In a previous incarnation, when I was a globe-trotting United Nations official, I was constantly amazed at how big the Kenyan delegation was at international conferences. At a conference on cities held in Beijing, for instance, I was shocked to see ministers and top officials from Kenya whose docket had absolutely nothing to do with urbanisation or cities.
Many of the Kenyan delegates would be accompanied by their wives or girlfriends. It was highly embarrassing because many of these delegates came with begging bowls in hand. How could they justify their need for aid and other types of support when the cost of flying them (usually business or first class) and accommodating them at 5-star hotels could build a school or two in their home country, I wondered. Worse, the Kenyans attending these conferences did not make any significant contribution to the discussions and debates at these conferences because most of them were out shopping at the nearest mall or sampling the local redlight district.
So, I was not surprised to learn that Kenya’s delegation was the fourth largest at the recently concluded UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP27. Kenya’s representation, at 386 officials, included 5 cabinet secretaries, 17 governors and dozens of support staff. It was bigger than that of Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, which sent 171 delegates, and the world’s richest country, the United States, which sent 136 representatives. India and China, with populations of more than 1 billion each, sent 229 and 71 delegates, respectively.
These figures are particularly astounding given that President William Ruto has appealed to ordinary Kenyans to contribute their own money to help people suffering from drought and famine in northern parts of the country. Yet, these same Kenyan taxpayers are funding the travel and accommodation of joyriders to a conference that is dealing precisely with such catastrophes. Moreover, it was also lost on the Kenyan delegation that flying contributes to climate change and that lenders like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are demanding that the government cut its budget and be more thrifty in its spending, including on official air travel.
But the bloated Kenyan delegation was not the only shameful thing that happened at COP27. This particular conference at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort in Egypt attracted a lot of corporate sponsors who are not known for their environmental consciousness. One of these sponsors was Coca Cola, one of the world’s leading polluters. It is estimated that this soft drink company produces roughly 4,000 plastic bottles every second. These bottles often end up on beaches, rivers, drains and dump sites where they choke living creatures and pollute the environment.
Even more disgraceful was the fact that the fossil fuel industry – which has been blamed for making the planet more vulnerable to warming – sent more than 600 fossil fuel lobbyists, according to Global Witness, a campaign group. The infiltration of corporate and fossil fuel industry interests into global conferences on environmental issues is a cause for alarm, as it severely erodes the credibility of such conferences.
Climate change is not just an environmental issue; it is also linked strongly to social justice. Greed for profits and relentless exploitation of people and natural resources is what is stopping the world’s largest polluters from reducing carbon emissions. As the Indian environmental activist and author Vandana Shiva has noted, “The environmental movement can only survive if it becomes a justice movement. It will either die, or it will survive as a corporate ‘greenwash’. Anyone who is a sincere environmentalist can’t stand that role.”
This could explain why Swedish environmental activists like Greta Thunberg are given a prominent place on the stages of these conferences. They post no real threat to governments, the fossil fuel industry and corporations because they have little power to make decisions or to effect change. While it is heartening to see so many young people globally demanding action on climate change, their voices are subdued by the big corporates who are more interested in profits. Young women and girls like Thunberg are seen as sideshows that add colour to conferences where (mostly male) grown-ups decide on what future the planet holds. Women like Shiva would make these grown-ups very uncomfortable.
Which is not to say that African countries like Kenya should not have representation at conferences like COP27. Even though Africa accounts for only 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, the continent is warming at a faster rate than the global average. This will mean more floods, heatwaves and droughts.
Instead of sending huge delegations to climate conferences, Kenya and other African countries should invest in taking appropriate measures at home to prepare for a future that will look increasingly bleak if something is not done urgently.