Kenya's President William Ruto speaks at Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023, during the Africa Climate Summit. Credit: AP Photo/Brian Inganga

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Climate change is “relentlessly eating away” at Africa’s economic progress and it’s time to have a global conversation about a carbon tax on polluters, Kenya’s president declared Tuesday as the first Africa Climate Summit got underway.

“Those who produce the garbage refuse to pay their bills,” President William Ruto said.

The rapidly growing African continent of more than 1.3 billion people is losing 5% to 15% of its GDP growth every year to the widespread impacts of climate change, according to Ruto. It’s a source of deep frustration in the resource-rich region that contributes by far the least to global warming.

The summit’s opening speeches included clear calls to reform the global financial structures that have left African nations paying about five times more to borrow money than others, worsening the debt crisis for many. Africa has more than 30 of the world’s most indebted countries, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for the environment, Soipan Tuya, said.

The U.S. government’s climate envoy, John Kerry, acknowledged the “acute, unfair debt.” He also said 17 of the world’s 20 countries most impacted by climate change are in Africa — while the world’s 20 richest nations, including his own, produce 80% of the world’s carbon emissions that are driving climate change.

Asked about the Kenyan president’s call for a carbon tax discussion, Kerry replied that President Joe Biden has “not yet embraced any particular carbon pricing mechanism.”

Ruto said Africa’s 54 countries “must go green fast before industrializing and not vice versa, unlike (richer nations) had the luxury to do.” Transforming Africa’s economy on a green trajectory “is the most feasible, just and efficient way to attain a net-zero world by 2050,” he said.

Climate finance is key, speakers said, with richer nations’ promise of $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing countries still unfulfilled. Ruto said the summit declaration will “firmly encourage” everyone to keep their promises.

The United Arab Emirates, which will host the next United Nations climate meeting, announced it plans to invest $4.5 billion in Africa’s “clean energy potential.”

Protesters march to demand action on climate change, in the streets, in Nairobi, Kenya, Monday, Sept. 4, 2023 as the Africa Climate Summit begins. The first African Climate Summit opened with heads of state and others asserting a stronger voice on a global issue that affects the continent of 1.3 billion people the most, even though they contribute to it the least. Kenya’s government and the African Union are launching the ministerial session while more than a dozen heads of state begin to arrive, determined to wield more global influence and bring in far more financing and support. Credit: AP Photo/Brian Inganga

The African continent has 60% of the world’s renewable energy assets, and more than 30% of the minerals key to renewable and low-carbon technologies. One goal of the summit is to transform the narrative around the continent from victim to assertive, wealthy partner.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to explain to our people, particularly to our youth, the contradiction: resource-rich continent and poor people,” Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde said.

Africa’s GDP should be revalued for its assets that include the world’s second-largest rainforest and biodiversity, said the president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina.

“Africa cannot be nature-rich and cash-poor,” he said.

But divisions are evident around the issue that was little mentioned in the opening speeches and yet is at the heart of the tough conversations ahead: fossil fuels.

The African Development Bank president said Africa must use its natural gas resources — a growing interest of Europe — along with renewable energy sources. “Give us space to grow,” he said.

Ruto, however, has criticized the “addiction” to fossil fuels. His country now gets more than 90% of its energy from renewables.

“We don’t have to do what the developed countries did to power their industries. It will be harder to use renewable energy exclusively, but it can be done,” said one local summit attendee, Martha Lusweti.

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, speaks during the Africa Climate Summit at the Kenyatta International Conference Center in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2023. Guterres told the summit it’s time to “break our addiction to fossil fuels.” Credit: AP Photo/Brian Inganga

The U.N. secretary-general, Antonio Guterres, told the summit it’s time to “break our addiction to fossil fuels.” The world spent $7 trillion on fossil fuel subsidies in 2022, according to the International Monetary Fund.

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said African nations could produce enough clean energy to power the continent and export abroad, “but for this, Africa needs massive investment.”

Some of Africa’s biggest economies rely on fossil fuels. South Africa’s coal-fired plants are struggling. Parts of Nigeria’s Niger Delta are slick from oil extraction. Some of Africa’s cities have the world’s worst air pollution. TotalEnergies’ pipeline project in Uganda and Tanzania is being challenged.

Missing from the summit are the leaders of a number of Africa’s largest economies including South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt, as well as forest-rich Congo.

Also missing from the leading speakers is China, the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping gases, Africa’s largest trading partner and one of its biggest creditors.

Some African leaders gave passionate descriptions of climate change’s toll.

“The seas that once serenaded us with lullabies now warn of rising tides,” said Sierra Leone’s president, Julius Maada Bio. “It is an African story, and I daresay it’s a global story, too.”