During the Africa Oil Week and Green Energy Africa summit that opened in Cape Town on 4 October 2022, high-ranking officials in the African Union (AU) as well as energy ministers from a number of African countries sought to consolidate their proposal of an Afrocentric energy transition that places greater emphasis on energy access than decarbonisation.
They also made use of the near week-long conference to sow doubt about net zero commitments and call for greater levels of investment in fossil fuel infrastructure across the continent.
Asked how African countries and the AU reconcile the call for greater levels of fossil fuel investment and the need to decarbonise in line with climate imperatives, Rashid Ali Abdallah, executive director of the African Energy Commission in an interview directed Our Burning Planet to the “African Common Position on Energy Access and Just Transition.”
Earlier this year, at the 41st Ordinary Session of the Executive Council of the AU, the position was adopted. According to the Union, the position details “a comprehensive approach that charts Africa’s short, medium, and long-term energy development pathways to accelerate universal energy access and transition without compromising its development imperatives.”
The position further stipulates that the continent will continue to deploy “all forms of its abundant energy resources including renewable and non-renewable energy to address energy demand. Natural gas, green and low carbon hydrogen and nuclear energy will therefore be expected to play crucial roles in expanding modern energy access in the short to medium term while enhancing the uptake of renewables in the long term for low carbon and climate-resilient trajectory.”
AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy Dr Amani Abou-Zeid said at the time that “this is an important and major step forward towards ensuring and confirming Africa’s right for a differentiated path towards the goal of universal access to energy, ensuring energy security for our continent and strengthening its resilience, while at the same time acting responsibly towards our planet by improving the energy mix.”
Our Burning Planet reported on 5 October that Abou-Zeid, looking ahead to the United Nations climate negotiations in Egypt in November, reiterated these points saying that “we want to make that COP work for us… for the continent… so we need to go there with our African perspective”.
She reiterated that as Africa seeks to secure an energy supply for its growing population, it should do so while “not ignoring any energy source”. While mindful of the impact of fossil fuels on the environment and internationally agreed climate policy commitments, “Africa cannot be bound to dates more applicable to other parts of the world”, she said, in an apparent reference to net zero plans.
“Africa is [responsible for] 3% of the world’s emissions… when all of Africa is connected our emissions will still stand at only 4%… current discussion around the world does not apply to Africa because we do not speak from the same starting place… whether it’s equity, whether it’s access… we want to ensure our resources work for us and not blindly following someone else’s agenda,” said Abou-Zeid.
“That being said, Africa has never been a climate denier; we have been the hardest hit by climate impacts.”
She was joined by Uganda’s energy and mineral development minister, Ruth Nankabirwa who on day one of the conference said “African resources are for Africa’s economic development. When it comes to the new agenda of climate change, those who have been emitting for decades just want the young countries that have just discovered petroleum, [they] don’t want them to do what they did even though what they did made them rich. So, whether you make all the necessary laws, the truth is Africa must pay for the deeds of those who discovered oil long ago.”
“To tell us we cannot develop [fossil fuel resources] is an insult to Africa. You are telling us to stay poor in Africa.”
She was joined by her colleague in Mozambique, vice-minister of mineral resources and energy, António Saide.
“The point is … is it Africa emitting greenhouse gases?” he asked rhetorically.
In seeming reference to Africa’s relatively small contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions and use of renewable resources, Saide said: “What we have been doing, because we are committed to all the challenges that the world is facing, under our investment plans … are green actions … we are almost green countries.”
He continued, however: “Since we have been blessed [with] a very wonderful spectrum of energy resources … since we’ve realised that environmental problems have no boundary means that other counties are polluting but we are suffering from that, so we have to have a contribution to solve that problem. We are developing natural gas that will benefit the region as well as the world.”
A comment on the AU Technical Committee’s Proposal for an “African Common Position on Energy Access and Transition” for Cop27 prepared by a coalition of African NGOs notes that “A well informed, science-based and evidence-based African common position on energy access and transition would be grounded on a range of factors including analysis of Africa’s projected energy needs and demands; the causes of low energy access and potential solutions targeted to addressing it; and the energy technologies and systems best placed to deliver rapid, cost-effective, low-carbon transition that meets Africa’s energy needs and delivers on African and international sustainable development priorities including Agenda 2063, the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement.
The technical paper and associated outcome of the committee do not seem to be supported by this analysis, raising questions about the resulting proposed common position.”
It continues that “The paper simply asserts the need for ‘energy development space’ with no analysis of whether this is consistent with atmospheric physics or chemistry, or the requirements of a stable climate to enable Africa’s development.”
Abdallah, in the interview, said of the continent that “…they [African countries] need to use all fuel available to ensure to fill the gap on energy access, and I think this is a point for Africa. We need to have energy access; we need to leverage the energy poverty in Africa. Now, to do that, we need to use all available resources; our factors here are sustainability, affordability, and availability; these three factors were determined… a few years [ago].
“Of course, it is proven that renewable energy alone will not make it… but we have resources; we need to use it.”
He continued that “if renewable energy can make it, it should make it in Europe and it should be made in the US. It’s not only Africa you know. Natural gas is still considered as a transition fuel. It is still environmentally friendly. So we need to use our natural gas in the continent. It is still in South Africa, they have their own condition that they need to use coal to electrify their grid, to create jobs for the people. We cannot say ‘okay, stop coal and go for renewable energy’.
“When renewable energy is competitive and has the capability to replace coal, there is no decision needed, the market will shift alone, everyone [will] go for the cheap option. And now the cheap option for us, is what we have.
“So I think we still are not denying climate change. We are very supporting to go green, to go renewable energy, but we need to consider the African context, we need to consider the availability of the resource we have, we need to consider the affordability we have and we need to consider also the socioeconomic development for the country.”
Emma Schuster, climate risk analyst at non-profit shareholder activism organisation, Just Share, disputed a number of the exectuive director’s assertions.
She pointed to what she called a “vast array of evidence, including from global institutions like the International Energy Agency, the United Nations and the World Economic Forum, confirming that the cost of renewable technologies has for some time been lower than that of fossil fuels, and that this cost continues to fall”.
Indeed, the International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook 2022 report, among its key findings, says that “Africa is home to 60% of the best solar resources globally, yet only 1% of installed solar PV capacity. Solar PV – already the cheapest power source in many parts of Africa – outcompetes all sources continent-wide by 2030.”
It adds, however, that “Africa’s industrialisation relies in part on expanding natural gas use. More than 5,000 billion cubic metres (bcm) of natural gas resources have been discovered to date in Africa which have not yet been approved for development. These resources could provide an additional 90 bcm of gas a year by 2030, which may well be vital for the fertiliser, steel and cement industries and water desalination. Cumulative CO2 emissions from the use of these gas resources over the next 30 years would be around 10 gigatonnes. If these emissions were added to Africa’s cumulative total today, they would bring its share of global emissions to a mere 3.5%.”
The Agency’s report continues that “new long lead time gas projects risk failing to recover their upfront costs if the world is successful in bringing down gas demand in line with reaching net zero emissions by mid-century.”
Schuster continued that “There is also a plethora of expert research and analysis confirming that rapid and extensive scaling up of renewable energy generation is the most cost-optimal energy pathway for the continent. They also confirm that fossil fuels – particularly oil and gas assets – are neither necessary nor desirable for Africa to improve its energy security, create jobs, or alleviate poverty.
“Gas is a poor solution for energy access. Of the 800 million people worldwide who lack electricity, 85% live in rural areas where distributed renewable energy can provide electrification much more quickly and cheaply than gas. As far as we are aware, there is no similarly credible evidentiary basis to support the argument that any fossil fuel, including gas, is a cheaper or faster way of improving energy access on the continent,” she added.
Abdallah defined the energy transition and cast doubt on net zero commitments.
“Energy transition for Africa, is to transit from no energy to energy, to fill the energy access gap.
“So decarbonisation or net zero emissions by 2050, this solution is not fit in [the] African context. And for that reason, I think in Africa we need to push the development and exploration and infrastructure related in oil and gas market.”
“We need to build our regional market within Africa, because we still have a huge surplus demand in Africa we need to meet and when we reach that point of consumption, that is feed our peoples, then we can talk about these emissions,” said Abdallah.
In contrast to Abdallah’s characterisation, South Africa’s Climate Change Bill, currently under consideration by Parliament’s national assembly, defines a “just transition” as a “shift toward a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy and society and ecologically sustainable societies which contribute toward the creation of decent work for all, social inclusion and the eradication of poverty.”
Asked by Our Burning Planet for her thoughts, Schuster said that “This is a transparent attempt to misdirect the transition narrative to benefit the oil and gas industry, which is using its considerable financial and political power to lobby politicians across the continent. This narrative relies on the patently false proposition that the transition means an abrupt end to fossil fuels without any valid alternative.
“This ignores the fact – obvious from its very name – that the transition is a process that will take place over decades, and that the opportunities inherent in renewables-based energy systems are precisely the kind of widespread and just development that fossil fuels have singularly failed to produce for Africa.”
She continued that “there are important conversations to be had about how to manage the transition to zero carbon economies so that it is just, and provides credible alternatives for inclusive and sustainable growth for developing nations. But treating it as being antithetical to development is a distraction that would be absurd if it was not generated by such a well-resourced and politically connected industry.
“In short, all of the credible evidence and research, from a variety of diverse sources, support the extensive expansion of renewable resources as the most cost-optimal pathway (quite apart from its environmental and other benefits compared to fossil fuels). It is more critical than ever to remain focused on the facts – among which is that Africa is especially vulnerable to climate change.
“The only people who stand to benefit from increased fossil fuel use in Africa are the oil and gas industry and its advisers, and the politicians that seem intent on enabling them. No one should be under the slightest illusion that this narrative is about helping ordinary Africans.”
Asked what responsibility developed countries have in relation to Africa and its development of energy infrastructure, Schuster noted that “developed countries have an ethical and moral obligation to support Africa’s transition, but that does not mean that they will do so.
“Africa should embrace the opportunity to reject the energy systems of the past – systems on which imperialism and colonialism were founded – and forge its own independent future based on sustainable technologies which will support rapid, widespread increases in energy access that can drive development and poverty alleviation.”
This story was originally published on the Daily Maverick, with the support of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.