A Conversation With Vanessa Nakate
Laurence TubianaDirector of the European Climate Foundation (ECF), Founder of IDDRI
You mentioned many times in your speeches that your convictions that something must be done came from your childhood. Where do your perspectives on climate come from?
When I think about the first time I got interested in environmental issues or when I start studying about the climate crisis, I remember the year 2016 or 2017. That is when my father was the president of the Rotary Club in Bugolobi. During his presidency, I remember he organised a mission of planting trees across different communities in Uganda. That was the very first time when I saw something related to the environment in my family.
But this experience is not really what led me to start striking. At that time there were no climate strikes yet. I remember appreciating what was being done and the trees that were being planted. But I never got involved actively.
But then, later in 2018, I started to do research on the challenges that people in my country, Uganda, were facing. That is the moment I started to understand how climate change impacted our lives. Realising it was a challenge, I decided to do something about it. By the end of 2018, we were seeing the climate strikes that were started by Greta Thunberg in Sweden. That’s how I was inspired. I held my very first climate strike in the first week of January 2019.
What are the most evident signs of the climate crisis in your country? What seemed to you so striking that you could not ignore it anymore?
In Uganda deforestation is a very big issue because it impacts communities in a very profound way: for so many people it is a source of income, schools depend on wood for cooking. But what really awakened me were the disasters happening especially in the Eastern part of Uganda: landslides and floods in the areas of Bududa, of Bundibugyo.
Of course, I had seen these catastrophes on the news before. Most of the people in Uganda have probably heard about landslides in Bududa. But then, there is really no one telling you that this is a crisis that needs to be addressed.
In the current geopolitical context, how can we overcome the situation where on one side Europe is asking for more gas and oil because of the Russian war in Ukraine and on the other side the climate crisis is pressing?
First, many countries in Africa are facing a very huge challenge: lifting people out of poverty, including energy poverty. Millions of Africans have no access to electricity. There is a real pressure on African states. That is why activists are repeatedly stressing the need for countries in the Global North to provide the urgently needed climate finance for vulnerable nations. For us to have a just transition, climate finance needs to be sent to the communities that are at the frontline of the climate crisis, to support mitigation and adaptation, but it should also aim to help people escape energy poverty.
Leaders in Africa are saying that we need to give people access to electricity, but we don’t have the finance to support renewable access at the local level. We are seeing countries in Europe invest in fossil fuels infrastructures across the African continent. So instead of giving finance for renewable energy, finance is being given for fossil fuels. That is the challenge that we need to address.
It is important to note that to lift Africans from energy poverty, oil and gas are not the solution: we see the case of Mozambique or Nigeria: people did not gain access to energy or electricity because of the oil and gas extraction.
How can we prevent that, what we identified as a solution, is not perpetuating the injustices we have seen in all economic systems based on the extraction of coal oil and gas? For example, strategies for moving away from fossil fuels in transportation, rely on electric vehicles, which depend on the extraction of many materials and rare-earth.
Indeed, I have talked about this whole excitement around electric vehicles without considering the impact on the environment. The impact can be even larger and include child labour or child abuses, violation of the rights of women that carry up the mining. I think what people need to understand is that not all climate action is climate justice. We need to apply the concept of climate justice, in whatever we think is a solution.
Even when one wants to bring up solar infrastructure in a village, or in a certain community, people must be consulted. They need to understand who is going to benefit from the solar panels. There is a need to bring people into the conversation at all levels, to include them into climate action. And that’s why I think we need to talk about climate justice.
When counting on electric vehicles, we need to understand at what expense we are getting those vehicles. Who is suffering so that someone can drive, and what can be done to stop the suffering? Can they be manufactured in an environment where there is no abuse or violation of rights of women and children? What may look like climate action in a certain community may be a climate disaster in another one.
What is the development model for the African continent that you defend?
Decades of fossil fuel extraction has not helped the 600 million (and rising) people in Subsaharan Africa who do not have basic electricity access. The fossil fuels extracted are exported to rich countries, with most of the profits going to foreign companies. Renewables located near the point of use have been shown to be far more effective at expanding energy access to rural areas than building out transmission lines for gas-fired power. They also do not cause environmental harm such as air pollution in the communities they are built near.
What role could Europe play in this project?
Europe has a huge responsibility in the environmental transition of African countries. In the context of the war in Ukraine, what European leaders should aim is to support the transition to renewable energies, not the transition to other sources of supply: we need to move away from fossil fuels, full stop. We don’t need to move away from Russian fossil fuels to fossil fuels from Africa.
Europe is struggling with energy prices at the moment, but that does not mean that European countries can further exploit Africa for its gas reserves. What is going unreported in Europe is that Africa is struggling with high energy prices too. High oil and gas prices have curtailed energy access in African countries. Instead of more self-serving investment in extracting our resources, Europe needs to invest in clean energy. From governments to multilateral development banks to private finance—we need the resources to make this transition happen.
How should Europe position itself in relation to China’s ambitions on the continent?
China is trying to invest in infrastructure in African countries. Europe needs to do the same but it can help by leading the green transition. We are not getting enough of the right investment. Money is flowing in from abroad to support fossil fuel infrastructure, but Africa only receives 2% of the world’s investment in renewable energy, despite having 39% of the potential for renewable energy generation.
Do you think that there is a need for direct access to finance for communities? For the moment, everything goes through governments. Do you think that communities, if they had access to direct finance, could choose decentralised renewable energies?
I remember when I was at COP26 in Glasgow last year, someone said that change actually happens at community level and not at the COPs. When you come to really think about what is happening in communities, you realise how much change is underway thanks to the work of grassroots projects. I know that many activists, especially in Africa, are running different projects to support their communities for example in terms of access to water, electricity, sanitation, educational projects for women and girls, and so on.
The challenge is indeed the access to the much-needed resources, to really scale up these projects. If the initiatives led by activists were supported, especially financially (but also in terms of technical support for example), I think we would see a lot more transformations much more rapidly. There is a need for money or access to finance for the communities which are currently doing tremendous work with very little resources. They can do much more if they are given more resources.
60% of the African continent is under 25 years old. What is the role that youth will play in this socio-environmental transition?
Youth can and will play a significant role in the transition. But they need to be educated to do so. Millions of girls still don’t receive full primary education in Subsaharan Africa. Even more don’t finish Secondary school. Educating girls has been shown by Project Drawdown to be one of the most effective ways of reducing the impact of climate change— empowering girls economically and in their communities helps make them more resilient to extreme weather, reduces their reliance on subsistence agriculture, teaches them skills that can help in times of crisis, and builds a new generation of workers that can lead the transition to clean energy. Youth can power this transition, but they need to be educated first to do so.
Can you speak a little bit more about your idea of education and the Green School Project? What are you trying to achieve?
It is really about helping people understand how education and climate are connected, especially when it comes to girls’ education and women empowerment. We know how in so many communities girls and women are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis because of the nature of their responsibilities: providing for their families, means working on a farm, collecting water. So many times, women and girls are at the frontline when disasters happen: crops are dried up, farms are destroyed, they have to walk long distances to fetch water. As climate disasters escalate, many girls drop out from school, many are forced into marriage.
I believe that if we want to talk about the climate crisis, we must support and ensure every girl is in school, and every woman is empowered. We know that of the hundreds of actions we can do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one of the most effective solutions is education, because it contributes to increasing the resilience of individuals, communities, and reducing inequalities that so many girls and women face. Today we know more about the connection between education and the climate crisis. That is one of the things that we have been working on, to raise this awareness about how the two go hand in hand.
When it comes to the Green School Project I started it in 2019. It consists in installing solar panels, and eco-friendly wood stoves in schools in Uganda. The main objective is to help drive the transition to renewable energy, especially for those in rural areas, and to help schools reduce their consumption of firewood. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of trees are cut down for firewood. Teachers understand the impact of cutting down trees, but students cannot study when they are hungry, there is a need for alternatives. So far, we have done installations in twenty-nine schools.
How does it work for people? Are young people talking about it in their groups, families, or communities? How do you see it? This idea of having clean cooking, clean stoves, is a very long story. People were not adopting them because they didn’t find them useful. Do you see a change or a bigger appetite to move forward with these solutions?
At the start of the project, we first go and speak with the headteacher, the teachers and the students. We ask for their permission to implement and develop the project, so that we are not just dumping solar panels on their roofs. There must always be dialogue.
There is always a lot of excitement, especially in the rural areas because students can see the ongoing process from the beginning until the very end — how solar panels supply energy, the construction of the stove on the ground of the kitchen. Some of the schools we worked with don’t have electricity at all and there’s this joy of students that can finally read with lights in their classroom, early in the morning if they want to. Teachers can have an extra-class in the evening too.
Then, we usually go back to the schools we worked on to see how they are using the stoves. We have received really good feedback, especially on how it has reduced the use of firewood and hence the expenses. We also had some head teachers from schools not included in the project calling us because they had the testimonies from schools using eco-friendly wood stoves. I would say that more people understand the impact.
What are you expecting for COP27? Experts talk about the African COP, but how can we have the best result possible?
First, I would start by saying that climate change is more than weather, more than statistics, more than data points. Climate change is about people. So, when we talk about the African COP, it is important to know that an African COP should be more than the fact that it physically takes place on African soil. An African COP has to be about the African people who are suffering, who are on the frontline of the climate crisis.
I think that there are so many issues that need to be addressed, as we head to COP27. Issues such as loss and damage. We know climate change is pushing so many communities, so many people in places where they cannot adapt anymore. We cannot adapt to lost cultures, lost histories, lost islands. This is what the climate crisis is doing. It causes loss and damages in communities across Africa, across the Global South. These are the experiences that need to be told, the voices that need to be heard.
Then, there is a need to demand and provide climate finance for mitigation and adaptation. But in addition, there is also a need for a separate fund for the loss and damage which is already happening. That is the responsibility of the countries in the Global North. A hundred billion dollars was promised but not delivered.
Right now, it is important for people to know that those hundred billion dollars is no longer enough for the communities on the frontline of the climate crisis. These are the issues that really need to be addressed at COP27. These are the stories that need to be communicated. But who is going to tell these stories?
Is the COP the right space for these voices to be heard?
For so long Africa has been on the front lines of the climate crisis, but not the front pages of the world’s newspapers. For now, the COP is the one of the only spaces where these voices are being heard, therefore it is an important one. However, it is not delivering the results we need. We cannot rely solely on it to achieve the outcomes we want. Governments and businesses need to start taking responsibility themselves to speed up the green transition.
Looking more specifically at your experience as a climate activist, what are the best ways to talk about climate change today? What narratives to adopt? What visions of the future should be proposed?
Everything is related to the climate crisis now. In Africa, the energy crisis, hunger, debt and of course extreme weather are all being exacerbated by fossil fuels extraction and climate change. We need to explain to people the connections that are causing instability in our lives.
But the solutions are also connected. Universal education is a solution to protect people from the climate crisis, but also for development and improving lives. Clean energy reduces our emissions, but it also means cheaper, more reliable energy, without the health impacts of air pollution.
We need to explain this better. We are not doing this well enough, and some people fill this silence by saying that more fossil fuels are what is needed to solve our problems.
How do you live all this exposure and visibility that you have?
Visibility comes with so many things. Sometimes, it can come with a lot of pressure. Sometimes, it comes with a lot of responsibility. Sometimes, it just comes with a lot of work. But when you look at the bigger picture, the visibility I have helps expose the challenges that are happening in our communities, that are happening across the world, especially in the context of the climate crisis. Through this exposure, we can tell the stories, and the experiences of the people that are at the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Laurence Tubiana, A Conversation With Vanessa Nakate, Nov 2022,
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