Ahead of COP28, global environmental advocate Wanjira Mathai shares her hopes and fears about the state of climate action.
Wanjira Mathai is the managing director of the World Resources Institute (WRI), the chief Africa adviser to the Bezos Earth Fund and the former chair of the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya.
Speaking to Maysa Jalbout on The Impact Room ahead of COP28, Mathai, describes the moment we’re in as “the decisive decade” and warns that “the science is getting shaper”, “the challenge is deep”, and “we have a lot of work to do”.
Mathai, who was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2023, says she hopes that COP28 in the UAE will be “dominated by a spirit of action and implementation”. And she calls for “a consensus” on operationalising the loss and damage fund as well as further commitments to double finance for climate adaptation.
Nairobi-based Wajira Mathai is an active voice in AFR 100, the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative, which aims to restore 100 million hectares on the continent by 2030.
WRI, through its Restore Local Initiative, recently received US$100m from the Audacious Project to accelerate locally led land restoration in Lake Kivu and the Congo River Basin in the DRC, in the Cocoa Belt of Ghana, and in Kenya’s Rift Valley. This was in addition to US$50m already committed by the Bezos Earth Fund.
The fact that this funding is committed over multiple years and comes from a group of donors is as important as its value, Mathai says, as it creates an important proof of concept for pooled funding for climate adaptation and restoration projects in the Global South.
“Restoration in Africa remains one of the greatest opportunities for building climate resilience,” she explains.
“We know that if landscapes are restored, a lot happens. You have increased food productivity because soils are improved… Landscapes regenerate and restore pretty quickly. All things considered. So in two to three decades, you can have a complete transformation of landscapes and livelihoods.”
In September 2023, Africa hosted its first climate summit in Kenya. Mathai sees this as a significant milestone in the continent’s role when it comes to fighting climate change. “We are part of the climate solution,” she says.
“We’re not part of the problem… We have a lot going for us. We have the fastest growing workforce in the world, an abundance of critical minerals and an abundance of renewable energy, which could come together and catalyse not only economic transformation for Africa, but also become part of the renewable energy revolution.”
For all the challenges facing the climate, Mathai says she remains optimistic about the future. “I am optimistic, mainly because the alternative is unacceptable,” she tells Maysa, noting that she’s inspired by revolutions in electric vehicles and solar, and in the growing youth and local leadership movements.
“I’m inspired by so many signals around that remind you that exponential change is possible,” she says. “We have so much more democratic space. We have so many more tools. We have so many more of us. We have to be optimistic.”
Read the World Resources Institute’s 2023 State of Climate Action report here.
You could listen to all the episodes of The Impact Room here.
About the host
Maysa Jalbout is a leader in international development and philanthropy. Her previous roles include founding CEO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, a $1bn philanthropic initiative based in Dubai, and founding CEO of the Queen Rania Foundation. Maysa is a visiting scholar at MIT and ASU, and a non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Find her on Twitter, @MaysaJalbout.