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Leveraging just transitions for a climate-resilient Africa: challenges and opportunities

By Dr. Claude Kabemba (Executive Director of the Southern Africa Resource Watch)

Africa finds itself at a crossroads in the climate change discourse. On the one hand, Africa has polluted less than any other continent and it is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change; on the other hand, it lacks the finances and technology to respond effectively.

After slavery and colonialism which interrupted the development of Africa, the continent faces yet another externally driven obstacle to its survival. The debate of the last decade has been on how Africa, the least developed, the most vulnerable and the least polluting continent, could be supported in abandoning a development path based on carbon emissions for one powered by green energy.

Climate change is the greatest threat to the existence of mankind. Africa will likely be the first continent to succumb to climate change. Extreme weather conditions and climate change disproportionately affect Africa. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the effects of climate change are causing Africa to lose  5 to 15 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. As much as 40 percent of Africa’s wildlife habitats, and cereal crop yields could fall by 50 percent (agriculture employs 70% of Africans, with nearly 90% of the poor working in this sector).

As Africans battle for limited resources, the extent and incidence of vector-borne diseases like malaria will expand, along with violent conflicts over land and water brought on by migration. Despite accounting for a negligible 3% of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions, climate change is a ticking time bomb hanging over Africa.

There will be difficult times ahead for Africa as it battles other challenges including the effects of covid 19, debt and wars that are increasing the continent’s vulnerability and weakening its ability to respond to the climate change crisis. Climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts have, therefore, a particular significance for Africa, given its vulnerability, low adaptive capacity, and absence of effective responses.

Recognizing the existential threat posed by climate change, Fifty-four African countries ratified the Paris Agreement and have drafted Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) as part of their commitment to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. This is a clear desire for Africa to move its people out of the darkness in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.  In spite of its commitment to the energy transition, Africa lacks the tools, finances, and technology to carry it out.

When African countries signed the Paris Agreement, developed nations committed to supporting climate change adaptation and mitigation activities of developing countries to the tune of US$100 billion a year for a period of 10 years. They agreed to support the implementation of “ just transitions” that promote an inclusive and sustainable development in which every African has access to energy, and poverty eradication.

It was a recognition that “Africa’s vulnerability to climate change creates a compelling case for it to receive significant funding for adaptation. To date, the developed countries’ promises have not materialized.  The adaptation finance being provided by developed nations remains far below the scale necessary to respond to existing and future climate change challenges that Africa faces.

The World Bank’s latest Africa’s Pulse report estimates that sub-Saharan Africa will require about $30 to $50 billion each year over the next decade to finance investments in climate adaptation. The AfDB estimates on its part that financing African countries’ nationally determined contributions will require up to 1.6 trillion between 2022 by 2030.

Unfortunately, the promises that have been made on Climate Finance by the polluters seem to have taken a turn in the opposite direction. While it is difficult to make sense of these figures, under the current circumstances Africa is in no position to raise this amount.

Additionally, these amounts are far too insufficient to compensate for stranded assets—coal, gas and oil that Africa must leave underground to save the world. The pledges made by developed nations to Africa should take into account the magnitude of the potential economic damage from redundant assets. It will not be fair to view the advent of stranded assets as a de facto public good for developing nations in general, and for Africa in particular.

One of the key expected outcomes from the upcoming COP27 summit in Egypt is for earnest action to be taken by global climate leaders to close the enormous funding gap that is restraining the ability of African countries to transition to low-carbon economies.

The harsh reality is that western countries have the finances, but they are simply not prepared to support Africa.  Since Africa’s independence, the West’s promises to help Africa with its development have been an illusion. In their cooperation with Africa, the West has never attempted to cure the disease, but rather to keep the continent in perpetual dependence as a patient.

There is no sign that developed countries are this time prepared to be fair and just towards Africa, even though Africa is a victim of their pollution. The discussion on energy transition continues to reflect the old global aid architecture, where the most powerful lead the negotiations and decide when and how certain actions should take place. This is reflected in the way developed countries have treated the issue of financing Africa’s energy transition. The bulk of the European Union’s climate finance to Africa comes in the form of loans. We want to caution African leaders to consider the long-term debt implications of such loans, and how this might affect the continent’s broader development agenda.

It is increasingly apparent that Africa-West relations on a just energy transition will not work if they are driven by a neoliberal financial system. “The real struggle for Africa, it seems, is how to escape the capitalist patriarchal system promoted and protected by the global financial institutions, corporations, and the global elite who want to control and direct the trajectory of the energy transition based on profit, further marginalisation, and poverty. Africa will need to assert the fact that it is a victim of developed countries’ bad energy policies over centuries, and that the funding promised to Africa should not be seen as an act of charity or philanthropy but as fair reparation for loss and damage done.

Unfortunately,  Africa is too weak to even attempt to force the West to agree to the polluter pays principle which is the commonly accepted practice that those who produce pollution should bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to human health or the environment. It seems obvious that most African countries will not achieve full carbon neutrality by 2050, given the reluctance of rich nations to commit to such a goal. This commitment is being undermined by the West’s slow pace in disbursing finances to support the energy transition. The economic and social realities in which African people are living without access to electricity are pushing African leaders through African Union to reconsider their commitment to abandoning fossil fuels. While this position is counterproductive (and possibly even suicidal) in the medium and long term, it seems to be justified when those who caused the climate crisis are themselves not ready to abandon fossil fuels.

The question therefore is, what should Africa do? History reveals numerous ways that crises have offered unexpected benefits for societies, countries, and humanity. Only one course of action is available to Africa, which is to turn the climate crisis into opportunities, and there are opportunities.

First, investing in green energy sources will cut energy imports and secure Africa’s energy independence. African countries pay more for fuel imports than for education and health per capita basis. If Africa stops spending on fuel imports by installing more domestic renewable energy capacity and enhancing energy efficiency, it could save billions of dollars per year in fuel import expenditures. These savings could be used to finance necessary investments in renewable energy rollout or could be invested in other areas of development, e.g. in education and health.

Second, Off-grid renewable energy technologies can provide opportunities to improve access to electricity even in remote areas. It is estimated that out of Africa’s 1.4 billion people 600 million people are still without electricity and 1 billion have no access to clean cooking energy.

Third,  Off grid-renewable energy will also provide Africa with reliable electricity supply and reduce losses in revenue caused by power outages. Africa’s aspiration to industrialisation will not materialise without a reliable electricity supply.

Four, Green energy will lower the cost of energy and increase accessibility. Solar photovoltaic (PV) module and battery costs are falling making off-grid options cost-competitive for Africa’s expensive and unreliable electricity access.

Five, Renewable energy also provides endless opportunities for local employment prospects     in construction and installation as well as in Operations and Maintenance (O&M), and could contribute to providing jobs for the youth,

Six,  Green energy also has health benefits by reducing air pollution from fossil fuel combustion.

Seven, Green energy is  compatible with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Renewables-based energy systems could substantially contribute towards achieving SDG 7 ‘clean, reliable and affordable energy for all’, SDG 3 on ‘good health and wellbeing’, SDG 8 ‘decent work and economic prospects’, SGD 9 ‘industry, innovation, and infrastructure’ to mention but a few.

 

With these advantages, it is time to lay to rest the argument that economic growth should take precedence over environmental or climatic goals and that mitigating climate change will conflict with the economic development of the continent. What is scandalous about these opportunities, is that Africa is the continent with solutions to the climate change crisis.

First, Africa has the second largest tropical forest (in the DRC) with a peatland that holds 30 billion tons of CO2. Second, Africa captures 40 percent of world solar radiation (although only 1 per cent of solar energy capacity is in Africa). Quickly ramping up the use of solar power will expand energy reach to people previously excluded, reduce the cost of energy for households, and create new jobs.

It is no longer refutable that a renewable energy revolution could unlock Africa’s social and economic development. What is more exciting about renewable energy is that it will not need major infrastructure to reach remote communities. It provides opportunities for “localised and resource-efficient energy options like decentralised, community-owned local solar, wind and biomass projects.”

This approach will help African governments find a solution to a key problem: how to provide energy to rural households, local producers, and women as well as social services such as transport, health, education, and childcare. Third, Africa has great potential to generate wind energy both on land and at sea.  And fourth, Africa has the power to produce all energy transition-critical minerals.

The continent has in abundance and producer power of all the critical minerals needed to electrify the transport system ( lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite), minerals for magnets and other electric equipment (rare earth), minerals for conductivity and grid infrastructure (copper and aluminium) and natural gas ( if benefits outweigh economic risks).

Achieving a global energy transition is practically impossible without Africa’s minerals. The narrative surrounding the climate transition needs to change from one that emphasizes Africa as a risk to one that emphasizes Africa as an opportunity given the abundance of resources the world needs to achieve a sustainable energy transition. Research, by Bloomberg, has clearly shown that producing lithium/ cobalt batteries and battery materials for EV in DRC are 30 percent cheaper than doing it in China, the USA or Poland.   It does not make sense that people who are the owners of all these resources are deprived of full access to energy and the economic benefits it brings.

The only sustainable solution remaining for Africa is to focus on the promotion of beneficiation and value addition to these critical minerals to secure a locally driven energy transition.  Climate change has opened an opportunity for Africa to make a paradigm shift from a model where it exports raw materials to a model where it produces, and exports finished goods.

In light of all these advantages and opportunities that green energy brings, I feel an ineffable sadness to watch African leaders committing to continue extracting fossil fuels at full steam.

African leaders must not fall into the trap of the energy crisis in Europe created by the Russia-Ukraine war, which is pushing European governments to reopen their coal plants and push developing countries to invest more in fossil fuels to meet Europe’s energy needs.

Despite the many agreements, Africa must understand that developed countries are not interested in achieving collective prosperity. They will advance their interests in each circumstance as they have always done.  The West for their interest alone are reneging on its commitment and responsibility to cut big emissions.

Europe’s U-turn on its energy transition commitment exposes its selfishness and self-aggrandisement. Africa should not be distracted by the EU’s short-term plans. For its own interest, the EU is turning its back on the Paris Agreement and is forcing Africa to increase fossil fuel production to meet its current short-term needs in energy.

The EU’s appetite for fossil fuels will stop immediately when it achieves full domestic productive capacity in green energy, and there will not be a market for Africa’s stranded assets. Western countries have the finances to pay for policies that can place them on the path to net-zero emissions by mid-century.

Africa’s fossil fuels are dependent on western and Chinese markets and investment. Africa does not have the infrastructure to consume its own gas or oil; much of the gas and oil production under development in Africa is destined for export.

So, Africa’s extractive assets are at risk due to changing consumer demand, such as the growing use of solar energy and electric vehicles in developed countries. Evidently, as soon as the West achieves full capacity in green energy, Africa’s gas and coal will be dumped and automatically become stranded unless African governments have integrated with their policy to rapidly start to process and consume these resources on the continent.

However, this does not seem to be a priority for African leaders. They are eying for immediate revenues rather than providing energy to people. It is opportunistic for African governments to insist on fossil fuel production because past and current production has never benefited the African people. The benefits of fossil fuels are misappropriated in large part by corporations through illicit financial flows and tax evasion, leaving African governments with peanuts which are then misappropriated by political elites.

All over Africa, people are being negatively affected by fossil fuel extraction through pollution and evictions. The extraction of fossil fuels has never advanced people’s access to electricity. In areas where fossil fuel is extracted there is seldom any development for communities. Instead, communities are the recipients of environmental destruction and human rights violations. The fossil fuel economy is only good for the African elites and foreign corporations, and not for the African people.

Therefore,  African leaders must think strategically about the future of the continent’s energy supply. It will be important not to look at the short-term opportunities and gains that fossil fuels may bring, however, the abundance of resources needed to achieve energy transition (solar power, wind, and transition-critical minerals) provide Africa with a comparative advantage over all the other regions.

What Africa now needs is a mind shift away from waiting for the West to come to its rescue to finding local solutions. The energy transition isn’t a job for some outside saviours, but a process that must unfold from the inside out. Some very decisive decisions are therefore needed from African leaders as they go to Sharm El Sheikh next month. Although Africa is the lowest polluter, the continent has no option but to stop its emissions.

No African country will achieve energy transition on its own. Africa’s private sector (for Domestic resource mobilisation), philanthropy, and regional integration are key to Africa’s energy transition. Domestic resource mobilisation is essential to securing a locally driven energy transition. African philanthropy and Africa’s private sector can really play a role. Both can invest in technology that supports Africa’s local efforts for self-sufficient green energy. African philanthropy must position itself to help the continent take advantage of near-term as well as future opportunities. The problem of Africa is not finances, it is technology. “African governments can potentially mobilise more of their domestic resources to cover the initial capital costs of renewable energy… The use of carbon taxation could boost tax revenue while reducing fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions. Africa’s potential to meaningfully contribute to lowering emissions, both current and future, will lie in its ability to catalyse economic diversification and enhance competitiveness through clean technologies.”

Africa must also consider the opportunity that the African Continental Free Trade Areas bring for the free movement of labour as it is built on existing [Regional Economic Communities] RECs modalities on cross-border movement. Overall, the implication of lowering the barriers to labour movement could lead to an expansion in the human and skilled labour available for the green energy transition. The increase of competition that regional integration creates could also push countries’ domestic policies towards more efficient sectors and reallocate resources from unproductive activities like subsidies for fossil fuels.” African countries must create financial systems that promote and facilitate clean energy options, including supporting subsidies, facilitated loans, research and development.

For philanthropy or the African private sector to come on board and support the energy transition, African governments must make substantial efforts to do away with governance-related risks — complex bureaucracy, unpredictable policy and regulation, and corruption.

The just energy transition cannot take place in a corrupt induced system of governance. If there is one thing that will scupper efforts to address the climate crisis and limits the positive effects of the energy transition on the continent is corruption. Most of the sectors that are positioned, especially the extractive sector, to facilitate energy transition are the most corrupt. Corruption does not yet seem to have the prominence it should have in the context of the energy transition.

African countries to secure sustainable and predictable paths to development must organise their economies based on strong democratic, transparent and ecological sound systems of governance. Environmental and human rights concerns must be elevated to the highest level in development policies and we must understand the opportunities that an economy build on Zero Carbon emission brings.

Africa is well positioned to turn Climate Action into opportunities with the low-carbon transition unlocking new sources of economic growth, innovation, industrialisation and job creation. But it will need us to have a different mindset and a different leadership. The climate change crisis offers Africa the only opportunity to increase energy access and leapfrog into industrialisation and economic development.  Africa will have to look inward to a just energy transition.

For communities that have been excluded from the current energy model, and who are the most recipient of the adverse impact of climate change the struggle is not just about energy access, it is also about achieving justice and redress in relation to the adverse impacts of climate change. A radical energy just transition can only be achieved through community activism that challenges existing power relations. With increasing mobilisation and education happening at the ground level, African people are saying that a people-centred energy transformation is only achievable when people’s voices are heard and included in the solutions.

A just energy transition in the perspective of most Africans is about a balanced approach that encourages collaboration, compromise, and willingness to consider all sides of an argument. It is about putting people at the centre of the transition. It is a transition that does not leave anyone behind socially or economically. As such, energy transition in the African context is not simply a move away from one source of energy to another; it is an opportunity to establish fairness and justice in the distribution of economic benefits, including access to electricity. As we go to COP27, the question is how would African leaders know what a fair and just energy transition is when they have not engaged with the poor and the excluded to hear their position?

About the author

Byron Adonis Mutingwende