SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — Africa is both the setting and a primary focus of the agenda for this year’s United Nations climate summit, with debates predominantly revolving around what rich countries that have produced most of the historical greenhouse gas emissions owe poorer ones that are least prepared for the effects of climate change.
The African Union has pushed for what it calls the continent’s “special needs and special circumstances” to be a core consideration of the conference’s resolutions. And in speeches on Tuesday, African heads of state emphasized that their countries could not afford the cost of adapting to climate change or mitigating the natural disasters it fuels.
The language they used was often stark and accusatory.
President Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi repeatedly invoked a “clear difference in culpability and capacity” between developed and developing nations, and said the summit was a test of leaders of more powerful nations to “deliver climate justice for the most vulnerable nations.”
President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana said that the Okavango Delta in his country was running dry, endangering the world’s largest elephant population and imperiling a tourism industry that is essential to the country’s economy. Botswana, like many African nations, faces cycles of drought and flooding that contribute to a growing food crisis and put millions of lives and livelihoods at risk.
Others reminded leaders of richer nations that their pledges of $100 billion of annual support — funding promised in the 2015 Paris climate accord that would mostly go to countries in Africa — are falling far short.
Most African countries’ promises to reduce emissions depend on receiving that funding. The continent’s biggest emitter, South Africa, reached a deal with European countries and the United States at last year’s climate summit for $8.5 billion in grants and loans to help it transition from coal to renewable energy.
Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, on Tuesday called that funding arrangement a “groundbreaking approach” that could be a template for others. But he also said his government estimated that the total cost of reaching its emissions pledges would amount to $90 trillion, requiring huge investments from the private sector.
Most of this funding came in the form of loans, which would add to South Africa’s already sizable debt burden, Mr. Ramaphosa said. “As we looked more closely at it, we found that only 2.7 percent was grant money,” he said.
Six hundred million people in Africa lack access to electricity. Many African countries hope to develop their energy infrastructure, including by using fossil fuels, but see Western climate agendas as unnecessarily aimed at preventing that possibility by withholding funding and financing.
Some are hopeful that efforts by European leaders to promote gas production in Africa amid an energy crisis driven by Russia’s war in Ukraine will lead to a new wave of gas investments despite the pressure to pivot to renewables.
Senegal’s president, Macky Sall, sought to strike gas production deals with Germany this year, although no deal has been signed. In his speech on Tuesday, he alluded to a desire to achieve economic development, even if it meant using fossil fuels.
Independent analyses project that even if Africa were to burn all of its known gas reserves, its share of historical emissions would rise to just 3.5 percent, up from the current 3 percent.
“We cannot accept that our vital interests will be ignored,” Mr. Sall said.
Scientists and African leaders agree that the continent is crucial to achieving global ambitions on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, in part because of its vast forests, which absorb the planet-warming gas, and its decisions on how to develop its economies, home to the world’s fastest-growing populations.
“With her vast land, Africa has the greatest potential to regenerate the world’s climate,” President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana said on Tuesday. “Nothing can succeed without Africa.”
Max Bearak reported from Sharm el Sheikh, and Lynsey Chutel from Johannesburg.