I would like to say a few words specifically about the latest climate negotiations that took place at COP26.

The UK presidency deserves credit for the Glasgow Climate Pact, which gives us a clear collective direction of travel.

The Pact reiterates the need to meet the 1.5C temperature goal, and to accelerate action this decade.

It recognizes for the first time that getting out of coal, and investing in the green economy by ending inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, are two of the most important steps countries needed to take to protect our climate and our planet.

This is a clear and important political and market signal.

The Pact also delivers a clear instruction to donor countries to double finance for adaptation by 2025 from 2019 levels, to 50 percent of all climate finance, or about $40 billion.

And beyond the numbers, adaptation - meaning protecting vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change - was finally recognized as a priority, for the first time.

This was overdue. This was absolutely necessary.

And this was an African priority.

So while we remain disappointed that countries could not agree on more ambitious measures, we also welcome progress that was made, particularly boosting finance for adaptation and encouraging international financial institutions to consider climate vulnerabilities in their concessional financing.

Similarly, Gender responsive climate action received much needed attention and political support at COP26, especially during the dedicated Gender Day, which saw many concrete commitments, like funding for mainstreaming gender into climate programs.

But undoubtedly it is the Youth once again who stole the show in Glasgow. Without the wonderful youth climate activists, like Vanesa Nakate from Uganda, political and business leaders would not feel the same level of pressure to act.

They are welcome steps – but they are not enough.

And as Vanessa said: “Humanity will not be saved with promises.”

Distinguished guests and dear friends,

We are at a decisive moment for our planet.

We know what to do – and now, we must do it.

I see a growing realization that delivering on climate action and the SDGs during this decade is the only option – for Africa, and for the world. We need to work on our common agenda, and center our work on the SDGs, if we want to truly advance together, leaving no one behind.

The coalition for green, sustainable, inclusive communities and economies is growing by the day. I invite you to join!

Recovery from the pandemic can create a once-in-a-generation opportunity, if managed wisely.

And the next Conference of the Parties on climate change, the next COP, will be an African COP, held in Sharm Al Sheikh.  

COP27 must build on Glasgow and advance African priorities, particularly adaptation and finance.

Now is the time for people everywhere to raise their voices and demand action.

We have the knowledge and the science. We need the solidarity.

Political will doesn’t come from one decision or one conference.

It comes from millions of individual actions, by teachers, presidents, shareholders, CEOs, scientists, employees, students, entrepreneurs, parents and grandparents, and yes, diplomats and political leaders.

It comes from me and you.

Together, let’s call on leaders in Africa and beyond to take the decisions and make the investments we need for people and for planet.

Thank you.