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African climate plan needs to be cogniscant of African challenges

With the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) mere days away, the African climate plan needs to navigate the fine line between taking into account climate change and the socio-economic realities of the continent. How can Africa avert a climate disaster through transitioning to cleaner energy without compromising the continent’s growth and poverty reduction?

The world needs to transition away from fossil fuels. But access to electricity is a human right as enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7. Electric power is vital for any economy to advance, and relegating African countries to greater poverty is not the solution to the global climate crisis.

The world must transition away from the fuels that powered industrialisation in Europe, the US and Asia. Today, coal still accounts for up to 38% of electricity generation worldwide, with China, India, the US and the EU remaining the world’s largest consumers of coal.

At the same time, international financing institutions are restricting investment in electric power projects in Africa to wind and solar on grounds of environmental concerns. Africa’s current energy demand is estimated at 700TW, which is 4,000 times the 175GW of wind and solar capacity the entire world added in 2020. Africa cannot industrialise on wind and solar energy alone.

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In sub-Saharan Africa 12 million new people enter the workforce every year. They cannot run successful businesses in the dark. Today, nearly 600 million Africans lack access to electric power, a number that the International Energy Agency (IEA) projects will actually increase by 30 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To create jobs for Africa’s burgeoning youth population, there is a need to find ways to power the continent’s industrialisation.

Importantly, Africa bears the least responsibility for the world’s climate crisis but faces its most severe consequences. Forty-eight Sub-Saharan African countries outside of South Africa are responsible for just 0.55% of cumulative CO2 emissions, yet, seven of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa.

Still, Africa will play a major role in solving the global crisis. The Congo Basin is the world’s second-largest rainforest and vital to stabilising the world’s climate, absorbing 1.2 billion tons of CO2 each year. Without the Congo Basin and the Amazon, the world would be warming much more quickly.

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The global transition to renewable energy will mean exponentially scaling up the production of batteries, electric vehicles (EVs) and other renewable energy systems, which require Africa’s mineral resources. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) accounts for 70% of the world’s cobalt, the mineral vital to battery production. Cobalt demand is expected to double by 2030. Conversely, 84 million people (80% of the total population) in the DRC could still lack access to electric power in 2030.

Action plan to power Africa’s growth and still prioritise climate change

The global emission reduction targets could be achieved without constraining Africa’s development. To power Africa’s economic growth and prevent the worst consequences of climate change a four-point agenda for action is being proposed:

  • Utilise the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). The AfCFTA will create the world’s largest free trade zone by integrating 54 African countries with a combined population of more than 1 billion people and gross domestic product of more than $3.4 trillion. Africa’s commitment to lowering intra-African trade barriers can attract more private sector investment with larger, connected market opportunities.
  • Leverage green economic opportunities. Increased demand for electric vehicles, critical minerals and renewable energy systems is an opportunity for Africa to capture larger portions of supply chains in the new green economy. Nations and firms can collaborate across borders to create a pipeline of bankable power projects to attract investment. Increasing local manufacturing and production capacity for resources, materials and value-added products vital to green technology will create jobs locally.
  • Adopt just development finance. The large-scale power projects needed to industrialise economies are capital-intensive and often require investments from development finance institutions. Development finance institution funding should catalyse private sector resources. While the environmental and economic justification for not financing new coal-fired plants are sound, they should not limit support for natural gas, hydro and geothermal power generation projects. This policy creates an unjust burden on those economies that require a variety of sources to increase access and build resilience into their power infrastructure. It is hypocritical of the EU, the US and China to utilise fossil fuels while effectively denying others the means to lift themselves out of poverty.
  • Embrace proportionate responsibility. China, the EU and the US emit over 40% of total global greenhouse gases, while all of Africa emits 7%. Prioritising the transition to renewables and imposing higher emission reduction requirements in the EU, US and China will ease the burden on those nations that still need a variety of power generation methods to increase energy access.

The world is facing an existential climate crisis and must come together in solidarity to stave off the potentially devastating impacts, but leaving 600 million Africans in the dark is not an option. We must avert a climate disaster and expand energy access in Africa at the same time.

Written by: Aloysius Uche Ordu, Arunma Oteh, OON, and Jeanine Mabunda Lioko

This Op-Ed was originally published in Brookings Africa in Focus

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