The Resource Remix is a podcast from the Natural Resource Governance Institute exploring new futures for commodity-exporting countries in the energy transition.
In this fourth episode of NRGI's podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify, NRGI’s advisor Antonio Hill converses with NRGI's interim Africa director, Nafi Chinery, and Isabel Cavelier, Colombian climate activist and founder of Mundo Commun, about whether the COP27 climate conference lived up to expectations. They also explore the COP's implications for the energy transition in oil-, gas- and mineral-rich countries in Africa and elsewhere.
In their conversation, participants touch upon the role of COPs, the will and ambition of world leaders to respond effectively to the climate emergency, and whether countries have other, more compelling reasons to pursue the energy transition.
Cavelier points to the "remarkable cooperation" at this year's COP that led to agreement on a landmark loss and damage fund. She also points out that the energy transition is not just about climate emergency but also about energy security and diversification. Chinery also comments on the extent to which leaders refer to the climate emergency in the context of conversations about the energy transition. Hill points out that even if Ghana and every other African country were to cut fossil fuel production and consumption tomorrow we would still be faced with a climate emergency because the biggest polluters sit elsewhere.
Cavelier points out the risks of not phasing out early enough, citing competitiveness as the biggest issue. Both Chinery and Cavelier highlight that each country has its own characteristics and that leaders must recognize these international differences. Cavelier also points out that the world tends to think of energy transition in terms of energy sources rather than energy use.
Both Chinery and Cavelier share her views on whether the lessons learned from the signing of "loss and damage", which required significant coordination, provide lessons for future coordination among low-income oil and gas producers navigating the energy transition in the context of the call to phase-out fossil fuels. Cavelier concludes by noting that cohesion can be built when there is generosity in understanding each other's situation.
Antonio Hill: Hello. The COP27 climate conference took place last month in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Now that the dust is settled, we can ask whether the so-called African COP lived up to expectations and what are the COP’s implications for the energy transition journeys of countries rich in oil, gas and minerals in Africa, but also more broadly across the Global South. These are some of the issues we will dive into in today's episode of the Resource Remix, a podcast from the Natural Resource Governance Institute or NRGI. In this series, we bring listeners dynamic perspectives on the cutting edge issues affecting countries rich in commodities, specifically in the context of the global transition away from fossil fuels.
I am Antonio Hill, an energy transition advisor at NRGI, and today I will be speaking to you from Boston. I am joined by my colleague, Nafi Chinery, NRGI's interim Africa director, who is in Accra, Ghana. Also with us is Isabel Cavelier, a climate expert ex-negotiator for Colombia with many hats, whose newest initiative, Mundo Commun, aims to develop a system of care in the face of the climate and ecological crisis. She is calling in from Bogota. Welcome, Nafi and Isabel, and thanks for joining us today.
Nafi Chinery: Thank you Antonio.
Isabel Cavelier Adarve: Thank you Antonio, good morning and good afternoon.
AH: The first question we will start with today is about leadership. The overall COP27 result, of course, does not inspire confidence that world leaders and their governments are responding effectively to the climate emergency. A lack of political will or ambition is often cited as contributing factor. Genevieve Guenther at End Climate Silence put a great tweet out last week that I want to share. She said:
I hate the word ‘ambition” in climate discourse. "I'm plummeting to earth, but I have the 'ambition' to pull my parachute's cord." "My house is burning down, but I lack the ambition to call the fire department.” Phasing out fossil fuels is not overachievement, but survival.
Clearly, the climate emergency is an existential threat for all of us, but what is the right starting point for leadership and ambition in connection with the energy transition? In other words, is climate action, and that frame of responding to climate change necessary in resource-rich countries in the Global South, or are there other more compelling reasons to pursue energy transitions in these countries that leaders should be running with in the first instance? So that is a question. I am keen to get feedback from both of you, from your perspectives and your respective regions. Let's start with that. Is climate change the right starting point for moving countries along the energy transition path successfully? Isabel, why don't we start with you?
ICA: I think we place way too high expectations on what COPs should achieve and what their role is. My takeaway is that this so-called African COP, but more accurately, a COP held in Africa, with a presidency held by an African country, actually achieved things that were quite unimaginable just a couple of years ago. Countries did agree to a new fund for loss and damage. Of course, it remains to be seen that this fund will be funded, and that money will flow to countries that are facing loss and damage, and that is the challenge now after COP27, but having agreed to that is pretty big. When you have been into those negotiating rooms, like when you and I met, Antonio, several years ago, you realize how tough it is to get to these things in multilateral settings, so that is pretty be big. I would not take it as a given. Given the current geopolitics, given that huge tensions that we see currently, for example, to name just two minor countries — the U.S. and China — the biggest emitters in the world, that they actually agreed to reinstall cooperation on climate, that their climate teams could meet again after the levels of tension they have been through, is not irrelevant, and it is not to be taken as a given. I think we need to remind ourselves that there is a lot that we can still aim for, there is a lot that we can be disillusioned about, there is a lot of political will lacking around many things, including fossil phase-out, but there are other things that are also real, that also happen and that should be also remembered. The role that developing countries played in achieving that is significant and should not be underestimated.
On your question, Antonio, I think the climate rationale is one of many arguments on which governments in resource-rich countries in the South…, and I don't even really like the expression, Global South — I think the world is a continuum of development, that nobody is a developed country, nobody has really achieved sustainable development, and that some countries are richer in some resources, other countries are richer in other resources. We really need to aim to first take perspective in that continuum and stop polarizing ourselves even talking about North and South. My sensation is that for resource-rich countries — all countries are rich in many different ways — but for resource-rich fossil fuel countries that are aiming to do this transition, and one of them is my own country, Colombia, but also others in Africa and across the world, are seeking this transition, climate is one of the reasons, and maybe not even the first reason.
I see the politics are very complicated in countries where energy scarcity is a reality, and Colombia is not even such energy scarce country. But there are many arguments that are very strong in our political debate, for example, related to our energy security becoming dependent on fossil fuel imports from other countries in the near term if we do not continue to, for example, explore new gas reserves. And it is a very real debate, a very real and legitimate argument. And this is Colombia, country with close to 70 percent hydropower generation, let alone countries like Nigeria, or like other countries in Africa, or even in Latin America, where this is not the case. Latin America is kind of different, but take Mexico, Argentina or Chile — these countries do not have the luxury of having a very clean power matrix, and some of them have gone through the situation of having to import fossil fuels for their energy security. So, for me, the main reason can include climate, but it is not just climate. We need to do this transition to be energy independent, energy-rich and economically diverse so that we do not depend on a single resource for our economy to be stable and to be able to thrive. That is probably the main angle through which we will be able to politically secure an energy transition that is organized and that is not polarizing inside our countries. Currently, if we are honest, the climate lens is very important, but it ends up being polarizing, and that is not good for the climate community or the climate debate, or the climate argument. It demonizes the climate argument on one side, and it makes it less compelling, so I think it is important to have that combination.
AH: Leaving aside what should be for a moment. I know, Nafi, you have actually been at the table, involved and observing conversations about energy transition both in Ghana, Nigeria and elsewhere across West Africa. What do you see in terms of how this issue is framed and how much do political leaders reference the climate emergency in the context of conversations about energy transition?
NC: Thanks very much, Antonio. First, I agree with Isabel on all the issues that she has raised, that there are other reasons for the transition beyond just the climate argument, and that is the case in countries like Ghana, where I am from. We cannot use the climate argument to be the only reason why we should transition. Governments, particularly in Ghana, on the continent where I come from, refer to the huge poverty gap and the huge energy security issue. We need energy to power development in Africa, and we need to have a conversation about how Africa is going to develop its economies and develop its people beyond the climate argument, especially where Africa is noted to just emitting very little when it comes to polluting the world. The argument about climate being the reason why we should transition is not acceptable for governments in my country, Ghana, and other places on the continent, because there are real issues that need to be addressed. I talked about the issue of energy security and the issue of high poverty, and most of these countries require energy to power its development and its economy. But I think that it beholds on governments, like governments in my own country, to come up with the real data and the real information that supports their arguments beyond saying what is already known. What different arguments can we make beyond what is already known and the numbers that are continuously being churned out about the number of people living in poverty and the number of people who do not have access to clean cooking systems? What else? What numbers, what data again can we churn out to make a very strong compelling argument for what is already known? I think this is where leadership — when you started your framing by talking about leadership — this is where leadership is important. Africa needs to invest in the right research and data to make a compelling argument at places like COP, where decisions are made. We need to make a lot of investments in research and data analysis and engagement with the right stakeholders to ensure that there is a defining agenda for Africa that can set it on the pathway to transition, that supports the growth of our economies, and does not jeopardize the environment and Mother Earth.
AH: The climate rationale, of course, as you say, it is not necessary. It is also not possible. Even if Ghana and every other African country were to cut fossil fuel production and consumption tomorrow, we would still be faced with a climate emergency because the biggest polluters sit elsewhere, isn't it? What is happening is the energy transition, however disjointed, and even if the pace is too slow, the trend is very clear. In 2015 already, when the Paris Agreement was signed, renewable energy broke through to become more than half of energy technology capacity additions globally. Last year in 2021, that figure was 84 percent, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, and gas and oil combined were only 15 percent. The energy transition is happening, and however governments respond, they are taking a position that will affect their country's prospects and the course of a complex energy transition now unfolding. What does leadership mean and require in the context of that current energy transition and how does it relate to leadership in the COP setting?
Nafi, you touched on the need for research and data and for governments to really root their positions effectively in a strong evidence base. But how can governments better prepare to advance their energy transition goals in the COP setting? I might flip it back to you, Isabel, given that Colombia, the government of Gustavo Pedro is talking a big game on energy transition. They went to COP with that background. How do you think the leadership on energy transition translates to leadership in the COP setting?
ICA: The climate rational, is as you say, not possible because even if these countries were to be completely off from fossil fuels, we will continue to have a problem. While that is true, I think that is a very double-edged argument that is complex to use. What is also true is that every single country will need to phase out, even if those countries that are not significantly contributing, and that is the dilemma, that is classically understood as…
AH: What are the risks of not phasing out soon enough? Is this being stuck with legacy technology or what is that?
ICA: That is where I was going. Then the argument is it is a competitiveness issue. The transition is ongoing, and if you do not hop on the bus, you are going to be left out, and you are going to be left out with old paradigms, old infrastructure, probably archaic economics, that are not necessarily going to take you to a place of prosperity and clean societies, clean air, clean water, clean lives, in general. well-being of your citizens will depend on it, and I think that is a better framing than just saying, “because we contribute so little, it does not really matter, so let's keep on doing it”.
AH: Just before we turn to that, I want to touch on this fossil fuel phase-out conversation that arose at COP27 and what you said, Isabel, about how we should calibrate our assessment of progress at COPs. This is a very significant one, because again, even though the decision text coming out of COP27 didn't get much farther than COP26, and its reference to phase down of coal and a phase-out of some fossil fuels subsidies — the whole conversation was transformed by a proposal that was actually kicked off by India and then joined by a high ambition coalition, that included, surprisingly in some cases, countries such as the U.S. and Canada, and for other reasons countries, such as Colombia, Chile, the Pacific Islands, but of course, this was not something that was joined by African oil and gas producers. Together with China, they were somewhat silent on the call, despite having early on pushed quite hard for a specific reference to gas as a transition fuel in the same context of a cover decision at COP27. I want to dig into understanding a bit why that is the case. And I might start with you, Nafi. Why do we see this hesitancy from producers in Africa and elsewhere to embrace a call for a global fossil fuel phase-out?
NC: I think there are several issues, and it all draws from the conversation that we earlier started with about what is the context in Africa. I think a lot of governments in Africa are basing their arguments on the context in Africa, that many of these countries rely on fossil fuel revenues to power their economies. Phasing out now without a clear plan that supports the transition process is going to jeopardize the developmental process in these countries. While countries like Ghana and Nigeria have developed a framework for transition, which is looking at 2016 and 2017, for example, it still needs to be done in a way that supports, that is not rapid, but supports the economy and provides avenues for them to invest, for example in renewables, along the way. A fast transition will dare on the economies and development of Africa, which for me is a reason why countries like Africa did not support the phase-out now. It is really about countries in the Global North, that have already developed their economies, to begin to phase out now and fast, because they have the capacity and the resources to diversify. Isabel talked about the issue of diversification to be part of the conversation. Now Africa needs to be supported to be able to diversify, but Africa itself needs to understand its context, do a lot of analysis, and prioritize where you want to put its limited money to support the transition process before you can think about getting any external support to help you to transition. There are things that we need to do as Africans to support our transition process. Transition now like other countries, like developed countries, will be very devastating for our economies and our people, and it is very clear from the data that is already available. But we need to have a plan that supports us to do it over time, but also supports us to invest in other areas, like renewable, having analysis. We talk about the sun in Africa, but it is not just about the sun. There are other resources that Africa can tap into. We have wind obviously, and the UK has more wind than what we generate in Ghana, in Africa, but how are we assessing what we have, how are we developing plans around how we are going to invest in all these areas — this is something that Africa itself has to do before any support can come in. I think that African countries not embracing the call, perhaps it is about not preparing in a way that can provide a clear pathway to support a transition here and now, so they are looking at what is going to happen to our economies, hoping that perhaps something more instructive or bold from the COP to support Africa's economy would have been a wish that most African countries were expecting from COP. That didn't happen. They couldn’t support that phase-out from fossil fuel, because it has to be gradual. While it is important that all countries phase out, it has to be gradual for countries like Africa.
AH: This is a point that Pedro has also stressed in Colombia, that a lot of people, as soon as you talk about transition, people immediately latch on to the timing question. They assume that this is now, and he has gone to great lengths to stress that this is a gradual process. It has to happen quickly, but I think critically, it has to happen in a fair way, so this is fundamentally about equity. The speed of the transition has to be different, and however we group the countries — whether we call about developing or developed or lower-income, higher-income, I agree, North-South doesn't make much sense anymore — but Ghana's special envoy to the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Henry Kokofu, was asked whether a fossil fuel phase-out is needed, and he shot back, “for developed or developing countries?” His framing. But I think he is touching on the same issue. Who and when is critical to this question, and I do not think the conversation at COP27 got to this point. But that is the nut of the issue here, isn’t it?
NC: Antonio, I think the issue of timing is critical. We need to phase out fossil fuels and we need to save Mother Earth. We need to ensure that we have a clean and healthy wealth for everyone to live in, but there are critical issues, countries are at different stages. I think that you said it. You referred to what I said. The issue of timing is important, the issue of capacity is important. Countries are at different levels, and we need to recognize that. While I agree with Isabel that we should stop using Global North and Global South terms, we cannot take away the fact that wealthier countries are far way ahead of countries in Africa, and because they are the highest polluters, they need to invest in supporting the rest of the world, that are not at the same level as them, to go through the transition process, going through the problem. Supporting them also requires that supporting the economics for sustainable development, supporting them to invest into other renewable interventions, as well as going through the transition process. That is very important. Capacity timing is key here for Africans, and you have to recognize the context in which we are talking about in Africa, it is very important. Even within Africa, we have differences.
ICA: Nafi is totally right, and we should never forget that anything we do needs to be profoundly situated and with complete awareness of context. When we say there is no difference between North and South, it is not true. That does not mean that when I say the North-South divides are not relevant anymore, the difference does not exist. It is because there is a continuum of difference, but every single place has its own characteristics, and we need to really be aware of that, and of the fact that the transition, as Nafi was saying, needs to be gradual. And the graduality of it will be different for every country, almost for every local municipality. Even within our countries there is huge difference.
AH: But internationally, do you think it is possible to get to a place where countries could agree?
ICA: Yes, I was going to go there. It is not the first time that is acknowledged. The Paris Agreement acknowledges it. It is not new. I think we are getting there, and it is a question almost of being good at playing that sort of geeky game of figuring out what is the right reference, to recognize that everybody needs to phase out at some point, but there will be differences, so the classic principle, common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities in light of national circumstances, is the crystallization of that precise idea. And it is there, it is agreed, and it is in Paris. There is no reason why we should think that is not even already recognized. It is a question of bringing it back to light and bringing it together with the idea that everybody needs a gradual transition according to their national circumstances, but before we leave, I want to let you with a seed about the transition, Antonio and Nafi and our audiences, and it is that we tend to think that this transition, in terms of the energy sector, because many sectors need to transition, but let me focus on the energy conversation because that is what we are talking about today. We tend to believe that the transition is all about the energy source, whether coal, gas, wind, sun, oil, or whatever it is — the source. My sensation, and this is food for thought, is that we are overly focusing on the source, and we are forgetting that probably the transition is, I am going to even say mainly, about the use of the energy. There is no single source of energy that is entirely clean because there are no human actions on Earth that are devoid of consequences for our ecosystems. Sun, solar energy, solar panels — they have their problems, wind turbines — they have their problem, everything has its consequence. We tend to forget that no single source is perfect and that we do not think enough about the use. We are missing the biggest part of the equation, and it is that we are using our energy in so many depleting ways. We are wasting our energy, even our physical personal energy, in so many extractive and depleting ways that even if we were 100 percent renewable, we would be depleting our Earth. Let's think about the use, how we can remember that the use of energy can be a devotional and sacred exercise that is not wasteful, and that is something that needs to be incorporated in the discourse about the transition as soon as we can. And it is not just about energy efficiency. It is not just about using a little bit less energy. It is about how we put our energy into action in the world as we inhabit it.
AH: Wise words, indeed. Clearly, the energy transition — and we could go on and on and should reconvene for a future Resource Remix to talk about some of these other avenues — raises challenges domestically in all countries. But just to tie all this back to the COP yet again, and to latch on to your reference to the loss and damage outcome at COP27 — Isa, you well know that that resulted from significant coordination across several negotiating groups over many years — does that experience provide useful lessons for future coordination across lower-income oil and gas producers navigating the energy transition in the context of this whole fossil phase-out call? Final words from each of you on that before we wrap today. Maybe start with you, Nafi.
NC: Antonio, COP27 was my first COP, where I lived the experience to see what happens and all the activities on the ground at the COP. I think the same level of negotiation and coordination is required going forward, but it is required pre-COP. It is not on the grounds of COP that you start brainstorming and reflecting on what agenda to put forward. That was one of my disappointments for me and what I saw lacking amongst the African spaces that I found myself in, also and hearing from my government. As you rightly said, getting to the point of making a statement about loss and damage that is taxed at COP27 — it started a long time ago. For any agenda to succeed, particularly in support of African leaders, I would expect them to replicate the coordination, the conversation, the reflection, the investment in research and data before any COP; to speak and better coordinate with civil society organizations ahead of any COP; to have a defining agenda before you get into space of a COP. When you get into the space of COP, you are negotiating on an agreed agenda that is well-informed and trusted in data and reflection, not when you are brainstorming. At the same time, it is important for our leaders and all of us on the continent to learn from that process and begin to chart the work ahead of the next COP now. At the next COP, we are going to define the structure of the loss and damage, who is going to get what, who is not going to get what. Start the work now. And it beholds on our leaders because there are those that we have voted into power to represent at the vote on our leaders, to make to take that political will to invest into the preparation ahead of the next COP, so that Africa can also benefit from this process.
AH: It is convenient and perhaps coincidental the president of Ghana holds the leadership of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, and I think there is an interesting space to have conversations about both, not just loss and damage, but also some of these other areas in the coming year and in the run-up to COP28.
Colombia's leader, Gustavo Petro, has a very active domestic conversation going about the future of oil and gas in Colombia. They took big steps in supporting that call for a global fossil fuel phase-out at COP27. Isa, in terms of final words, can you reflect a little bit on what that means? What that international leadership role that Colombia has now staked out means for the domestic context, and how they may ride greater consensus around the vision for energy transition domestically, in Colombia, internationally in future, in the context of AILAC or other negotiating groups, in the context of COP?
ICA: Antonio, international support is indeed important as support for the domestic conversation. It was a big step, and the fact that other countries that have similar, not the same, but similar characteristics to Colombia, are ready to go down a similar path with the challenges that it implies, is important as an input for the domestic conversation, and that support can certainly help. I do think however that the essential nuts and bolts of achieving that will require deep domestic attention to bridge the interests of those that are feeling that this will be very prejudicial and unfair for them. The just transition piece, the equity piece is not just international, it is also domestic. And linking this to your earlier question on the lessons learned, from the loss and damage conversation and in terms of building cohesion and consensus across the world on a particular idea, my answer is yes, there are lessons to be learned. The first one is — cohesion can be built when there is generosity in understanding each other's situation. The lack of it can completely make the loss and damage win a failure in the next two years. If that conversation becomes a complete battle from a mentality of scarcity between vulnerable countries on who gets more of that time, it will completely be lost and go to waste this huge win that we got this year. The same will happen with energy transition — with just energy transition packages — if we are all about who gets more in a scarcity mentality, we will never get there — but if we engage domestically and internationally from a perspective of generosity, of understanding, truly and deeply listening, what is your point of view, why are you feeling it is unfair to you, to Ghana, Nigeria, Colombia, Norway, community in a particular region that depends on coal for its revenue. Can I listen to you and understand why this feels unfair? Then we can find a solution. That kind of mentality from a position of abundance, not scarcity of resources, and generosity, I think that will make the trick. That will be for me, the main lesson learned.
AH: Thank you so much, Isabel. Speaking of generosity, I need to thank both, Nafi and Isabel, for being so generous with their time and their perspectives today. Time, of course, is the only non-renewable resource, and unfortunately, our time is up. This brings us to the end of our episode for today. If you have enjoyed this episode, please rate and subscribe to the Resource Remix on Spotify, Apple podcasts or Google podcasts. Share it with your friends and colleagues and look for a new episode early in 2023. Thank you all so much.
Disclaimer: Views and opinions expressed in this podcast belong to the individuals featured and do not necessarily represent those of the Natural Resource Governance Institute. The recording and transcript have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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