Ruto’s green growth lie

The marketization of climate action, epitomized by Kenyan president William Ruto, allows the super-rich to buy their safety while the rest of us are left behind.

Image credit USAID via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.

At the Africa Climate Summit, convened by President William Ruto, the slogan was “Driving Green Growth and Climate Finance Solutions for Africa and the World.” The Summit’s concept note, allegedly written by the giant US-based consulting firm McKinsey and Company, reads like a corporate wetdream. It is market speak 101 dressed as climate action. In a letter to Ruto, more than 500 civil society organizations said that the note “reflects the interests of the US, McKinsey and the Western corporations they represent. Meanwhile, Africa’s stated priorities are conspicuously missing, as a result.”

The concept note makes the dubious and misleading claim that “Africa already accounts for ~10% of global GHG emissions if one includes all land-based emissions—similar levels as Europe.” It goes on to fear-monger, citing the projected doubling of Africa’s population by 2050. The subtext is that climate adaptation should take a backseat to “green growth.” It also implies that Africa has the same level of responsibility for cutting emissions despite it producing less than four percent of annual emissions and less than one percent cumulatively.

The rest of the concept note talks about how a climate positive, solutions framing can “unlock the opportunity.” Again, this is coded market speak—the prize is Africa’s land, energy, minerals and other resource wealth; the opportunity is making green growth synonymous with climate action at the Summit, COP28, and other high-level climate negotiations. The tools are “a specific set of financial investment “instruments” that are tailored towards growth opportunities.” You can practically see their drool on the page.

These corporate interests came through clearly in the African Leaders Nairobi Declaration on Climate Change and Call to Action, the main outcome of the Summit. The Declaration gave lip service to Africa not being historically responsible for climate change, the disproportionate climate burdens and risks in Africa, delivery of the promised annual $100 billion in climate finance, operationalizing the Loss and Damage Fund, urbanization challenges, biodiversity, and adaptation indicators and targets. These studiously vague statements are in contrast to the detail and ambition in calls for international financial system reform.

However, the Declaration largely focuses on investment opportunities. Of the 16 commitments in the Declaration, six are about climate-positive green growth. This balancing act between ambitious proposals for international financial system reform and abandoning common but differentiated responsibilities while calling for green growth embodies Ruto’s climate agenda.

Both the Nairobi Declaration and Ruto’s agenda are more remarkable for what they omit than what they include. This is palpable when comparing it to the counter “People’s Declaration” issued by civil society organizations. Most notably missing are people—especially youth and women—and their needs and aspirations. It also does not address the urgent need for redistributive finance (i.e. climate reparations), debt cancellation, ending fossil fuel expansion, or securing land rights. There is minimal attention to climate adaptation needs or the tiny share of global climate finance Africa receives.

The green-growth-as-climate-action lie

Africans want, need, and deserve economic growth and industrialization. The global North grew at the expense of Africa and continues to do so thanks to the weight of colonialism (and middlemen like Ruto). Ruto and his Western clients say that the tired, overworn, and anachronistic paradigm of forever growth is the answer. However, green growth is, at turns, a naive, deliberately simplistic, perverse, greed-fueled, pathological, and crippling delusion, a failure of imagination of suicidal proportions that is stubbornly and studiously blind to planetary boundaries and the confluence of macroemergencies in climate change, biodiversity loss, ecological breakdown, and savage, obscene, and unprecedented social inequality. Its proponents are doomed to repeat the past because of their inability to value and understand history or their role in it.

Market evangelists’ fixation on empowering and emboldening microinterests has created the macroemergencies that threaten human existence today. Green growth can only push crises to emergencies and emergencies to breakdown and collapse. Anyone who tells you differently is lying to you and to themselves. We must ask why. The bitter answer—it’s profitable for the few. We must look long and hard at ourselves. Climate and other planetary emergencies are political, social, and systemic challenges, not technological ones. They always have been.

Green growth assumes that we can decouple resource use and GHG emissions from economic growth. This is despite a complete lack of empirical evidence (the concept has been comprehensively debunked). At the very least, decoupling cannot happen within the short timeframe available or at a scale and speed that can outrun economic growth today. It also assumes rapid gains in efficiency—reliant on exploiting Africa’s resources and people—that is also unsupported by any evidence. Greater efficiency can also induce greater demand, fueling more consumption and increasing emissions.

But, most fatally, green growth ignores people. And where it does recognize them, they are reduced to human capital. Its evangelists see a world of hustler nations—the lie that everyone has the chance to get rich despite the monumental body of contrary evidence.

The commodification of nature through carbon credits, fairer lending practices, and climate-positive ideologies like green growth cannot generate enough new wealth to protect Africans from climate change while also developing low-carbon economies and infrastructure. Resources are finite and time is short.

Recent estimates say that African countries require about $2.8 trillion between 2020 and 2030 to implement their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), or about $250 billion annually. They only receive an estimated 12 percent ($29.5 billion annually) of that today. The Africa Group of Negotiators has called for $1.3 trillion a year starting in 2025. Globally, up to 80 percent of this finance is provided as loans, not grants. And half of loans are non-concessional, with harsh interest rates, rigid payback schedules, and punitive repayment terms. High interest rates and penalties reduce the true value of loans to less than half.

Green growth proponents say the answer to closing the finance gap is more private capital. Beyond reinforcing debt traps that keep African countries from spending on social programs and development, it also skews investment away from African priorities and toward mitigation and “green” business because the private sector does not see the same return on investment from adaptation measures. Because of Africa’s disproportionately high vulnerability and low emissions, finance should instead prioritize adaptation over mitigation. Despite this, only 39 percent of climate finance has been spent on adaptation. The ability of African countries to invest in adaptation is crippled by debt. Climate finance is exacerbating this—loans account for twice the amount of finance as grants across the continent.

In Kenya, almost 80 percent of climate finance has been spent on mitigation. Only about 12 percent has been spent on adaptation. And only 40 percent of this finance comes from international sources, public or private. About 80 percent of that was delivered through debt, over half of which has been spent on mitigation instead of adaptation.

Looking beyond climate finance and Africa alone, foreign aid has long been used by colonial powers as a new tool to divide, conquer, placate, and create middlemen allies in the post-colonial period. Examining global financial flows—including foreign investment and trade as well as transfers like debt cancellation, remittances, and capital flight, not just development aid—reveals “aid in reverse.” The global South sends three times more finance to the rest of the world than they receive from the North and 24 times more than the aid the North sends.

In addition to being carbon creditors, Southern countries are actually net financial creditors as well, not the beggars that the international development story casts them as. These financial outflows include external debt and interest payments, many of them decades-old loans, accumulated by Western-backed dictators, and now paid back many times over. Another big source is profits repatriated by transnational companies. The biggest, however, is unrecorded, and often illicit, capital flight.

The huge gaps in the type and level of finance needed in Africa cannot be closed by loans alone, concessional or not.

You might think reparations are naive or a distraction. But, what is the alternative? More of the same—debt traps, coercive structural adjustment, deregulation, and export economies that keep African countries locked in cyclical poverty. The new scramble for African resources, principally “green” minerals, can only make this worse.

Market solutions to market problems are akin to chasing our own tail—it will always reproduce the same harmful incentives. In this system, businesses cannot resist these incentives, even when they want to. It is the role of the state and our leaders to transform those incentives. Ruto is clearly the wrong person for the job. When businessmen and our elected representatives are the same people, we can only get more of the same.

Reparations and other strategies

Ever more intricate market fixes are not substitutes for robust economic and environmental regulation and enforcement. Nor do they replace our need for more radical systemic transformations. Technological innovation cannot exist in a vacuum—we must pair it with social and cultural innovation.

Green growth relies on the destructive paradigm of consumption-driven development. It is your grandpa’s pajamas died green when we need a whole new wardrobe. And there is a new wardrobe of ideas, backed up by sound theory and evidence. Whether it is degrowth or similar concepts (e.g. prosperity without growth, steady state economy, doughnut economics, wellbeing economy), they all add up to one thing—kicking our addiction to consumption-driven, energy-intensive growth while reducing waste, largely in wealthy, industrialized nations in Europe, North America, East Asia and Oceania. And just as importantly for Africa, a historic redistribution of wealth (akin to the European and American colonial eras).

Climate reparations can take several forms beyond direct transfers. These include: the systematic cancellation of all unfair, illegitimate, and odious debt; financing and operationalizing the Loss and Damage Fund; more grants and highly concessional loans; redirection of fossil fuel subsidies; and scaling up climate finance through existing mechanisms (e.g. financial transaction taxes and Special Drawing Rights). They could also include knowledge and technology transfers. They could even include establishing an international compensation commission to manage claims from Southern countries and suing transnational corporations for damages under international law.

Reparations are not the only alternative to green growth for funding climate action. Despite their challenges and limitations, there are also market-based mechanisms such as carbon taxes that internalize the social and environmental costs of emissions into production. Unlike carbon offsets, carbon taxes put a direct cost on emissions and are more transparent and enforceable. They also create revenue for governments. Already in use in many countries, there is concrete evidence that carbon taxes can work. The biggest challenge is offshoring, where companies can move production to countries that don’t have a carbon tax. This is why a global carbon tax framework is so important, putting a single price on each ton of emissions and allocating a large part of the subsequent revenue to African and other Southern countries.

Another important strategy could be strengthening regional integration through trading blocs such as the East African Community and even the African Union. This would give African countries more bargaining power for their climate and development priorities, leveraging their vast mineral and other resource wealth needed for energy transitions away from fossil fuels worldwide (e.g. the AU’s African Green Minerals Strategy). Blocs provide pragmatic solidarity without the need for more transformational shifts away from deeply flawed market economies. They are, in fact, crucial for reversing resource curses that have long plagued African countries. They could be used for more than onshoring industrial supply chains, enabling the negotiation of more favorable terms in global carbon pricing and even for climate and other colonial reparations.

More broadly, a number of macroeconomic measures are important for correcting the imbalance of power between North and South. Foremost among these is democratizing global governance institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. We must also end structural adjustment policies attached to loans so that finance does not require countries to give up their right to deploy tariffs, subsidies, and capital controls as well as social spending. Finally, we must end illicit financial flows out of Southern countries, enforcing financial transparency and deterring tax avoidance.

A return to solidarity

The marketization of climate action epitomized by Ruto allows the very few super-rich to buy their safety. The rest of us are being left behind, the poorest and most vulnerable first. We are sacrifice people. You might think you are not one of us. The odds say you are wrong.

The biggest problem with climate-positive green growth is a question that we have left largely obscured and unvoiced, perhaps because it is too ugly—how many people are we willing to let die? How many futures are we willing to defer, how many young people’s lives are we willing to stunt? Green growth’s answer—“let’s all be delusional lunatics together.” Let’s just keep doing what we’ve been doing and pray for different outcomes. Let’s bet on efficiency and techno-fixes to inherently political and social problems. Let’s enshrine microinterests in our economics even though we have  seen time and again that this enriches the few at the expense of the many. Let us each keep faith that we can win the lotto, get rich, and join the survivor’s club.

No matter what hue we cast our growth cult in, it remains a cult. The degree to which we rely on market solutions to market problems will to a great extent determine how many of us we will sacrifice to that cult so that elites can continue profiting from planetary emergencies. This is not melodrama—look around, read the news. We are being massacred. Our death march began decades, if not centuries, ago. The question is, will we keep following our disingenuous leaders or turn to the hard, hard work of building solidarity? Green growth tells us to chase our tails and not look up. Building solidarity is looking up and seeing what we have to gain from new (and old) ways of thinking and doing. We’ve been sold a lie. The price is getting higher and higher. Let’s stop buying; let’s trade among ourselves instead.

There are many alternatives to green growth, whether restorative and redistributive or through more mundane mechanisms, such as carbon taxes. Reparations, in any form, will not be given freely by historical polluters and colonizers. They must be fought for. This requires negotiating from a position of power. Power requires, above all, a return to African and global South solidarity, exemplified by the Non-Aligned Movement and the G77 during the post-independence period.

Consensus on key initiatives across the varied interests of 55 African countries may be an impossible proposition. And it’s an unfair one. Cooperation in the global North is neither solidarity nor conspiracy. Market incentives align the interests of Northern governments and corporations around the seemingly unbreakable gravity of growth. But the stakes, especially for Africa, are existential. Solidarity is not harmony. Solidarity is difficult and messy, an ongoing struggle among competing interests striving to find common ground in a deeply divided and unequal world. The powerful and their brokers tell us that it is a distraction, impractical, a fantasy—that the historical processes that divided us are the best we have. They are wrong. We must resist the logics that erase history and politics from view.

Ruto has labeled this all as the blame game. He says that Africans should step forward with their own solutions. As if Africans have not repeatedly done so. With this rhetoric, Ruto betrayed his people. He erased the long history of social movements’ struggles for justice. He obfuscated colonialism. It’s gaslighting 101—simultaneously blaming victims for being victims while telling them they are not victims.

Ruto is propagating the false idea of just working together, of meeting in the middle. But, where is the middle? Is the middle the middle when our most powerful institutions refuse to acknowledge a realm of possibility beyond the narrowly defined confines of forever growth? Transformational ideas and movements do not fit within this realm. To meet in the middle is to do business as usual, green or otherwise. It capitulates to the terms defined by elites.

Building solidarity is the opposite of victim-playing. It’s the hard work we must do to recognize our differentiated but common responsibilities and the role we should each play. Yes, simply pointing fingers falls short of the pragmatic action we need. But, recognizing history is the starting point for genuine instead of performative climate action. Green growth creates the illusion of climate action; but, it is not the kind of action we need, it is nothing more than a clever performance.

Ruto has taken up the profitable role of climate middleman, accepting scraps to sell Africa. Despite his growing wealth and power, he may just barely qualify to join the survivor’s club, no matter what costume he wears. His climate contradictions are his audition. Let’s make sure he doesn’t get the part. And while we are at it, let’s fire the traditional players and disband the club altogether.

Further Reading