EXCLUSIVE: Elizabeth Wahuti, the Kenyan activist who delivered an impassioned speech to world leaders at COP26, believes business and society must “open their hearts and listen” to communities already experiencing the worst of the climate crisis , to help make informed decisions for the benefit of society at the next world climate summit.
COP26 hosted negotiations for world leaders in Glasgow last November. Some of the world’s most powerful decision makers spent more than two weeks at the summit to thwart the Glasgow Climate Pact.
However, one of the highlights of the two-week summit, which went viral on social media, was a speech by 26-year-old Elizabeth Wahuti, who took to the main stage to encourage leaders to “have the grace to listen fully.” . on her story and the impact of the frontline climate crisis she is experiencing in her home country of Kenya.
With the dust still settling on the Glasgow Climate Pact (and some nations already rejecting statements on fossil fuels), edie spoke to Wahuti to get her take on the results of COP26 and what needs to happen in the run-up to this year’s climate summit, to take place in Egypt.
“One of my highlights from COP26 was seeing the energy coming out of the Blue Zone from young people, civil society organizations and indigenous communities trying to put pressure on what was happening inside,” Wathuti told edie.
“I think we need that push from the people who understand what is happening and who really believe strongly that there is so much that needs to be done to address the climate and the ecological crisis. So it was great to see so much solidarity from outside in the form of marches and protests, especially the engagement of the Global South, because these people are the hardest hit by the crises.”
Wahuti claimed that the Glasgow Climate Pact, which was finally agreed after negotiations were extended until the second weekend of the summit, had “some strength”, namely the discussions about losses and damage and that fossil fuels were mentioned in the final document, albeit diluted by draft texts.
The activist, who founded the NGO Green Generation Initiative, which runs tree-planting programs in Kenya, expressed hope that nations would be asked to rigorously review their climate action plans, which Wahuti said is crucial to keeping the climate crisis high on the political agenda.
Under the Glasgow Climate Pact, nations are committed to formulating and publishing updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the 2030 Paris Agreement by the start of next year’s COP27 in Egypt.
These nations should strive to align their climate goals and plans with a 1.5°C temperature path, the text says. Some nations had pushed for this to be a requirement, others for it to be omitted entirely. In the end, the document states that the UN will “take into account different national circumstances”. Nations like China, South Africa and Indonesia have said they will likely need more time. There is also an agreement that nations will start developing NDCs by 2039.
Social justice is climate justice
With the next COP set to be an “African COP,” Wahuti believes communities experiencing the worst impacts of the climate crisis should have more representation at the discussions.
“We can’t really conclude that because COP is coming to Africa it’s an assurance that there is African representation because people like the G20 are still the ones who are taking the lead in negotiations,” Wathuti added.
“If this is an African COP, it should not just be because Africa is hosting the event, but because that is reflected in the people participating in the decisions and processes. Africa does not wait for the crisis. It is already affecting them and this needs to be reflected in discussions. You don’t have to watch from the sidelines. They must be included in their negotiations and their voices must count in the outcome.”
In fact, Wahuti, now UN Young Champion of the Earth and campaign manager for the Wangari Maathai Foundation, believes COP27 can act as an ideal event to ensure society also looks at the climate and environmental crises and social justice issues.
Much has been said about the need to ensure a “just” transition to net-zero emissions globally, but very few actionable steps have been taken to ensure all nations and sectors of the economy are equipped with the opportunities and capabilities , which they can enter low-carbon markets.
The Prince of Wales’s Terra Carta engagement is one of the few movements aiming to change that. The Terra Carta, translated as “Earth Charter”, which was launched in January 2021, calls on companies to do everything in their power to contribute to a just global transition to net zero by 2050 at the latest. It also includes commitments on labor rights, sustainable skills and nature.
Wahuti believes that Africa may be one of the drivers of the net-zero moves as many communities are currently responding to the climate crisis with innovative measures. Some organizations are already partnering with African smallholders to roll out training and infrastructure that improve climate adaptation and resilience on farms, and reports say the continent has “unlimited potential” for forms of clean energy. However, around $9 trillion is needed for emerging markets to meet two-thirds of their energy needs from renewable sources by 2050, according to an analysis by Bloomberg NEF (BNEF).
Therefore, Wahuti believes that all investments in sustainability across Africa must benefit society. She added that more needs to be done to make the climate crisis personal in other regions of the world, which in turn would inspire more action.
It’s really important that every single country really makes sure that we also address climate change as a social justice issue,” Wahuti said. “It’s about the people who have been hit hardest by the crisis when it comes to representation, the people on the front lines of the impact need to be on the front lines of these negotiations and the kind of outcome we’re getting is about those too to reflect the direct needs of the people who are facing the crisis right now.
“We must unite to humanize the climate crisis by opening our eyes and heart to the realities and then choosing to face them as they are. Every day that we don’t listen to the people on the front lines of this crisis, we won’t understand the extent to which the crisis is affecting people.
“Right now, people have an imposed duty to act because that’s what is being asked of them, but this has to become a natural cultural action, where people act passionately.”