Africa’s Energy Transition Must Be Equitable to Be Sustainable

At the recently concluded COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow, African countries—led by leaders of major continental states including South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya—made the case for firmer commitments on climate funding from rich, more industrialized nations and a longer timeline on the transition away from coal and other fossil fuels. 

One of the major announcements to come out of the summit was South Africa’s “watershed” finance agreement with several Western powers to transition off of coal-burning power plants. But despite the triumphalism surrounding that deal, African delegates generally left the Glasgow summit disappointed that their message of climate justice largely fell on deaf ears. For example, the United States and European Union blocked a facility providing financial assistance to victims of climate disasters, a major proposal presented by developing countries in Africa and elsewhere. 

“It’s all talk, but very little to no action is being made,” said Ayakha Melithafa in an interview with Daily Maverick, lamenting the rhetorical inconsistencies and unfulfilled pledges from COP26 and previous climate gatherings. On Nov. 6, the Climate Justice Charter Movement, a coalition of South African grassroots organizations, hosted an “Alternative COP26,” highlighting the exclusionary practices and inequities on display at the Glasgow summit. 

For African stakeholders, the continent’s greatest challenge is how to achieve global net zero targets in line with what is broadly referred to as a “just transition,” to ensure that African economies are able to keep carbon emissions to the barest minimum without sacrificing their ability to industrialize. The alternative means condemning hundreds of millions of Africans to a lifetime of poverty. The question is of particular importance to African leaders and activists given that, as has been repeated often in the past few weeks, the continent as a whole accounts for less than 5 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions, according to the United Nations. 

That’s considerably lower than the world’s major economies, including China, at roughly 30 percent; the U.S., at around 15 percent; and the EU, at just over 10 percent. Historically speaking, rich, industrialized countries are responsible for half of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industrial production over the past 170 years, according to the Global Carbon Project. Africa’s total population of nearly 1.4 billion people is almost equal to China’s, but China’s annual carbon emissions are 10 to 14 times higher than all of Africa’s.

For Africa, an additional critical challenge in terms of climate change is the way that worsening climate conditions combine with and exacerbate the impact of a number of other stressors currently on display on the continent, such as the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, the uneven distributive effects of globalization, conflict and democratic backsliding. African economies were already reeling from the economic shocks brought about by reduced aggregate demand for commodities by major powers including China and the U.S. Now they have been set even further back by the pandemic, with poverty rising to levels unseen in decades. The impacts of climate change, which have already have taken a toll on communities across Africa, have the potential to further deteriorate these political and economic conditions.

Africa needs energy to drive its economic growth and to reduce poverty. The big question is where that energy will come from during the next decade or two.

As for the biggest objective at the COP26 summit in Glasgow as well as of climate diplomacy more generally—achieving net zero carbon emissions—the uncomfortable truth is that Africa is already at net zero. More than 640 million Africans, or approximately 40 percent of the continent’s population, have no access to energy at all, according to the African Development Bank. The comparable figure globally stands at about 11 percent. Per capita consumption of energy in sub-Saharan Africa—excluding South Africa—is 180 kilowatts per hour, compared to 13,000 kWh per capita in the United States and 6,500 kWh in Europe. Agriculture, forestry and other land use account for the large majority of Africa’s total carbon emissions, as compared with energy consumption, waste and industrial processes in developed economies.

Africa’s population is growing rapidly, more than twice as fast as South Asia and Latin America according to some estimates. Setting aside the longstanding questions about the validity and reliability of the continent’s demographic and economic figures, there is no doubt that population growth coupled with rising urbanization means that Africa will see increased energy demand for industrial production, residential refrigeration and air conditioning, as well as personal mobility. Several countries—including Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Namibia—have increased their electrification rates, driven largely by an integrated approach that has combined grid, mini-grid and non-grid solar electrification. But it continues to be the case that the countries of the world with the smallest share of their populations with access to electricity are mostly in Africa. 

Although many of the continent’s leaders advocate for continued coal use, coal-fired plants are capital-intensive and could potentially become stranded in the future as global energy supply chains move toward cleaner energy sources. At the same time, solar and wind energy remain cost-prohibitive for the vast majority of African countries, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni writing in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed that renewables stand “to forestall Africa’s attempts to rise out of poverty.” Natural gas has the potential to unlock Africa’s industrial capacity, but it would require massive investments in gas pipelines between countries, not to mention costly upgrades at ports across the continent to transport liquefied natural gas.

Africa needs energy to drive its economic growth and to reduce poverty. The big question is where that energy will come from during the next decade or two. How Africa resolves this tension is crucial for the continent’s economic future. To be sustainable, the mitigation and adaptation plans set forth by the international community must reflect Africa’s divergent economics and demographics. And to achieve this sustainability equitably, the continent that has contributed the least to global carbon emissions should not be made to bear the heaviest burden of the climate transition.

Chris O. Ogunmodede is an associate editor with World Politics Review. His coverage of African politics, international relations and security has appeared in War on The Rocks, Mail & Guardian, The Republic, Africa is a Country and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @Illustrious_Cee.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

أنا حاصل على شاهدة الليسانس في العلوم السياسية والعلاقات الدولية بالإضافة إلى شاهدة الماستر في دراسات الأمنية الدولية، إلى جانب شغفي بتطوير الويب. اكتسبت خلال دراستي فهمًا قويًا للمفاهيم السياسية الأساسية والنظريات في العلاقات الدولية والدراسات الأمنية والاستراتيجية، فضلاً عن الأدوات وطرق البحث المستخدمة في هذه المجالات.

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