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This Kenyan family got solar power. High-level climate talks determine who else will

Winifred Muisyo, right, and her five-year-old daughter, Patience Kativa, watch Stanlas Kisilu, left, as he installs a TV tuner on the roof of her home. The TV is connected to a solar panel provided by d.light, a company partially funded by climate financing from wealthier nations.
Winifred Muisyo, right, and her five-year-old daughter, Patience Kativa, watch Stanlas Kisilu, left, as he installs a TV tuner on the roof of her home. The TV is connected to a solar panel provided by d.light, a company partially funded by climate financing from wealthier nations.

At a small house outside of Nairobi, Kenya, a big event took place on a late October afternoon — one that also has big repercussions for climate change. Winifred Mumbua Muisyo got electricity at her home for the first time.

An installer from the solar company d.light climbed onto her metal roof and attached a small solar panel. He then began connecting the appliances that come with it: several lights, a phone charger and a small television.

Muisyo awaits installation of a solar home system from d. light. It will be the first time her home will have electricity.
/ Khadija Farah for NPR
Muisyo awaits installation of a solar home system from d. light. It will be the first time her home will have electricity.

As a small-scale farmer living with her three kids, Muisyo had been relying on kerosene lanterns until now. The electric grid doesn't reach her neighborhood an hour outside the capital. With more than 700 million people worldwide without electricity, Muisyo's decision is key to limiting heat-trapping emissions. Using solar means her power won't come from fossil fuels.

The light bulbs turning on in Muisyo's home also are directly tied to high-level climate talks going on in Glasgow, Scotland. Some of the financing d.light received comes from "climate finance" funds from wealthier nations. Under the 2015 Paris climate agreement, industrialized countries promised $100 billion per year to help developing countries switch to renewable energy, limit their emissions and adapt to climate change impacts.

Developed countries recognized that poorer nations have done little to cause climate change, but are bearing the brunt of the impacts. Still, wealthier countries have yet to hit the funding goal. In 2019, they only provided about $80 billion. Developing countries say not enough went to the most vulnerable nations or to help them prepare for impacts that are already being felt, like more extreme storms and droughts.

The shortfall has created a major rift between richer and poorer countries at the Glasgow climate talks. While the U.S., Japan and others have pledged new funding, developing nations say there are few concrete details that lead them to believe these promises are different.

"The reality of climate change is hitting us already," says Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh. "We are not rising to the urgency of the emergency we are in. The reality is going to wipe us out."

Gaining electricity and skipping fossil fuels

For Muiyso's family, the biggest change a solar system brings is after sunset. Solar energy is stored in a battery, so at night, it powers an outdoor light and indoor lights for her kids to do homework.

"Right now, I am happy," Muiyso says. "It has been very dark. Sometimes I hear sounds outside and yet I can't go and check."

Muisyo's 12-year-old son Promise Nthenge uses a portable solar lamp from d. light to study while the family waits for the rest of the solar system to be activated.
/ Khadija Farah for NPR
Muisyo's 12-year-old son Promise Nthenge uses a portable solar lamp from d. light to study while the family waits for the rest of the solar system to be activated.
Patience watches the newly installed television, powered by d.light's solar home system.
/ Khadija Farah for NPR
Patience watches the newly installed television, powered by d.light's solar home system.

Around 1 million Kenyans have become customers of d.light, which also works in other East African countries and South Asia. Using mobile phones, customers can make payments toward their solar system until they own it. Some of d.light's products are about the same cost as buying kerosene, around $4 to 6 a month. The cost is within reach, thanks to the plummeting cost of solar panels and the country's mobile payment network.

"Solar provides a way to get people immediate access to energy and do it in a way that is completely sustainable because now you're not burning coal or fossil fuels to provide that energy," says d.light CEO Ned Tozun.

Part of d.light's success follows a winding path that leads all the way to international climate diplomacy. D.light was invested in by KawiSafi Ventures, a fund that specializes in renewable energy in developing countries. KawiSafi got funding from the Green Climate Fund, one of the ways that developed countries deploy their climate finance commitments. Through that fund, more than $10 billion from almost 50 countries has gone to a huge range of projects, from low-pollution buses in Pakistan to sustainable agriculture in Morocco.

"It's really been quite catalytic," Tozun says. "Before a lot of those funds were available, it was really, really difficult to raise money for expansion."

A global fund for climate inequity

Promises for the $100 billion began 12 years ago at a time when tensions between developed and developing countries were running high at climate talks. The inequity of climate change was becoming starkly clear. Going back to the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. and Europe have emitted the majority of heat-trapping gases. Poorer countries have contributed very little, but are still facing devastating impacts.

"It's a moral case," Huq says. "You caused the problem. We are suffering because of you causing the problem. It's your pollution."

Wealthier nations agreed that by 2020, $100 billion a year would come from both government and private sources. The funds would go to "mitigation" projects that help countries reduce their emissions, as well as "adaptation" projects which make communities better prepared for stronger storms, floods and other extremes.

Muisyo stands with two of her children outside their now lit home.
/ Khadija Farah for NPR
Muisyo stands with two of her children outside their now lit home.

Developing countries asked for a 50/50 split between the categories, but thus far, only around 20-25% of funding has been allocated to adaptation. Much of the funding has come in the form of loans as well. That works for projects like selling renewable energy, which create a revenue stream to pay the loan back. But for adaptation projects like building flood protection, developing countries have no easy way to make payments.

"For poor people to adapt to floods and cyclones and droughts, they can't repay that," Huq says. "So, that doesn't work with loans. That has to come as grants."

Broken goal means broken trust

In the leadup to the Glasgow talks, the U.S. announced a new climate finance commitment: $11.4 billion per year by 2024. Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S. had withdrawn much of climate finance funding.

Other countries also announced new pledges. Japan offered up to $10 billion over five years in additional funding, along with announcements from Norway, Spain and Sweden. In the weeks before the negotiations, developed countries estimated that the earliest the $100 billion goal would be reached is 2023. With the new funds, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry estimates it could happen by 2022.

Developing countries aren't convinced.

"So far the progress here is disappointing and in a way, also frightening," says Sonam Wangdi of Bhutan, who chairs the Least Developed Countries, a coalition of the 46 poorest countries. "These figures cannot be verified. They're not that authentic. And we cannot wait any longer. We would like to request governments to stop skirting responsibility."

Many of the pledges lack concrete details or timelines, so experts say it's difficult to verify when the goal will be reached. Nations haven't settled on a uniform definition of what climate finance is, so some funding may be drawn from previous pledges. In the U.S., the Biden administration still needs Congress to approve its spending before it becomes a reality.

"The fact that countries are stepping up, in terms of responding to the specific and concrete asks, is a positive development in general," says Lorena Gonzalez, a senior associate for climate finance the World Resources Institute. "If they might consider front-loading some of those resources for 2022, 2023, that could make a difference. But we don't know those kinds of details yet."

Gonzalez says the $100 billion isn't just about the tangible impacts on the ground. It's also a "symbolic element of trust" in the climate talks. Without a credible timeline to reach the goal, developing nations have little reason to have faith in the process. Even with the climate funding that's already pledged, there are many barriers to getting it.

"Access is a huge problem," Wangdi says. "If you have a climate disaster and you apply for a loan, it takes four to five years. It doesn't make sense. You are not able to help your people."

Even when the $100 billion goal is met, experts say it falls far below the need that countries face as they experience increasing damage from costly disasters.

A new report from the United Nations finds funding for climate adaptation needs to be five to 10 times greater than what's being spent now. At the talks in Glasgow, nations are just beginning to discuss a new climate finance goal beyond 2025. A group of developing countries has released a starting point, $1.3 trillion by 2030, a number that's sure to kick off years more of tough negotiations.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Muisyo stands in the doorframe of her solar-powered home.
/ Khadija Farah for NPR
Muisyo stands in the doorframe of her solar-powered home.