weight of a continent

Africa’s Great Green Opportunity

By Patrick Smith, Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on December 15, 2021 15:02

The stark choice that Africa should present on its home turf to the next UN Climate summit: finance our green revolution and we can develop a new economic order based on low-carbon growth. If not, the industrialised economies forfeit any moral right to prescribe how a continent of 2.5 billion people should produce its energy.

The UN climate summit COP26 is dead. Long live the UN Climate summit COP27!

That’s the one that will be held in November 2022 at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. Holding the meeting in Africa, which has been sidelined from much of the grand bargaining at earlier UN summits, should transform the climate debate. It should move it away from declarations and promises to specific and time-bound commitments to shield humanity from ecological disaster.

The Africa summit must confront the politics – and the distribution of resources – that is at the centre of the global climate question. The bold hopes for new technologies, and corporate mood music about green thinking, will be sideshows unless the political questions are addressed.

Africa must use its demographic weight. Its development from a continent of 1.4 billion people, over half of whom have no access to reliable energy, to one of 2.5 billion by 2050, with the biggest workforce in the world, must be central to the international strategy to keep global warming well under 2°C by the end of the century.

That strategy must draw from evidence-­based science, but should not skirt around ethical realities. Those are that Africa is the continent worst-hit by climate change but which historically has contributed less than 4% of global carbon emissions. Yet, Africa has been kept out of the top-table debates on climate policy.

Such an imbalance of power and responsibility cannot be addressed with a congratulatory pat on the back for conserving African rainforests and keeping emissions low.

Those are accidents of history and economics.

Instead, the G20 economies, which are responsible for 80% of global carbon emissions, should recognise the right of Africa to meet its own energy needs from its own resources. And those rich countries that have grown their economies on the back of cheap fossil fuels and global climate damage should recognise their responsibility to help raise the finance for Africa’s energy revolution.

The best path would be for Africa to launch a pioneering transition to economies based on solar and wind as well as hydrogen and other renewable sources. If rich countries decline to help, they should expect African economies to step on the gas; that is, gas of the fossil-fuel variety. Big gas producers in Africa, such as Angola, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania, have more than enough in their tanks to power their turbines for the next half century.

That is the stark choice that Africa should present on its home turf to the next UN Climate summit: finance our green revolution and we can develop a new economic order based on low-carbon growth. If not, the industrialised economies forfeit any moral right to prescribe how a continent of 2.5 billion people should produce its energy.

Africa’s negotiators must agree a continental position on the primacy of energy access, a formula to compensate for loss and damage for those hardest hit by climate change, and international structures to raise trillions of dollars to finance a green transition in developing economies.

There were plenty of tepid words in Glasgow at COP26 about recognising the case for compensating those countries which had been devastated by global warming. Trust is running low. With its choreo­graphed geopolitical tensions, complete with a bilateral statement from China and the US that they were not able to deliver together, the finale of the Glasgow summit was most important for what it failed to address. A last-minute rewording of the summit pact to call for the ‘phase down’ instead of the tougher ‘phase out’ of coal drew the headlines.

Beyond the semantics, Glasgow has left a gargantuan task list for 2022. Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, argued against defunding gas projects in Africa. ‘For countries such as my own, Nigeria, which is rich in natural resources but still energy-poor, the transition must not come at the expense of affordable and reliable energy for people, cities and industry,’ he wrote in Foreign Affairs. ‘The African Development Bank is unable to support large natural-gas projects in the face of European shareholder pressure,’ added Osinbajo.

Blunter, the AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina says that that if we do not want the Great Green Wall to become a Great Pile of Charcoal, we cannot defund gas projects in Africa.

With their green posturing, those European shareholders are ignoring realities on the ground. Some 600 million people in Africa are not choosing between gas and solar … but between firewood and, perhaps, gas, if they can afford it.

This is driving calls for a ‘just transition’. With the lowest carbon footprint, the African continent is facing the worst effects of rising emissions while being the least prepared.

South Africa offers a way out. It proposed a ‘Just Energy Transition Partnership’ to the EU and the US as a climate-finance swap. It will close several of its coal-fired power plants early in exchange for $8.5bn over the next three-to-five years to launch renewable-energy projects. This could be a model for the rest of the world.

Gabon is trying to monetise its contribution to absorbing carbon and protecting biodiversity. As its oil dwindles, the country wants to be paid for preserving its virgin rainforest – equivalent to about a year of global emissions. The Congo Basin forests are the world’s second lung after the Amazon. If Gabon felled its forests, argues Gabon’s environment minister, Lee White, it would be catastrophic: no more clouds feeding the Blue Nile and the Sahel; tens of millions of Nigerians and Egyptians pushed off their land.

These arguments weigh on Eurocrats in Brussels forecasting trends in African demography and calculating the hundreds of millions forced to migrate due to climate change.

Decent jobs in a growing economy would deter migration. It is hard to find a labour-intensive economy without thriving manufacturing. And even harder to imagine profitable factories without cheap and reliable energy.

African activists point to the Sahel as ground zero for ecological and political disaster. Bombed out of their Middle East caliphate, jihadis are regrouping there. Lake Chad has been shrinking year by year for three decades. That is just one of disasters throwing young people caught in West Africa’s climate crisis out of work and into the hands of Islamic State, Al Qaeda and their local affiliates.

Stopping the meltdown needs more robust policies. Finance for gas as a transition fuel and building new solar plants would cut the use of trees as a cooking fuel.

Mohammed Ibn Chambas, the UN special envoy for the Sahel, is cheerleading for the ‘Great Green Wall’. When completed, this 8,000km band of woodland from Dakar to Djibouti would be the largest living structure on earth – three times the length of the Great Barrier Reef.

That assumes the ‘Green Wall’ won’t be turned into charcoal because international banks blocked finance for gas power plants in Africa.

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