Empowering Climate Action for a Just Transition – Reflections on Africa Climate Week

Thandolwethu Lukuko, National Coordinator for the Climate Action Network South Africa

Civil society must use their seat at the table

In the global context of addressing climate change, the participation of civil society in events like Africa Climate Week is of utmost importance. These events provide a valuable platform for civil society to articulate the African climate agenda, while also playing a crucial role in influencing how African voices are reflected in the declarations produced as a result of these meetings.

Ultimately, these declarations feed into the discussions at the United Nations in New York and the programme of COP28, scheduled to take place later this year in Dubai. Consequently, participation at the regional level is non-negotiable if one wants to ensure that African voices are reflected in the global debates and fora.

During Africa Climate Week, African civil society representatives actively participated alongside African governments and business delegations. Participation by civil society in these discussions is imperative, as it provides a platform to amplify the voices of Africans and advance civil society’s advocacy agenda. While securing a seat at the table is crucial, it’s important to recognise that ensuring a meaningful impact is not guaranteed. Numerous factors, including the historical shaping of these spaces, often hinder robust discussions and effective participation in these fora.

Power relations are a reality  

The power dynamics between stakeholders at the table make it difficult for civil society to make a decisive impact, as the playing field is not always equal. Substantial financial resources back big business and government participation. The combination of power and financial resources makes it much easier for big business to influence and broker agreements that align with their interests. In many instances, businesses financially support governments in implementing climate response. This often results in government-led climate actions aligning with the needs of businesses.

Civil society lacks the same financial resources as businesses. Consequently, it faces a significant challenge in getting its agenda included in the recommendations and resolutions emerging from these gatherings. Despite these difficulties, civil society should not cede its participation and walk away. Instead, it needs to engage actively and build upon its small victories. From this perspective, it can be affirmed that civil society’s participation in Africa Climate Week has been reasonably successful, even if civil society perspectives were not fully reflected in the declaration text to the extent desired.

The goal was to demonstrate citizen participation through civil society involvement at Africa Climate Week, especially when the formal opportunities for contribution were limited. This objective was successfully achieved through organising a demonstration and formulating a set of demands, which were then shared with the public, in the media and through social media channels.

A fresh course for climate action

Ultimately, it is essential to consider whether Africa Climate Week successfully aligned with the event’s theme: “Charting a Fresh Course for Climate Action”. While there is a pressing need for a new path in climate action – one that is sensitive to both the environment and people’s needs – government and big business remain stuck in their default mode of business-as-usual.

From our perspective, there is a lot of rhetoric about a fresh course, but very little discussion on the specific. Our concern is that amidst this rhetoric, we might end up doing things the same way as before.

That is where our role as civil society becomes essential – pushing a new narrative, developing new pathways for new options, and pushing back against the resistance that we encounter. For us, a just transition means shifting from our current high-carbon economy to one that relies much less on carbon.  At the same time, it means ensuring that those who have faced past injustices participate actively in this transition and are no longer recipients of injustice.

This transition must balance multiple interests and a complex set of intertwined challenges. The long-term success of the agreed-upon solutions largely hinges on the commitment of the involved parties. We strongly believe that superficial or “cosmetic” initiatives won’t suffice; the solutions we put in place must tackle the underlying structural issues that drive injustice.

New insights and concerns 

A key insight gained from our involvement in Africa Climate Week is that how carbon emissions and carbon credits are managed will be pivotal. Carbon credits are central to carbon markets, serving as the currency of emission reduction. They incentivise emission cuts by providing a measurable unit for greenhouse gas reduction.

These credits encourage sustainability by financially rewarding projects that reduce or capture emissions, like renewable energy and reforestation initiatives. Offering flexibility and cost-efficiency, they help entities meet emission targets. Furthermore, they promote international collaboration, supporting global climate efforts.

However, challenges like greenwashing and overallocation exist, underscoring the need for rigorous regulation. While carbon credits are a valuable tool, they must be part of a broader strategy alongside solid climate policies to achieve meaningful emissions reductions.

Renewed commitment to climate activism

It is against this background that the importance of continued and effective climate advocacy and action becomes abundantly clear in the pursuit of a just energy transition and a sustainable and climate-resilient future. Climate activists need access to resources – financial and technological – to do this work effectively. Key focus areas include:

  • Advocacy and activism:  As civil society actors, we may not always secure access to the decision-making table, but when we do, we persistently advocate for our demands. Nevertheless, we possess alternative avenues to convey our message: we can raise awareness through public engagement, communication, and education. This approach empowers ordinary individuals to become aware of what questions they need to ask, what issues they need to raise, and how they should go about it. Our capacity to carry out this work largely depends on our ability to secure funding for both long-term strategic endeavours and rapid responses when necessary. While we maintain long-term projects, it’s essential to have the flexibility to react swiftly, counter outrageous statements from politicians, and ensure our perspective reaches the media and public discourse.
  • Building the capacity of ordinary citizens: Another critical aspect of our work is to enable ordinary people to participate in the climate conversation. We must translate climate terminology into language that resonates with ordinary people and aligns with indigenous knowledge. It’s crucial to provide residents of rural and township communities with access to information they can understand and use. They must be able to retrieve this knowledge and speak up when needed. A lot is lost when climate experts talk about climate change, given that the technical details and jargon is often overwhelming and confusing to ordinary people.
  • Participation in local inter-sectoral fora: Civil society has a role in pushing back against what is happening domestically to ensure that business and government do not dominate the conversation in South Africa. Locally, the Presidential Climate Commission provides a space for engagement with civil society. It is of utmost importance for South African civil society to speak with a united voice if we want to engage with the required vigour and impact in this space. This is key in creating a better balance between the interests and agendas of civil society, the private sector and government.
  • Climate mediation: A critical aspect of our work is climate mediation. Conflict will inevitably      emerge due to climate impacts – conflicts about resources, such as food or water in a specific region, or as in the case of South Africa, concerning coal mining and moving away from heavy reliance on coal. As already explained, the transition into a less carbon-dependent world is rife with competing interests and unequal power dynamics. Climate mediation is aimed at dealing with these processes in a structured manner. It facilitates agreements between stakeholders that hold all stakeholders accountable and ensure that there are consequences if agreements are not upheld. It is essential that these agreements need to evolve organically      and close to the source. It is about managing the human aspect of the transition. Change does not happen by itself – it has to be actively managed through mediation.

Recognising the need for collaboration

Given the immense scale of the climate crisis and the pressing need for civil society to assume a more substantial role, we must continue building on our accomplishments in nurturing a dynamic network of civil society organizations, individuals, and advocates who share a common objective: a just transition to a sustainable and climate-resilient future. We recognise the importance of collaboration with diverse stakeholders to take our work to the next level. By combining resources and expertise, we have the potential to propel and amplify transformative change.    


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