ENERGY-RELATED ISSUES WILL BE predominant in discussions about Africa’s social and economic development in years ahead. Alongside this will be an upsurge in concerns about environmental impacts, implications or consequences of paths chosen or options adopted in the quest for energy sufficiency on the continent. While ambitious programmes will not be out of place, lessons from countries at the forefront of the climate-energy policies and politics should serve as better guides for Africa. This is particularly important to avoid mistakes that could be costly for the environment, livelihoods and human safety as investments in these new areas of energy are expected to be enormous and therefore must be discreetly determined. It is important therefore for such investments to be well targeted and be positive in their impacts.
As the clarion call grows louder for environmentally-friendly energy sources, the adoption needs to be done after carefully weighing the upsides and downsides as no technology exists in a vacuum and none is completely without any degree and form of environmental impacts, particularly the negative. The choice made will have to involve a careful balance of risks while considering the benefits, most of which are still at the realm of conjecture. In other words, the authorities and experts have not known everything that needs to be known about energy options. There is still a room for more emerging body of knowledge and more discoveries as emphasis shifts from fossil fuel energy to renewables. The politics of this shift is likely to continue to lead to some subtle or overt resistance by some interest groups in many countries in the global south as they are latecomers in industrialisation. Their argument is also likely to be that the industrialised countries of the global north have contributed so much to the global pollution that those coming behind in industrialisation and economic development are now facing tough choices of adapting to renewable energy. The persuasion for energy transition to renewable energies may not bode too well for those countries with economies increasingly dependent on the smokestack industries that require enormous amount of energy to power their plants, which they have more easily and economically sourced from fossil fuel sources. This will heighten the politics, which may indeed turn regional.
Renewable energy promotion and adoption essentially belong to the uncharted terrains; more and more are still being learnt. Mistakes will be made and landmark achievements will be recorded. Nuclear energy has been considered as one of the safest, but Chernobyl and Fukushima experiences of 1986 and 2011 respectively are sad reminders of high impact but infrequent occurrences of nuclear plants’ accidents. Some attempts in renewables will ultimately end up as mere curiosities or gambles but some will become trailblazers. Some investments will be wasted while some will be handsomely rewarded. The world is gradually entering a phase that would determine a lot about the future of renewable energy. This is the time to become more realistic about claims and expectations as many Utopian benefits of renewable energy might not be seen in realities, forcing many people to reassess their level of trust and confidence in the new, largely untested options being offered as alternatives. Some prominent issues in renewable energy and climate campaigns that are worrisome would require a lot of clarifications and reassurance if these new green technologies are to gain traction. Campaigners and proponents, on the one hand, may have to desist from the zero-sum assumptions that conventional energy sources benefit some users at the expense of the environment. On the other hand, they will also need to do away with the thinking that fossil fuel-powered energy sources and renewable energy sources are mutually exclusive. Rather, their complementarity will need to receive more attention to avoid being led to a point of no return by the green campaigners. The politicians who play divisive politics with these as all or none, especially the proponents and sponsors of Green New Deal, are expected to have a reassess their stand on such a global agenda.
One of the major renewable energy sources is the wind. Its limitation by weather has become more obvious than ever. The snowstorm in the state of Texas in the US last week had a debilitating effect on the Texas windmills, which froze in an unusual weather of infrequent occurrence within the state. This led to a near state-wide power outage that caused widespread outrage as some people died directly as a result of frigid weather or indirectly from carbon monoxide fumes from their car exhausts when the engines of such cars were kept running inside closed garage where they stayed to warm themselves up. Although cold and icy conditions are uncommon and rare in Texas, the experience of last week should serve as a premonition to states like the icy Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Just as wind energy plants are susceptible to cold and sub-zero weather, which creates problems for the whole grid, the same can be said of heat waves slowing down the wind, with the same outcome, rendering the wind turbine inoperable when needed most.
An opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal last week amplified the outrage in what it titled “A Deep Green Freeze.” The write-up emphasised that “power shortages show the folly of eliminating natural gas – and coal.” The rare weather event in Texas is likely to become a lingering political hot button in the US in coming months, and Joe Biden’s administration’s climate and green energy policies are likely to come under intense attack and sore criticisms. The celebration last Friday of US’s return to the 2015 climate accord might be coming at an inappropriate time, even though the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has hinted earlier in the week that he “looked forward to the leadership of the United States in accelerating global efforts towards net zero.” The US has flip-flopped between joining and pulling out of climate deals for well over the past one decade as the decisions by the US to pursue or not to pursue climate solutions have a bit of partisan tinge. The U.S. declined to sign an international treaty on climate when President George W. Bush announced his intention to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Wall Street Journal’s editorial opinion of last week has sparked off what may well be a renewed debate on the preference for renewable energy and the abolition of fossil fuel energy, by positing what it described as the paradox of “climate agenda: The less we use fossil fuels, the more we need them.” The Keystone XL pipeline issue may also be up for debate in coming weeks.
The Paris Climate Accord, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, from the 2015 Conference of Parties (COP) 21 has been on track, except for the slowdown occasioned by the COVID-19. Its 26th session, the COP 26 to the UNFCCC , originally scheduled to take place from November 9 to 19, 2020, in Glasgow, UK, is now scheduled to take place from November 1 to 12, 2021, in Glasgow, UK. We expect to witness intense corporate lobby on green energy, green bonds, Green New Deal, various forms of green posturing and “greenwashing.” On greenwashing, former US Vice President Al Gore once “forgot” during a congressional hearing when he was asked about how green he thought the clearing of Amazon forest to grow sugarcane for the production of bioethanol was. The practice of monoculture on corn fields in Iowa, Nebraska or Illinois in the US for the purpose of production of bioethanol has been driven largely by profit motives. How “green” has such bioethanol been? A historic flight of Virgin Atlantic Airlines from London to Amsterdam was intended to prove the efficacy of coconut oil as a ‘green energy’ source. But what happens to all the arguments about agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gases?
The search for remarkable alternatives will be fraught with existential dangers if the champions of this cause concentrate on only one option to the exclusion of others. Solar panels are trending now among the renewable options, and soon many investors will be calling for establishment of solar farm in open deserts and Sahel regions of Africa. A point has to be made that areas vulnerable to strong winds will make a mess of such investments as experience has already shown of how solar panel glasses were shattered into smithereens by strong winds. Such investments might have to be repeated or abandoned depending on the magnitude of damage done to the panels.
Unlike the developed countries, the developing countries where raw materials for the production of some forms of renewable energy sources are obtained may find it harder to cope with the ensuing pollution arising from extraction and processing. Niger Republic, one of the world’s uranium sources, is also one of Africa’s poorest countries. Its uranium supplies a bulk of electricity generated in France through nuclear power. Areas around the two uranium mines in Niger constitute peculiar health hazards to people’s lives since uranium extraction process creates radioactive wastes regardless of how uranium is removed from rock. Livestock have been found dead after drinking polluted water in an environment where lithium extraction takes place. Democratic Republic of Congo, a major global source of cobalt and lithium, is undoubtedly at great health risks in addition to the human rights abuse and child labour involved in the extraction of the mineral. Copper is a key component of electric cars. Chile, a South American country and a major source of copper, is already smarting over the widespread health hazards among people in the catchment area of copper mining. Graphite is also used for making smartphone battery. In China, dusts from graphite mines and plants pollute the air and create health complications for the people living nearby. The human cost of all these seemingly “green” technologies need to come under intense scrutiny, especially as environmental pollution and health risks are already extensively documented. In trying to join the green energy bandwagon, therefore, Africa will need to subject every option to thorough scrutiny first. In selling such raw materials on the export markets, Africa needs to be sure it is no longer being short-changed along the value chain. In fact, Africa needs to decide its ecological niche in the new green wave in such a way as not to trade off people’s lives and the environment.
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