How can we improve UN climate COPs? Elizabeth Wathuti weighs in

EXCLUSIVE: Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti has said that we are still “not seeing, in seriousness, a crisis response” from the COP process, putting forward a vision of international engagement where “selfishness” gives way to solutions designed with justice in mind.

How can we improve UN climate COPs? Elizabeth Wathuti weighs in

More than a year has passed since COP26 in Glasgow. For anyone working in environmental sustainability, this was a major highlight in the calendar, convening more than 40,000 people.

Taking much of the mainstream media attention was the World Leaders’ Summit portion of the COP – the first two days, in which special addresses are given by leaders representing each participating nation. Some of the most memorable speeches included that of Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who slammed wealthy nations’ half-hearted climate efforts as “reckless”, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who unveiled a 2070 net-zero target for his nation.

Joining these world leaders on stage was Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti. The then-26-year-old captivated attendees in Glasgow and viewers across the world with her plea for world leaders to “open their hearts” and “have the grace to fully listen” to the most climate-vulnerable communities.

Ahead of her upcoming appearance at edie 23 in March (scroll down for details), Wathuti expresses continued disappointment that this call to action was not reflected in the Glasgow Climate Pact. She said: “We left Glasgow with an outcome that was not really promising for communities on the frontlines, facing the worst impacts of climate change right now.”

There was a shift at COP27 in Egypt two months ago, in her opinion.  She welcomes the “breakthrough” on loss and damage; After decades of tireless campaigning by the most affected people and communities (MAPA), nations agreed to create a new fund and facility, overcoming previous opposition by the likes of the US, UK and EU.  Wathuti spoke of “so much advocacy” until “the very last minute” to secure this.

But Wathuti also shares concerns that COP27 “did not deliver in terms of addressing the root causes of the problem”, calling more funding for loss, damage and adaptation without strong pledges to deeply and rapidly cut emissions “treating the symptoms”.

The final text weakened language on fossil fuels, partly due to interventions by oil and gas exporters. It only requires a ‘phase down’ of fossil fuels, not a phase-out. Subsidies are OK indefinitely so long as they are not ‘inefficient’. And nations do not have to shift to renewables and/or nuclear, they can supplement fossil fuels with other ‘technology’, even if it is emissions benefits are unproven.

“We had an expectation that COP27 would be different – that nations would agree to take responsibility,” Wathuti says. “In this case, responsibility does not mean new investments in fossil fuels.”

Beyond these top-level thoughts on the final agreements struck in Sharm El-Sheikh, Wathuti outlines several ways in which the COP process can be improved going forward to ensure that the scale of the response meets the scale of the crisis – on both mitigation and adaptation and loss and damage.

As any COP is doubtless one of the largest climate engagement activities in its given year, her calls to action chime well with edie’s ongoing focus week on sustainability engagement (23 – 27 January).

Closing loopholes that enable delays

Wathuti called the Glasgow Climate Pact “more like a dialogue”, in that the ‘agreement’ reached in many cases was simply to have further discussions in subsequent years. For example, much of the detail of Paris Agreement Article 6 on carbon markets, which was meant to be finalised in Glasgow, was pushed back to COP27. It is still not finalised and, according to experts, there is no hard deadline for agreeing on some facets.

Even when deadlines are set, they are not always met. The Pact saw nations pledging to update their Paris Agreement plans within a year, but most failed to do so, with many arguing that addressing the energy crisis and rising cost of living took precedence. Fewer than 30 of the 190+ nations participating in the UN submitted updated plans on time.

Wathuti tells edie that, even in this situation – perhaps, especially in this situation – nations cannot be allowed to delay. She explains that she is “not seeing, in seriousness, a crisis response” to climate issues, despite seeing this kind of response to Covid-19 and to the ending of Russian fossil exports.

She says: “Nations talk about every other crisis, right now, that comes up. The energy crisis risks becoming more prominent than the climate crisis, and without recognition that all of these issues are connected. If we address them in a connected way, we will easily find solutions.”

Wathuti calls for future COPs to, in energy work, adopt an ethos of the just transition. This ethos involves the pathway to clean energy which is as fair as possible, with benefits shared and burdens shouldered in an equitable manner – by those most able to carry them and most liable for them historically.

Through a just transition lens, Germany, a historically high emitter, would not be able to bulldoze a village to expand a coal mine. The UK would not be able to finance mega-gas projects in Mozambique, with the Global North reaping the exports while locals continue to go without energy access. Kenya, where 81% of energy generation is clean but energy access is not universal, would be supported to improve energy access with clean and local solutions. Energy efficiency would be improved in all geographies, with a focus on improvements in the homes of those most in need.

Building in accountability

In a bid to end the culture of delays and to get nations to develop and deliver Paris-aligned pledges, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently added a new ‘Climate Action Summit’ to the diary for September 2023.

Guterres is calling for nations to present “credible, serious and new” solutions and plans that “will move the needle forward”. At present, national Paris mitigation pledges are aligned with a 2.5C temperature trajectory even if they are delivered in full.  Guterres has warned that there will be “no room for back-sliders, greenwashers, blame-shifters or repackaging of announcements of previous years”.

Wathuti welcomed the creation of the Summit and shared hopes that it could usher in greater accountability year-round.

She says: “When leaders come together, there is a platform for them to be held to account. But, at the same time, it is in the periods between these forums, conferences and summits that change happens.”

She would like to see a requirement for world leaders at COPs not only to update their pledges but to report what their nation has achieved between summits. This information should be publicly accessible and easy to compare, enabling nations to be held to account.

Wathuti also emphasises the importance of accountability on pledges beyond mitigation. On the loss and damage funding, she says: “What I now think is needed is a lot more of a push – externally and internally – to make sure that this isn’t just another promise… what communities on the frontlines actually need is access to this finance when disasters hit. There also needs to be a move not just one step further, but several steps, because we have known about this issue for years.

“When it’s just now being recognised in the text for the first time, it’s a signal that we cannot continue to not show solidarity and to not take responsibility for the climate crisis in bigger ways.”

While the energy crisis may be prompting nations to set aside climate mitigation in favour of short-term solutions, there is an arguement that the opposite is true for loss and damage – that current events are laying bare the fragility of planning. Wathuti says: “The global community can no longer shy away or ignore these issues – we can see them every day. Most of these impacts are also starting to be felt in other parts of the world that have not experienced them before, including in the Global North.”

The World Economic Forum this month ranked the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events as the second-biggest global risk for the next two years, with only the cost-of-living crisis coming higher. Last year, extreme weather was classed as the biggest short-term risk of all. The Forum also sees this as a top-three risk for the next 10 years.

Showcasing solutions

COP27 was the first UN climate COP to have a themed day dedicated to solutions. This theme was chosen for the last full day of proceedings – a framing doubtless intended to leave attendees with a sense of possibility for a more sustainable future.

There has been debate about whether the solutions on offer were credible or simply those best preferred by fossil exporting countries like host Egypt and future host the UAE.

Wathuti argues that there should be more of an opportunity for youth climate workers to showcase their own solutions at international forums.

She is notably the founder of the Green Generation Initiative (GGI), which runs tree-growing programmes at schools across Kenya. It has engaged more than 35 schools so far, collectively growing more than 30,000 trees to maturity. Trees help to sequester more carbon but there are multiple co-benefits to planting them at schools, including fruit production, improving local soil and air quality and providing access to green spaces. The progammes also provide students with practical skills relating to tree maintenance, plus soft skills. In this way, climate solutions become community solutions.

“As young people, we are not just asking people in power to respond to the climate crisis… we are also, in our own ways, taking immediate action within our communities,” Wathuti says, alluding to how showcasing solutions could help end stereotyping of young climate activists as entitled. “As young people, we can do so much, but we are asking leaders in positions of power and with more resources to do much more.”

Speaking on the link between solutions provision at home and climate activistm internationally, she adds: “When young people are directly involved in co-creating the kind of future they want, it helps them to become bolder. They know that they can change their schools, their communities, their countries and, eventually, the world at large.

“They know what is at stake and they know these resources are their own to protect.

“We must keep demonstrating that every person can make a contribution, make a difference. That every person must be involved.”

Hear more from Elizabeth Wathuti at edie 23

Taking place in London on 1-2 March 2023, edie’s biggest annual event has undergone a major revamp to become edie 23, with a new name, new venue, multiple new content streams and myriad innovative event features and networking opportunities.

edie 23 will take place at the state-of-the-art 133 Houndsditch conference venue in central London. Held over two floors, the event will offer up two full days of keynotes, panels, best-practice case studies and audience-led discussions across three themed stages – Strategy, Net-Zero and Action.

Click here for full information and to book your ticket.

Elizabeth Wathuti will be delivering the opening keynote speech on Day 2 of edie23 ( March 2 from 9.20am). Directly after her speech, she will sit down with former Unilever CEO Paul Polman for a frank discussion on ensuring social justice as we work to decarbonise the global economy and achieve the UN’s Global Goals.

View the edie 23 Mission Statement here.

View the full list of edie 23 speakers here.

View the full edie 23 agenda and stage-by-stage content here.


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