Originally appeared in Foreign Policy, December 6, 2021.
As climate pledges pile up, a worrying theme is emerging that bold efforts by rich nations to decarbonize the global economy will be ruined by hordes of new consumers in the developing world buying cars, installing air conditioning, and taking planes. China’s and India’s rapid development and steep emissions trajectories have been central to these fears, but Western governments and climate activists have found little traction there.
Instead, the focus of attention has now shifted to Africa, where energy use is still very low—and where rich countries see an opportunity to apply pressure by leveraging development aid and cutting off finance. This is already leading to harmful policies that will hurt millions of poor Africans by slowing down their continent’s economic development while doing little, if anything, to help fight climate change.
Fears of a fossil fuel boom in low-income but fast-growing regions such as Africa are cited as the rationale for imposing new bans on financing for such investments. At this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, the United States, Britain, and other countries pledged to end international financing of fossil fuel projects. The key word here is “international.” While barring public finance for oil and gas projects in other countries, Britain continues to subsidize its own fossil industry, while the United States—already the world’s biggest oil producer—plans to increase its own domestic production. But even if we ignore Western hypocrisy and take their promises of rapid carbon reduction at face value, is there any rational reason to worry about African nations blowing up the world’s carbon budget? A closer look suggests no.
Scaremongering about Africa points to a disturbing undertone in rich-world debates. On climate change, as on so many other issues, many in the West seem to see Africans as a mass of passive victims lacking agency and requiring charity—the quintessential “white man’s burden”—or a looming threat to civilization. To save the planet, this thinking goes, Africans can’t enjoy a high-energy future that people in rich countries take for granted. The climate just can’t afford Africans to be prosperous.
Blaming Africa takes several classic forms. The first is to rattle off big scary numbers without background or context. Bill McKibben—one of the world’s most prominent climate activists—recently declared that the world can’t fight climate change if it doesn’t stop Uganda from building an oil pipeline, citing the project’s planned transport of 210,000 barrels per day, which sounds like a lot. McKibben never mentions that Uganda is one of the world’s poorest countries, that its people suffer from severe energy shortages, that it emitted a mere 0.01 percent of global carbon dioxide last year, and that the pipeline’s capacity will be equivalent to only 0.014 percent of crude oil output in the United States, where McKibben is based.
The second form of activist fearmongering about Africa is to brandish frightful but improbable scenarios. In a recent report from the Wilson Center with the headline “The Battle for Earth’s Climate Will Be Fought in Africa,” the author rightly wrote that Africa’s energy needs must be considered in future energy planning. But then he speculates wildly: If, in 2060, every African were to emit at the same level as Indians or Egyptians today, it would wipe out many of the gains from reductions elsewhere. But is such a scenario even plausible? Almost certainly, no. Africa is starting from such a low-energy base that even rapid increases in oil and gas use could not possibly have much global impact. We calculate that if the 1 billion people living in sub-Saharan Africa tripled electricity consumption using natural gas—the most widely available fossil fuel in Africa—the additional emissions would equal just 0.62 percent of global carbon dioxide today. And of course, no country is remotely planning an all-fossil-fuel future. As in most emissions projections, the scenario makes worst-case assumptions and ignores future changes in technology.
A third factor has been alarm over planned and potential projects to extract fossil fuels and generate electricity in Africa. A widely cited recent study in Nature Energy predicts more than 30 gigawatts of new power capacity from coal and 85 gigawatts from natural gas in Africa by 2030. But the authors’ suggestion of a gargantuan, continentwide buildout of coal and gas does not stand up to a simple smell test. Rather than 30 GW of new coal, our analysis of every potential coal project on the continent suggests only one 0.3 GW project will likely reach completion. If Africa’s pipeline of coal projects was already all but dead, China’s recent pledge to halt support for overseas coal projects is the final nail in the coffin. Similarly, the gas predictions are wildly high. For instance, the study authors’ forecast for new gas generation in West Africa by 2030 is five times the region’s total gas potential as identified by the U.S. government’s Power Africa team.
A final source of unjustified fear is when experts cherry-pick a single example to create the false appearance of a coal-heavy future: South Africa. The country skews all views on African emissions because it accounts for nearly half of Africa’s total power capacity and nearly all the continent’s coal use. A model from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, for example, predicts steep increases in African coal and gas use. The problem: The study assumes the continent is an integrated power market (it’s not) and thus greatly overstates fossil fuel growth based on the far-fetched theory that South Africa will be Africa’s main electricity provider via coal-fired power exports. In reality, South Africa’s coal is already on its way to being phased out, and any power exports will likely come from renewables. South Africa’s past is not the continent’s future.
Naturally, all these apocalyptic narratives promoted by experts and activists are irresistible to the media. The Nature Energy study generated dramatic headlines, including “Africa Could Be Locked Into Fossil Fuel Future” (Forbes), “Renewables Need ‘Shock’ to Push Ahead of Fossil Fuels in Africa” (Bloomberg), and “Climate change: Africa’s green energy transition ‘unlikely’ this decade” (BBC).
More importantly, rich countries’ concerns about a carbon-intensive future for Africa have encouraged drastic policy decisions. Britain, Canada, France, Italy, the United States, and others signed a pledge at COP26 to end public support for overseas fossil fuel projects, including natural gas. The U.S. Development Finance Corp. (DFC), a new $60 billion agency created to support infrastructure in low-income countries, will soon halt all investment in natural gas projects. The World Bank, a leading financier of infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries, has stopped all investment in coal, oil, and gas exploration and production, leaving only narrow space for some downstream uses of existing gas supplies. European shareholders are already pressing the World Bank to end even this limited exception.
The principal justification for banning finance for all fossil fuels—including gas for cooking, heating, fertilizer, and electricity—is the potential for future emissions and the desire to encourage a “climate-friendly” future. The DFC justifies its exit from gas on the grounds of avoiding future emissions. The agency’s alternative is to invest only in renewables, a position already taken by the European Investment Bank and nearly every institution financing African infrastructure.
This all calls for taking a deep breath. Africa’s energy consumption must rise steeply in the coming decades given the trends of population growth, rapid urbanization, and rising incomes. The International Energy Agency estimates that African electricity generation will double or triple by 2040. This is good news for Africans because it will help some of the world’s poorest nations boost living standards. Energy is fundamental to modern living and the bedrock of all modern economies. Indeed, Africans are poor in large part because they are energy–poor. To get richer and create jobs, Africans will inevitably need to consume a lot more energy, especially in the form of electricity.
But it is just not true that Africa’s energy development will sabotage the world’s climate rescue plan. Instead, African countries are already on a low-carbon energy pathway, with relatively clean gas playing a backup role. Not a single African nation is planning a long-term future dominated by fossil fuels. Kenya, Zambia, and Ethiopia already generate more than 50 percent of their power from renewables (versus just 20 percent for the United States). Even the countries with their own abundant natural gas resources, such as Ghana, Senegal, and Mozambique, plan to rapidly scale up renewables alongside domestic gas.
Take Nigeria: As Africa’s most populous country and one of those most dependent on fossil fuels, it’s another source of fear about a carbon-intensive future. With vast underutilized gas resources and as one of the most under-powered economies in the world, it needs to generate a lot more electricity. Nigeria’s population is on track to surpass the United States’ by 2050, but it currently has less than 1 percent as much power capacity. So what is Nigeria’s energy transition plan as presented in Glasgow? Grow electricity capacity about eightfold by 2050 using mainly solar power. As backup for when it’s dark or overcast and to stabilize the grid, the country also wants to add the equivalent of about 20 midsized gas power plants. If that sounds like a lot, the United States has more than 1,900 such plants. If not even Nigeria can blow the global carbon budget, then we certainly don’t have any reason to fear Malawi or Liberia.
What’s more, pitting gas against renewables is a mistaken framing of energy choices. Yes, gas is a fossil fuel and contributes to climate change. But gas is still absolutely crucial for development, including for clean cooking, industrial heat, fertilizer production, and transportation. In the electricity sector, gas pairs well with intermittent wind and solar, both technically (gas power can ramp up and down quickly as needed) and financially (renewables cost more upfront, while gas costs are mostly for operations). Most importantly, gas plays a vital balancing role in the grid that can enable even higher penetration of wind and solar. That’s why Nigeria sees gas as enabling its solar ambitions. Until battery prices are a small fraction of what they are now and able to provide long-term seasonal storage, gas will remain the backup of choice in most of the world.
There’s a justice case for more flexibility, too: No region has contributed less to carbon emissions than sub-Saharan Africa. South Africa, with an industrial sector powered by coal, is responsible for 1.3 percent of global historical greenhouse emissions and a similar percentage of current ones. The other 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined, home to 13 percent of the global population, have contributed just 0.55 percent of cumulative global emissions. They collectively added just 1 percent in 2020. These negligible numbers are driven, in large part, by extremely low energy use. The average African consumes less electricity per year than an American family’s refrigerator. Sub-Saharan Africa—including South Africa—has just 123 GW of installed power generation capacity. That’s less than Canada, which only has one-thirtieth as many people.
While banning financing for gas projects is deadly for development and hampers the buildout of renewables, it’s highly useful in Western countries as a political tactic. Reducing carbon in a developed economy is politically costly and fraught with risks. It is virtually free to cut off public financing for foreign countries, especially small and poor nations in Africa. It requires no messy legislative debate. Arguing that the problem is elsewhere allows rich countries to make big splashy announcements while pushing off the difficult choices at home.
However, this hypocrisy also comes with risks. With every decision to cut off financing and condition development aid, Africans increasingly view climate policy as green colonialism. American, French, British, and Italian firms don’t need development aid and are investing in African gas for export to Europe or Asia. But if Senegal and Mozambique want to build pipelines and power plants to use their gas at home in order to raise living standards, Western governments refuse to help. This is rightly seen in many African capitals as just the latest round of extractive exploitation.
Worse, this policy is climate redlining. Bans on financing for gas only apply to poor countries that rely on development finance for infrastructure. Rich countries face no such constraints. The very definition of environmental racism is when a policy has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. What else to call a rule that almost exclusively affects Africans?
The reality is that the global carbon problem is still very much caused by the rich countries plus China. Africa’s economic and energy ambitions are not going to ruin the West’s climate plans. Cutting off financing for gas to the world’s poorest nations is unfair and inhumane. Justifying such policies based on irrational and factually incorrect fears of Africa’s carbon future is wrong. Western climate policy must stop blaming the victims.