C2GTalk: An interview with Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)

How the UN Economic Commission for Africa is using its climate goals to fuel prosperity and sustainable development for the continent. 

1 December 2021

This interview was recorded on 19 October 2021 and is also available with interpretation into中文,EspañolandFrançais.

Equity, justice, and transparency are needed to enable meaningful conversations around the the debate on solar radiation modification, because Africa has to be very careful about climate-altering technologies, especially when we do not understand their consequences, says Vera Songwe, executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) during a  C2GTalkinterview.  Africa can only sustainably and justly have the conversation on carbon emissions if it sees that this road leads to a more prosperous life, better livelihoods, and that this road will help the continent meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ms. Vera Songwe is the United Nations under-secretary-general and the ninth serving executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). As executive secretary focusing on “ideas for a prosperous Africa,” her organisational reforms have brought to the fore critical issues of macroeconomic stability; development finance, growth and private sector; poverty and inequality; the digital transformation and data; and trade and competitiveness. She is acknowledged for her long-standing track record of providing policy advice on development and her wealth of experience in delivering development results for Africa. A strong advocate of the private sector, Songwe launched a business forum debate at ECA and created, for the first time, a private sector division with a number of significant initiatives.

Before joining the ECA, Songwe held a number of leading roles at the World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC). Songwe serves as a non-resident senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is also a member of the African Union institutional reform team under the direction of the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, and an advisory board member of the African Leadership Network and the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

Below are edited highlights from the full C2GTalk interview shown in the video above. Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you tell us about your work at the UNECA and in particular how your focus on cooperation and economic and social development is supporting countries in the region to tackle climate change? 

As you know, at the UNECA (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa), we are privileged to be one of the rare institutions that works on all of Africa, and so essentially, we work, as I like to say, from Algeria to Zimbabwe and Dakar to Djibouti, covering the continent. 

How are we working with countries to support climate change?  We just came back about two or three weeks ago, early September, where we met with all the environment ministers of the continent to see how we could position Africa’s position going into the Conference of the Parties (COP).  So, I think the first thing that we do is really supporting countries in getting what are the big priorities, what is the international community talking about.  We are home to, of course, 33 of the 46 least-developed countries (LDCs), but also we have the major economies on the continent — South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, and Morocco — and one of the things we have done particularly for South Africa, Egypt, and now we are finalizing a study for Kenya, is we have worked with Oxford University to look at — we are all suffering from Covid-19 pandemic; Africa has gotten its first recession in 25 years — how can we grow out of this crisis, and the work we have done with Oxford University is really to look at what does a green recovery look like.  What does recovering in a climate-smart way look like?  We have done quite a number of studies that show that South Africa, for example, can gain 420 percent more value added if it grows in a green and sustainable way, 320 more jobs, of course, similar numbers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Yes, climate change is important, yes, ensuring that countries commit to net zero by 2050 is important, but we are working with countries to say how do you get there, and, of course, part of how do you get there is the financing, and so for a lot of countries we are also looking at how we can use the special directives that just been issued — we are part of the advocacy for the issuance of that — but now, having had them, how can we use them for development, and in particular climate-smart development? 

This is very interesting.  I was just wondering, the way you described it, to connect building back from Covid-19 and the climate objectives, do you see progress in the region in actually taking these ideas up? 

Yes, of course, the two easiest ones are looking for renewable energy.  Africa still has a huge energy deficit on the continent, so looking at how one can find and do things that will crowd in the financing that is needed to put in new renewable energy is a particularly important aspect of what we do, and we see a lot of countries doing that.  On the agriculture side, a lot of Africa is still rural, and 80 percent of those in the rural areas are active one way or another in the agriculture sector.  It is again about how you use water and new agriculture technologies that can ensure that we are doing it in a green and smarter way. 

There is a lot of pickup, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s the economic thing to do.  It is more cost-effective.  Actually, the returns on an acre of cultivation of rice, if you did it with new sustainable energy practices with more optimal use of fertilizer and water, the outputs are much better.  So I think when you can impart this kind of knowledge to citizens and farmers, and the private sector, there is uptake for it. 

You already mentioned the range of countries that your region includes, quite a few Least Developed Countries and also larger economies.  I am just wondering; how do you foster more cooperative action between them?  Is climate change, for example, a way to unify the countries in the region or is it not? 

I think it is a way to unify the countries in the region.  Let me take a very clear example.  I will take the Senegal River Valley Authority (OMVS), which brings together five or six countries on the continent essentially for energy provision but also for agriculture, using essentially as it is called the water basin.  It is in West Africa, the Senegal water basin.  What those countries have succeeding in doing is using that water basin both for agriculture — we are actually looking at it now for maritime and transportation — but also for energy. 

Mauritania is one of them which produces quite an amount of solar energy.  You have Mali, that produces hydro because a lot of the dams are in Mali, and there is an energy-sharing trade agreement.  In the dry months, we use more solar from Mauritania and Senegal, in the wet months we use more water from Mali and Guinea, and that whole process is actually providing more collaboration.  It is also reducing the costs because each country has access to the cheapest energy supply at a particular point in time. 

Now we are going to put gas into that system and this is the power, I think, of power pools on the continent, because again we are working towards, yes, we want to do some small, renewable, distributed energy facilities in more remote areas, but when you are trying to work on agglomerations of cities, we are trying to bring together power pools to see how we can optimize the use of energy and water, of course, for agriculture, and in the case of the OMVS also water for transportation in a way that brings countries together. 

As we have seen in the international community — and we are just seeing it recently with Europeans and the price of oil going up and Russia essentially saving the day — even in times of crisis, regardless of sanctions, we see countries never really sever their energy agreements because it is so fundamental, and I think that remains a strong pinpoint for creating better collaboration amongst countries. 

You may have seen the Working Group I report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report that was released in August, and it acknowledges the challenges of achieving deep emission cuts and the required carbon dioxide removal (CDR) to reach net zero and then the negative necessary to keep temperatures within the Paris Agreement. Depending on how each CDR approach, whether it’s nature-based or technology-based, is applied in different geographical and social contexts it could either contribute or hinder the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  So how could governance help to reduce the risks of tradeoffs associated with the deployment of certain types of carbon-removal approaches and maximize the benefits or synergies? 

That’s a very good question because it’s one that we work on a lot.  I think indeed CDR using nature-based solutions can have co-benefits beyond just carbon removal from the atmosphere. For example, one of the things that Ethiopia and many other countries in East, West, and actually I think in a lot of the continent are doing but Ethiopia championing it more than most, is trying to restore their forests.  Ethiopia has this ambitious objective to plant I think 20 billion trees in the next five years, all whether they are restoring their forests, their mangroves, biodiversity, all of this is protecting against storms, but it is also protecting against tilting, which allows for us to have water for our energy.  I always go back to that because it is so fundamental. 

But there are also opportunities to build livelihoods associated with nature-based solutions.  Again, in Ethiopia, for example, one of the things that we are doing is trying to see whether we can protect the trees that we have planted by creating new and better carbon cooking stove alternatives so that the citizens in different rural areas do not need to have recourse to the trees that have just recently been planted for cooking habits. 

There are also opportunities, of course, to begin to value more natural heritage, not just the physical natural heritage but also the agricultural and innate natural heritage, and we see a lot of that happening, for example, in Benin, where their holy forests are being protected to ensure that citizens can come and visit, but it is also protecting the environment. 

In countries like Gabon, we are looking for increased value addition of locally produced timber, and IKEA is working with Gabon to see whether they can now relocate to Gabon, so it is using more efficient, improved technology, yes, to use some of the wood, creating more jobs but doing it in a sustainable way.  What we have seen in the past is that there has not been replacement of a lot of the trees that have been cut out.  In that sense, CDR has the potential to both support the attainment of Africa’s prosperity ambitions and the Sustainable Development Goals, but at the same time ensuring that we do it in a climate-smart way. 

However, CDR, using all the technologies — including some of the removal from fossil fuels, biomass plants — is something that we do not do well enough in terms of the continent.  We will need first to do some advocacy and a little bit more education.  I think one of the things that we at the UNECA are doing is asking, “What are the transitions that the countries need to make and the populations need to make?”  Some of the advocacy that we need to do is really from the grassroots level on to ensure that we can educate the younger citizens in terms of what are better and more climate smart ways than, of course, using more improved technologies. It’s one thing when we talk about distributed renewable energy.  It’s another thing when we talk about small holder farming at small scale, but if you do small-scale farming you use more water, you use more fertilizer.  So, I think there are some tensions in these areas that we need to understand and then see what is the first objective that we are trying to get and what is the narrative.  Is it prosperity, and then how do we marry that prosperity ambition with an ambition for a smart climate and fossil fuel removal? 

Precisely along the lines of what is the real objective in terms of prosperity or something else, could you see this being turned around, where carbon dioxide removal is not just there for some climate objective but is actually an economic activity that becomes a driver of development with also carbon objectives?  Would you see that happening in Africa? 

I think it is already happening, and I think that is a little bit for Africa the narrative.  Invariably we end up with climate-smart decisions, but I think those decisions need to be stimulated by a desire for a better livelihood.  If we take the example of the villagers who live around the peatlands of the Congo Basin, they are still suffering from waterborne diseases, they don’t have clean water, they don’t have access to electricity, the girls have to walk kilometers to get clean water, and they are still cutting the wood.  If you go there and tell them, “If you stop cutting the wood, nature will be better off,” it doesn’t mean much to them. 

But if you say to them, “We’re going to put a price on carbon or compensate you for protecting the forest and cutting down the wood you need in a particular way, so we are rewarding you for something but also giving you a protective role,” it improves their livelihoods.  They have maybe more nature-based housing development technologies that they could use.  They could do farming differently and increase their productivity, so they need to cut fewer trees.  It really comes together as a better ecosystem, but the conversation there is, “How do I improve your livelihood?” and in improving or through improving their livelihood, I am also protecting nature.  I think that essentially is really where we want the conversation on the continent to go. 

There are many ideas about how to achieve large-scale carbon dioxide removal, including nature and technology-based approaches, but all of them pose governance challenges and raise the issue of permanence.  How can the issue of permanence of nature-based approaches be addressed in a context where important ecosystems, such as what you just mentioned, the Congo Basin rainforest, are increasingly losing their ability to absorb carbon dioxide? 

That’s a very good question.  I think indeed the permanence of nature-based solutions is exactly the reason why we are pulling for structured and meaningful financial compensation schemes for Africa for stored carbon, and we talk about the peatlands, at least the part of the Cuvette that has been studied, and this is part of the problem.  We need to do more scientific exploration in some of these places because we can still today, given the importance of a place like the peatlands, be assuming what its contribution to carbon storage is. 

So I think what we need is better compensation schemes for carbon that is stored.  We think today that about 30 billion tons of carbon is stored in Congo’s peatlands, but there is no reward for that.  It is almost a cultural heritage spot.  I would say that we need some global conservation program that ensures that this part of the world is protected because if it did not exist we may already be on the threshold of 1.5 °C warming. 

So my sense is that the Sustainable Development agenda has to be an agenda that is a compensatory agenda for the storage, the carbon sinks that Africa still holds and is containing.  We have seen the problems in, of course, Latin America, and the fact that we didn’t do this, we didn’t step in and protect, and now the Amazon forest has become a carbon emitter as opposed to one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. So with increasing impacts on climate change and land degradation we are already spending as a continent 5 to 11 percent of our gross domestic product, so there is this continuous call for $100 billion.  I am not necessarily a believer in still the $100 billion.  Africa probably has already spent $100 billion since the Paris Agreement just reacting to climate incidents, and I think we do need to now come together and say, first of all, Africa should not be just a beggar, saying I need the resources.  We have places like the Congo Basin and this stretch all the way to Liberia and Sierra Leone where we are actually absorbing, we are huge carbon sinks, and a price of carbon that can reward some of this will really allow those countries then to be able to respond to their climate challenges, and I think that is one of the things that we need to begin to put in the global space. 

We are hoping that a conversation like this will happen at COP (Conference of Parties).  I know that the COP conversations are mostly around Article 6, but I think that by the time people decide to come to the conversations that really are important for Africa, we may have lost the carbon sinks that Africa holds and then it will be too late. 

So I think there needs to be an awakening about this tension of saying, “Let’s wait and come back to some of those conversations.”  Having a structured way of having the countries work together is again another — and this is part of the whole conversation around a new, renewed, and revived multilateralism.  A lot of these conversations, yes, we will have an Africa position, but by the time we get there the G20 countries will probably have a position, and that will be the position that predominates a lot of the negotiations. 

But if we have the large carbon sinks in this part of the world, then I think that this part of the world needs a seat at the table that can say — then, in addition to the carbon pricing, I think this is also where we have a need to maybe clarify in the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiative because there have been attempts at pricing the carbon, but you have developed firms come in to essentially claim the carbon as sequestration that has happened on the continent, and so they are rewarded for it in the far-afield shores, and the people who are actually the ones who have been sequestering and protecting that carbon don’t benefit.  So again, I think we need more transparency in this process and rewards that go to the communities that have protected these carbon sinks through the ages and not just a well-meaning international business that gets a carbon reward very far away and those local communities do not even realize that they actually have stored something that is of value to humanity in general. 

When we talk about carbon dioxide removal, there is one issue that keeps coming up, the so-called “moral hazard,” the risk that considering deployment of carbon removal approaches could distract from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and shying away from tackling that challenge bears the risk of not achieving the Paris goals.  The concept of moral hazard has a long history in economics, and I would be very interested to hear your insights as an economist as to how to overcome that problem so that society accelerates emission cuts, is able to balance residual emissions, and then removes residual carbon from the atmosphere, all necessary actions to deliver the Paris Agreement goals according to the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) findings.  Are there economic and policy tools both being important parts of governance which can help to reduce the moral hazard? 

That’s a very good question.  I guess we should have anticipated this, but we are in a space where even the technology is not yet where we would like it to be, and so a lot of the CDR technologies that we are using today we don’t understand fully what those risks are.  There are a lot of new inventions which seem like they are going to be path breakers — oxygen storage, carbon dioxide capture, taking it out of the atmosphere — so all of this bioenergy with carbon capture and storage are good ideas, but deploying them at large scale will require large amounts of resources and large amounts of land that we are trying to use to create more forests for better carbon capture.  So these have some consequences that we are not really sure about, and we will need to do a little bit more work to see whether we can understand what are the competing tensions. 

Of course, today we have seen that we have what they call step agricultural farming, so maybe you say, “Okay, I give up vast expanses of land for carbon capture while I use these new bioengineering methodologies for agriculture,” but still we don’t know.  It’s like genetically modified foods.  We still need a lot of research.  So we need a frank and open conversation about what is possible, what are the costs and benefits, and what are the implications. 

At the same time, we need some better research and development.  Of course, the countries that do the research and development are those that have the resources and the ability to do that.  So the research and development they do, which then is applied in many cases to the emerging-market economies, may not necessarily be things that are location- or geography-appropriate.  I think that is a little bit also where you have these issues of moral hazard in terms of, yes, it may be a good technology in California, but it may not necessarily be a good technology in Benin or in the Congo Basin, but if I am going to gain my carbon credits because I said that I did something in Benin or Congo and I am being rewarded in California, the consequences of that never emerge until much later in Benin, and everybody has moved on.  I do think that is why people are calling for better and more transparency and more targets. 

Actually, right now it has always been self-regulation of a lot of the CDR methodologies, and I think it would be important to create some unified platform where these are discussed again, and some agreement on what kind of R&D, where can it be used, so that we understand first of all the dimensions of CDR but also the consequences of it. 

Let’s talk a little bit about temperature.  Even in the low-emission scenario of the last Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)  report, which includes net zero emissions around or after 2050 and the use of carbon dioxide removal to deliver the required net removal after that until the end of the century, the report estimates that there will be a temporary overshoot of no more than 0.1°C above global warming of 1.5 °C.  How does the African region, which holds some of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, plan to address the impacts of such an overshoot? 

Again, going back to the conversation we just had, the overshoot is really a result of emissions from the advanced economies, and so I think that part of the conversation must be what are the advanced economies doing.  Our first attempt at resolution of some of these issues is really going to be asking, “What are the developed countries doing?”  

When we look at emissions, for example, the United States emits somewhere on the order of 399 billion tons of carbon, Europe emits somewhere on the order of 353 billion tons of carbon, Russia 101 billion, India 48 billion, and Africa 43 billion.  So if you just look at 399 from the United States, 353 from Europe, and Africa at 43 billion tons, 2.7 percent of global carbon emissions come from the continent.  So I think we do need to ask, who is overshooting?  Of course, China has 200 billion.  You can’t talk about carbon emissions without talking about China, which is a close third in the global carbon emissions.  If you take the whole of Europe, it is 514 billion and would be number one in terms of carbon emissions. So we do need to have I think a different kind of conversation.  Again, like we said, if you come to the continent and you just talk about what does Africa need to do, we also need to understand that Africa can only, I think, sustainably and justly have the conversation on carbon emissions if Africa is seeing that this road is a road to a more prosperous life, if Africa is seeing that this is a road to better livelihoods and meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  I think in that context then we need strong support for how can we adapt and build resilience, where are those resources coming from, and where are we going to get — it’s not enough to just tell Africa to stop, stop, stop.  We have to be able to say to Africa, “These are resources that you can use to do better.” 

Now, those resources again should not only and necessarily be resources that are aid — and that is where this carbon price becomes important.  We need to give Africa its due for preserving some part of the climate in a way that has not been done by many others.  So you have the African Climate Resilient Investment Facility, the AFRI-RES, for example with the World Bank, the African Union, and the Nordic Development Fund.  We are working with all of these different institutions to help support African countries build resilience and to understand where critical emissions are coming from and then where the transport ecosystems are also coming from.  So I think we do need to have some of those — I don’t have any numbers, this is all literature here.  We do need to understand where Africa is coming from and then ensure that we can respond to it in a sustainable way. 

Continuing with the temperature issue, right now the trends are that the global temperatures will go above 1.5 °C and possibly beyond 2 °C and even beyond that depending on how well the world does emission reductions.  And there are emerging ideas to actually directly lower temperatures by reflecting more sunlight into space in order to reduce the risks of overshooting temperature goals, such as solar radiation modification (SRM).  This includes ideas to brighten marine clouds and even to spray reflective aerosols into the stratosphere. How and in what form might decision makers consider the risks and benefits as well as the governance challenges and opportunities posed by these approaches compared to the expected impacts of climate change?  How could Africa bring justice and equity considerations to the table in global discussions about SRM? 

I like the fact that you are using the words “equity” and “justice.”  I actually have a third one that I like to add to that couple, equity, justice, and “transparency.”  I think in some sense that you need the three to be able to really have a useful and meaningful conversation around the debate on SRM because we have to be very careful first about climate change-altering technologies, especially when we do not understand their consequences. 

It is a question of looking at where we are using these technologies.  A lot of these technologies are very novel and understanding what the impact is around these technologies.  We just talked about the peatlands of the Congo and the fact that today we don’t even know what are the numbers, how much carbon has been sequestered, and what is the size.  I am quite appalled actually at the lack of numbers in this field.  I kind of always begin to think that we are talking a lot out of sort of putting your hand in the wind, at least that’s my perception. 

If we cannot even establish peatlands that have lasted for 10,000 years and what exactly they are doing, it is very difficult to know when you start doing carbon seeding that just started five years ago what is going to be its impact.  Since a lot of that technology is being tested in the emerging markets, what does that imply for our agriculture?  What does that imply for our livelihoods?  We are beginning to see a lot of change in zoonotic diseases in East Africa.  We just recently went through huge spates of locusts that came in the wrong season.  Is that because we are also changing weather patterns?  It is very difficult to say. 

I think assumptions, transparency, and the way some of these technologies are being used, how long they have been used, what has been the impact in those areas, and hence, if Ethiopia or any other country, for example, wants to do cloud seeding, what then are the mitigating measures that it has to put in place in ensuring that they pass some ISO (International Standardization Organization for) standard will be an important part of the conversation. 

Do you see any debate in the Africa region about these new techniques of solar radiation modification (SRM)? 

No.  There are no debates.  I don’t think there are, and that’s why you need some multilateral space to have the conversation.  My sense is that each country is often experimenting on it with partners from the developed world that are trying to use it. 

It has been a tough year, longer than a year, in fact, with the Covid-19 pandemic, lack of vaccines in Africa, the growing impacts of climate change, economic challenges, and rising tensions between world powers, and added to this the constraints of you being an international civil servant.  How do you maintain a sense of enthusiasm and optimism, even while acknowledging the gravity of the problems?  What philosophies or anything else help guide you in your thinking and in your behavior? 

I think it’s always the thought that if we can change a few policies we can always improve the lives of a few, and given the, as you said, desperate situation in which Covid-19 has put many of our economies, trying to work to see how one gets them out of a crisis is really the objective to ensure that we can improve on better healthcare, finding better technologies, better ways, and do that while we, of course, create jobs.  We need peace on our continent, and we know that without jobs and with rising inflation, instability then is beginning to knock at the door, and that is why this conversation on climate change needs to be a conversation that goes through providing better livelihoods, providing jobs, and creating environments that are more sustainable and more prosperous so that you can create a semblance at least of the ambition of reaching the 2030 goals. 

So, yes, that’s what keeps us busy.  We are making some progress, and every time we make a little bit of progress, you believe you are getting closer to the goal.

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