Why famine-hit Somalia didn’t get climate aid: It has no coal

By Jean Chemnick | 11/16/2022 06:47 AM EST

New funding programs announced at COP 27 are helping poor countries transition away from fossil fuels. But the money isn’t going to places without energy.

Huts made of branches and cloth provide shelter to Somalis displaced by drought on the outskirts outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, on Sept. 19.

Huts made of branches and cloth provide shelter to Somalis displaced by drought on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia, on Sept. 19. AP

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — New climate aid is finally beginning to flow to poorer nations that burn fossil fuels. Left on the sidelines are countries that use some of the smallest amounts of energy in the world.

Many of the programs unveiled here at the global climate summit known as COP 27 benefit emerging countries with power grids that buzz with electricity derived from coal. They so far are not helping nations where electric lights and gas cooking remain stubbornly elusive. These places emit almost no climate pollution but are seeing the deadly effects of rising temperatures.

Salah Ahmed Jama, the deputy prime minister of Somalia, sees inequity in the sudden eagerness of wealthy nations to preserve the global goal of limiting warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius by doling out grants and loans to carbon-intensive poor countries.


Less aid seems to be available to countries like his own, he said, even though they are on the front lines of climate change and did almost nothing to create the problem.

“The question is, for a country that emits 0.00-something percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally, for a continent — Africa — that contributes only 4 percent of emissions and in which 600 million people have no access to electricity and hundreds of millions live in poverty, should there not be a special set of arrangements?” Jama said in an interview.

Somalia is the second-poorest country in the world based on gross national income, and 70 percent of its citizens lack access to electricity.

Somalia doesn’t have the infrastructure that would qualify it to take part in a so-called Just Energy Transition Partnership of the kind announced here Tuesday for Indonesia. A cadre of rich countries, including the United States, offered $20 billion to bankroll Indonesia’s transition to renewable energy in exchange for a commitment that it retire its large fleet of coal-fired power plants early. An earlier agreement will phase out South Africa’s coal plants. Others are being worked on for Vietnam, India and Senegal.

A country like Indonesia, the world’s largest coal exporter, would also be better suited than Somalia to attract tens of billions in leveraged private capital that U.S. climate envoy John Kerry hopes to raise with his proposed Energy Transition Accelerator, which would raise funds through the sale of carbon offsets. The initiative seeks to harness corporate dollars to shut down coal plants in the developing world and replace them with green energy. It remains a concept, and a range of countries, including Somalia, might ultimately benefit from a share of the money it raises for adaptation.

Somalia and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa are in desperate need of adaptation money. Jama said Somalia’s plan to defend its citizens from climate-related disasters could cost an unaffordable $55 billion over 10 years — and the country is barred from taking on new debt because it is participating in an International Monetary Fund debt reduction program.

The Horn of Africa is in the midst of a devastating drought that began in early 2021. As of August, it had pushed more than 1 million Somalis off their land in search of water and food, according to the U.N. refugee agency. That’s in addition to nearly 3 million Somalis who were already internally displaced persons, or IDPs, because of factors like the armed insurgency that the government has been battling since 2006.

A famine is now on the horizon, and it could affect almost half of the country’s 17 million residents.

“They’re losing their cattle. They’re losing their livestock. They’re losing their harvest,” Jama said. “They’re losing their very way of life, their livelihood.”

In Somalia, there’s no safety net.

“In the past, if somebody in the countryside herding goats, sheep or camels loses 15 percent of his stock, it was easy for the person to make a comeback and adjust,” Jama said. “But now it is a very profound loss. A very stable, self-reliant household could become destitute IDPs overnight.”

Still, he rejects the idea that international aid is a humanitarian program.

“The occurrence of the droughts, the lack of water is a developmental issue,” Jama said. “If we had resources to invest in the canals and the wells, water harvesting and energy, we would not be having this humanitarian crisis again and again.”

“Climate change should serve as the launchpad for these countries to move from a humanitarian context to development,” he added.

Somalia is hungry for that kind of infrastructure. It recently signed an oil-production agreement with the Houston-based Coastline Exploration Ltd. — the first of its kind since a civil war in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, energy experts say that despite Africa having vast wind and solar potential, it attracts just 2 percent of global investment in renewable energy.

Jake Schmidt, who directs the international climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that after the first five transition partnerships —known as JETPs — are concluded, attention might shift to providing large numbers of loans and grants from multilateral development banks for renewable energy transitions.

“Instead of trying to say, ‘Let’s pick off this next country,’ let’s do a little more wholesale strategy for a series of countries across a region where you can offer a similar kind of package,” he said. “And Africa’s ripe for that.”