Op-Eds & Articles

March 22, 2021
Sub-Saharan Africa needs fair access to global carbon budget
By Rose Mutiso, Katie Auth

Originally appeared in a World Economic Forum post, March 22, 2021

  • The majority of western funding institutions have pledged to stop financing fossil fuel projects overseas.
  • Yet western economies are benefiting from Africa’s natural gas resources – this contradiction must be addressed.
  • African nations deserves an adaptation-first energy strategy to level the playing field and build a green economy.

The West’s approach to climate prioritizes emissions mitigation and energy austerity, which is exactly the opposite of an adaptation-first energy-abundance strategy that vulnerable African nations need.

Africa’s energy poverty is staggering. In countries across sub-Saharan Africa, the average person consumes less than 200 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year – less than what’s needed to power an ordinary American fridge. Californians use more electricity playing video games than does the entire country of Kenya. And more than 1 billion people on the sub-continent contribute just 0.55% of the world’s cumulative CO2 emissions. As the global community ramps up efforts to address climate change, we cannot ignore these disparities.

The Biden administration’s recent executive order on climate change rightly places that crisis at the centre of domestic, foreign, and national security policy – an overdue and welcome step. But implementing it will demand a thoughtful consideration of how climate action intersects with the fight against global poverty, and what “climate justice” (a concept frequently cited by the administration) really means in places like Africa – energy-poor, climate-vulnerable and now set back even further economically by the pandemic.

The order directs relevant federal agencies to develop a plan to “promote ending international financing of carbon-intensive fossil fuel based energy” overseas. That language comes on the heels of similar announcements by western allies, including the UK, and a call from UN Secretary General Guterres for a phase out of all public support for fossil fuel investments. Meanwhile, the World Bank is under growing shareholder pressure to exit non-renewable projects. All these moves are well-meaning and can help reduce global emissions.

But we cannot allow unintended consequences to hurt the world’s poor. Any restrictions developed by the US must ensure sufficient latitude to support extremely diverse countries to meet their climate and development goals. This includes targeted flexibility for natural gas: to help energy-poor countries in sub-Saharan Africa bring people out of poverty; crowd in even more renewables; and transition away from dirtier fuels. Blanket financing bans in energy-poor countries make no sense for global mitigation efforts and will undercut climate justice for billions of people. Why?

Climate adaption is key to unlocking green economy

Firstly, Africa’s electricity system is so small, and the depth of its energy poverty so severe, that prioritizing emissions reduction on the continent now makes little sense. Generation is so low that even tripling electricity consumption in the 48 countries outside South Africa – solely through natural gas – would add the equivalent of just 0.6% of global emissions.

The real climate crisis in Africa is about adaptation. More than 1 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa are among the most vulnerable worldwide to climate impacts, and they urgently require more energy to adapt to those impacts, not less. The world’s energy poor need every tool available to survive what’s coming, including a diverse array of technologies to power energy-intensive solutions like desalination, cold storage, air conditioning, and to produce steel and concrete for resilient infrastructure. Rich countries will generally be able to adapt to climate impacts. Few Africans will have that chance without significantly increased energy supply.

Couldn’t renewables power prosperity and adaptation for the poor? Yes, they will play a huge role. Africans are committed to bold climate action, with some countries already far ahead of the US and Europe: Kenya’s grid is nearly 80% renewable (compared to just 17% in the US and about 45% in the UK). And the off-grid market is growing rapidly.

But many African countries, especially those without geothermal or hydropower resources, cannot integrate much more wind or solar power without massive investments in a combination of grid infrastructure, storage, and/or natural gas. The distributed energy solutions available in African markets are not currently capable of powering the large-scale economic or industrial activity needed to create jobs for Africa’s population – the world’s youngest and fastest growing. Emerging storage technologies will eventually help, but Africans must not be asked to wait for electricity until batteries are commercially viable in their markets.

Natural gas plays a critical role in many African economies. Many African countries include natural gas as a critical component of their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement, either to enable greater renewable uptake or reduce reliance on coal or heavy fuel oil. Smart US policy can ensure that any new gas investments help solve energy poverty now, without locking countries into high-carbon futures.

Equality must not be lost in race to net-zero

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, climate justice. Limiting finance and imposing a mitigation-first strategy on Africa is akin to climate colonialism. Rich countries, including the US, China, Japan, and large parts of Asia and the EU, include gas as a major pillar of their multi-decade decarbonization strategies. The international community lauded China for its intention to reach net-zero emissions before 2060, while expecting a much faster transition for African countries. Indeed, western multinationals are actively developing African gas in countries such as Mozambique, Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria, which will be exported to run industry and generate electricity in Asia or Europe. Consuming African gas while constraining Africa’s ability to develop it for its own domestic use is deeply hypocritical.

Working in global energy and international development, we often hear westerners say things like, “because of climate, the world just can’t afford for everyone to live the way we do.” No, we can’t afford for anyone to emit as much as westerners currently do. But that means we need to rapidly decarbonize advanced economies – not force African countries to lower their ambitions for raising living standards.

Climate change cannot be fought on the backs of the poor. We cannot continue to take energy abundance for granted in the West, while accepting tiny solar lights for Africa. Every person on this planet needs and deserves a high-energy future capable of expanding opportunities.

Infrastructure investment needed to scale-up solutions

Following Boris Johnson’s announcement, the UK’s development finance agency, issued its policy to limit financing for natural gas power plants overseas – which makes exceptions in the poorest, energy-poor countries and lays out a thoughtful methodology to ensure that any investments in new gas plants align with the Paris goal of getting to net-zero by 2050. The US should adopt a similar policy that scales up financing for the infrastructure that enables green economies – renewables, yes, but also storage solutions and flexible grids – and leaves flexibility for natural gas where it unlocks clean energy, replaces dirtier fuels, supports a country’s plan, and can be aligned with the Paris Agreement.

A truly just fight against climate change will require rich countries to dramatically reduce their own carbon emissions while investing heavily in diverse energy and adaptation solutions in developing markets. Climate justice demands that we devote the world’s remaining carbon budget to the energy-poor, and help vulnerable countries get the affordable, abundant, and reliable energy all people need.

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