A just transition to renewable energy in Africa

Kingsley Ighobor: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 November 2022:

The President of the African Development Bank (AfDB) Akinwumi Adesina has a nuanced view of what a just transition to renewable energy means for Africa. He believes it should be pragmatic and sensitive to Africa’s development reality but not antithetical to the commitments of net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview with Africa Renewal ahead of COP27, which is scheduled for 6-18 November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, Mr. Adesina says that Africa, in the short term, needs to tap a range of energy sources — wind, solar, geothermal and gas.

His rationale? About 600 million Africans, about half the continent’s population, lack access to electricity; some 900 million have no access to clean cooking fuels and technologies.

“African countries need space to industrialize, and the energy mix that will allow them to do that is fundamental,” he insists, preferring an incremental, rather than a leapfrog approach toward renewables.

“We shouldn’t get ourselves confused,” he cautions. “Moving from coal to gas will reduce emissions in Africa by 40 per cent and pivoting from fuelwood to gas for cooking will reduce emissions significantly.”

In addition, he emphasizes that geopolitical factors, such as the war in Ukraine and its impact on global oil prices put “Europe in a serious situation with energy security…I think Africa should become a major supplier of gas to help energy security in Europe.”

Had we invested massively in renewable energy in the past, we would not be in the middle of a climate emergency now.

At the same time, Mr. Adesina, who is considered a top African development expert, underscores the AfDB’s renewable energy bona fides.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he maintains. “We’re doing flat-out everything to get to renewables, but we must be realistic. Wind and solar are highly variable [in Africa]. Africa does not have nuclear power. Even hydro is no longer reliable because of droughts and low water levels.

“And by the way, when people talk about emissions, if Africa were to triple the use of natural gas for energy generation, it will contribute 0.67 per cent to global emissions.”

African common position 

Mr. Adesina unsurprisingly echoes the African Common Position on Energy Access and Just Energy Transition adopted on 22 July 2022 by the African Union (AU) Executive Council.

The common position states that “Africa will continue to deploy all forms of its abundant energy resources, including renewable and non-renewable energy to address energy demand.”

It dichotomizes energy needs, with gas, green and low-carbon hydrogen and nuclear energy preferred for the short-to-medium term and mostly renewables for the long-term.

Amani Abou-Zeid, AU Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy, contends that Africa has a right to 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.”

However, environmentalists continue to clamour for a total abandonment of oil and gas in favour of renewable energy based on the Paris Agreement on climate, which aims for a 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has also consistently advocated urgent significant investments in renewables.

“Had we invested massively in renewable energy in the past, we would not be in the middle of a climate emergency now,” Mr. Guterres said in September, referring to frequent climate disasters and rising fuel prices in his address to the UN Global Compact board meeting.

The world must end its “addiction to fossil fuels,” he declared. “Leaders in business, as well as government, must stop thinking about renewables as a distant project of the future. Without renewables, there can be no future.”

The world must end its “addiction to fossil fuels,” he declared. “Leaders in business, as well as government, must stop thinking about renewables as a distant project of the future. Without renewables, there can be no future.

UN Secretary-General’s five-point plan

The UN chief outlined a five-point plan for transitioning to renewables.

First is the need to achieve a fair and accelerated energy transition, which requires “patents that can be made freely available — especially those relating to battery and storage capacity,” he stressed.

Second is increasing and diversifying renewable energy technology supply chains, which are currently “concentrated in a handful of countries.” He said pertinent technologies should be considered “global public goods” and readily available to all.

His third point is putting “policies and frameworks in place to incentivize investments and eliminate bottlenecks caused by red tape, permits and grid connections.”

Fourth is shifting fossil fuels subsidies to renewables. The $500 billion spent annually to lower the price of fossil fuels “more than triple what renewables receive…if we channel these resources and subsidies to renewables, we not only cut emissions, we also create more decent and green jobs,” he argues.

Fifth is investing up to $4 trillion in renewable energy projects. He expressed concern that Africa, with substantial renewable energy potentials, currently receives just 2 per cent of clean energy investments.

“The cost of capital for renewable energy projects in the developing world can be seven times higher than in the developed world,” he laments. “Upfront costs for solar and wind power account for 80 per cent of lifetime costs, meaning big investments today will reap even bigger rewards tomorrow.”

The UN Secretary-General’s emphatic call for significant investments in renewable projects, particularly in developing countries, converges with the AU’s position, which is linked to adequate financing and investments that address energy poverty in Africa.

In other words, huge investments in Africa’s mostly untapped renewable sources could speedily wean the continent off fossil fuels.

South Africa’s plan 

It is exactly what South Africa, the world’s 12th biggest carbon emitter, wants to achieve with an investment plan to fast track its transition to renewable energy. Coal accounts for 80 per cent of South Africa’s power generation, with substantial economic, environmental and social ramifications.

Approved by the country’s cabinet earlier this month, the plan consists of the $8.5 billion investments pledged at COP26 in Glasgow by Britain, France, Germany, the US and the European Union in concessional and commercial loans, as well as investment guarantees. The details of this Just Energy Transition Partnership investment deal will likely be wrapped up ahead of COP27.

The cabinet says  it hopes to “achieve the decarbonization commitments made by the government of South Africa, while promoting sustainable development, and ensuring a just transition for affected workers and communities.”

Under the transition plan, turbines and solar panels will replace high-polluting coal power stations. If successful, it could be a model for other developing countries.

Regarding a just transition to a renewable energy future, Mr. Guterres said in September: “Lip service won’t do. We need credible actions and accountability.” South Africa’s plan, which might be replicated in other African countries, seems like such a credible action.


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