Africa at energy cross-roads: Renewables vs Fossil Fuels

Source: Just Transition

Much of Africa’s energy system is yet to be built, allowing countries to make informed and people-centred decisions about the character of their energy future. At one level, African countries need to make over-riding choices between pursuing the traditional fossil fuel-based energy model of former colonial powers and emerging economies versus moving strongly in the direction of renewable energy. The need to take action on climate change at the global level has created a polarised debate over the character of the decarbonisation pathway by major global powers. This battle is being fiercely fought at this very moment, with Africa as one of the epicentres of the planned expansion of fossil fuel production. This places African countries in a major dilemma, especially those that have recently discovered new oil and gas fields such as Senegal and Mozambique. These plans for exploration and production are expansive, expensive and risky, and, if implemented, would lock Africa deeply into fossil fuels for decades to come.

The recent quest for fossil gas expansion in Africa to serve European markets and meet short-term gas deficits is a clear demonstration of policy neglect in taking sustained and systemic climate action by governments in Europe and North America. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has intensified existing plans by the fossil fuel industry, now moving at full throttle to invest in new fossil (or ‘natural gas’) infrastructure in Africa with the pretext of supporting Africa’s development aspirations while addressing Europe’s domestic energy demands. They have found willing partners among some African leaders who justify the mission of expanding fossil fuel production as their ‘Right to development’. In particular, investments in gas and various kinds of hydrogen production are portrayed as indispensable ‘transition fuels’.

Such propositions are troublesome in several ways. From both a climate and development point of view, African governments need to seriously reflect the long-term viability of pursuing the fossil-fuel pathway, especially since there is a distinct possibility that such expansions carry technological, economic, financial, and social risks and uncertainties.

Africa’s Right to Development is real, but must not be used to justify measures that, in effect, threaten to lock African economies into increased dependencies and economic losses from soon to be stranded assets. As the imperative of climate change increasingly hits home and current loopholes through off-sets and distant net-zero targets are addressed, the European and other markets for gas will probably be curbed much sooner. Surplus gas supplies in the global market will mean those who have a competitive advantage in gas due to their long-term experience and expertise in the industry will be favoured, casting aside new players in the market. Furthermore, carbon boarder tax adjustments and other discriminatory measures against fossil fuels are likely to be imposed, placing at risk, new African suppliers of oil and gas.

From an African perspective, as a historically small contributor to climate change, the key arguments against fossil fuels and for renewables lie in the latter’s benefits to foster genuine well-being and prosperity for African people.

African countries could show foresight and define an African Just Energy Transition that forcefully outlines African countries’ own renewable energy plans, economic diversification and development plans and measures that ensure the transition is just for affected workers and communities. The right to development does not mean right to add harm, but the right to pursue one’s own development agenda, the right to repayment of climate and other debts, access to crucial technologies, compensation and reparations for climate induced damages, and the financial support required to undertake the just transition according to these plans.

Rather than moving into and expanding fossil fuel production, African countries could show leadership in pushing for measures for a Global Just Transition. This would be anchored on an agreement to immediately stop all further expansion of fossil fuel extraction, and a commitment by countries to undertake a phase out of existing fossil fuel production based on clear equity principles, such as the proposed Fossil Fuel NonProliferation Treaty. Developing country producers with high dependency on fossil fuels for their state revenues (i.e. African producers) would secure support in gaining access to technology and finance and have more time than wealthy producers who would need to phase out earlier and at faster pace. Several African countries have also already acknowledged and begun using the ‘Fair Shares’ metric for calculating the level of support through international cooperation that African countries should be entitled to.

Excerpt of: Just Transition: A Climate, Energy and Development Vision for Africa (Just Transition, 2023)


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