Lawyer Leads in Climate Change Practice, Clarice Wambua
It was 2009 and Clarice Wambua was far from home and in a quandary. After graduating from the University of Nairobi, Wambua who is now a partner with Kieti Advocates in Nairobi, was on a Commonwealth shared scholarship in Scotland working towards her MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh.
Much of what she was hearing and reading during her studies referred to climate change, with terms like “carbon neutral” and “carbon credits” constantly coming up. This sparked an interest to learn more, especially as she realized that the impact of climate change on Africa was an issue lawyers needed to understand.
“I always knew that I wanted to work on environmental issues, but my time in Edinburgh clarified the areas I wished to focus my life’s work. Climate change and clean tech, not only in Africa but also globally, were issues increasingly affecting our lives and would continue to do so in the future, yet the gaps in knowledge were significant.”
Determined to take advantage of her time at the university, Wambua signed up for an elective course at the School of Geosciences - outside the Centre of African Studies where she was enrolled. The course she was interested in was taught by ProfessorMark Rounsevell and was called “Human Dimensions of Environment Change and Sustainability”. Wambua would excitedly make the weekly walk to Drummond Street where the school was located, to attend the classes that introduced her to climate change science and the international and national responses to this global challenge. Looking back, she believes that the decision to take up this elective changed the course of her life.
Wambua is now among a small group of legal minds in Kenya shaping public policy and providing legal advice on projects and programmes that deal with climate change, protect the environment and encourage investment in renewable energy. When she returned to Nairobi from Edinburgh, she joined the United Nations as an intern in the Department of Environmental Law and Conventions and soon after moved to Carbon Africa Limited – one of the few advisory companies in Kenya, assisting governments and project developers in taking climate action.
Here, in what she describes as a “sink or swim moment,” she came face to face with the workings of the carbon markets and climate finance as she took on the role of legal officer advising on carbon contracts such as Emission Reduction Purchase Agreements and on the legal aspects of some of the first carbon projects in Kenya to be registered under the Clean Development Mechanism. She also provided input on carbon markets in the climate finance section of the Kenya Climate Change Action Plan and carried out training on climate change policy in Kenya and other African countries.
“Carbon Africa was an awesome experience and after a few years I felt ready to venture out on my own, setting up Stawiri, a sustainability law advisory firm. The climate change discourse at this time was changing as impetus for more bottom up approaches to climate action grew and the world inched closer towards a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that would require all countries to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change. I knew that there was more to learn to deal with the broader legal issues of creating a low carbon climate resilient development pathway in African countries.” And so, between 2014 and 2016 she completed a second Masters programme, this time in Law, through the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, focusing on climate change law and policy.
Wambua now finds that she has to put into practice a lot of what she learned during the course. Kenya has ratified the UN’s Paris Climate Agreement, working with other nations to slow global warming, and has submitted its Nationally Determined Contribution. The focus is on expanding the country’s production of renewables such as geothermal, solar and wind energy and also enhancing energy and resource efficiency. The country also intends to achieve a tree cover of at least 10% of its land area, and promote low carbon and efficient transportation systems, climate smart agriculture, and sustainable waste management systems.
As the first African country to enact a national climate change law in 2016, Wambua envisions that Kenya will continue to be a trailblazer in the field and she looks forward to the enactment of regulations to operationalize the law such as on the setting up of a climate change fund through which climate finance can be channelled, as well as regulations covering climate obligations of private entities and the nature and procedure for their reporting on performance.
“Kenya is one of the countries that is slowly getting it right with its legal framework. Increasingly lawmakers are not only putting in place measures to attract investment, but are also taking into account community interest, ensuring public participation, fair and equitable compensation, and the use of local content.” This is evident in most laws governing natural resources in the country, such as the Mining Act, 2016. The Act was among a raft of new forward-looking laws tabled in Kenya that encourages investment, protects communities and considers the environment. Most importantly the new legislation addresses local involvement in Kenyan mining.However, Wambua views a stable political environment as vital if the country is to benefit from these new laws.
“The contested presidential elections in 2017 were crippling to the economy and though ultimately resolved for the greater national good, the experience demonstrates to a large extent the importance of strengthening public institutions to ensure elections are free and fair. If these institutions are not robust, a crisis is likely to ensue and ordinary citizens suffer.”
Most exciting for Africa, Wambua says, updating laws and policy means a surge of interest from investors in clean technologies, an industry that leapfrogs the old high pollution alternatives. These technologies are useful in transportation as well as in the agriculture sector where they improve resilience to climate change.
“Examples of clean technologies include green mini grids that can be used in many parts of rural Africa to promote energy access by providing electricity to communities without grid connection. Investors are also increasingly relying on innovative financing models to fund these investments.”
It is on projects like these that Wambua is finding her skills are most needed. As a partner at boutique law firm Kieti Advocates, her skills are complemented by her partners Sammy Ndolo who is skilled in corporate law and finance and Desmond Odhiambo who focuses on dispute resolution.
For Wambua, who was born in Nairobi and grew up seeing the Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai give her all for the protection of the environment, building a country that can survive the impact of climate change and sustainably manage its natural resources is imperative.
“There is such warmth and good energy in Africa. I feel such pride in the African vibe and such a strong sense of obligation to do my part to build a sustainable world. Africans can and must make their voices heard.”