ENVIRONMENTAL COST OF green energy will very likely weigh heavily on Africa in the emerging dispensation new of global energy economy. The energy transition from fossil fuel sources to the ‘green’ or ‘renewable’ sources may not give Africa any significant relief or positive prognosis in terms of the impact on the environment. It may even be argued with some high degree of certitude that Africa will bear much of the brunt of environmental degradation and human safety risks that will arise from the aggressive switch to the new world energy order. Now, renewable energy, green energy, energy transition, decarbonisation or environmentally friendly or carbon-free energy are the buzzwords in energy circles. A few more less popular buzzwords are set to emerge in years ahead. None of these promise a world free from the consequence of transformation. African leaders need to take note of that amidst the euphoria of an anticipated end to fossil fuel energy sources.
Like any other areas of breakthrough in human affairs, energy transition has already set a stage for aggressive jostling among and between business organisations, politicians, civil society and many governmental as well as non-governmental organisations. While the non-state actors of all shades and hues seem to be ahead of the curve in the game plans, the state actors in Africa seem to be lagging behind. And this comes at a huge cost to the continent. Despite the much emphasis on reduction of carbon emission and limiting the global warming effects in the new dispensation, commercial and pecuniary interests are clearly the major drivers of the rush and positioning by the business community into the renewable energy space. As it will soon turn out for all to see, human safety and environmental protection will become an area of great contention and recrimination. State actors in Africa may not be able to catch up or rein in the commercial operators. Systemic poverty, knowledge and capacity gap and the corruption that will characterise their official involvement in the green energy space will most likely impede their regulatory oversight and their ability to enforce checks and balances in the activities of the commercial operators.
These premonitions are already manifesting. The report of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), earlier quoted, has shed some lights on this premonition. In that report, it was stated that the expected boom in mining for the raw materials used for making some key components of these renewable energy technologies raises environmental and social concerns that need to be urgently addressed. The report was emphatic that, although “most consumers are only aware of the ‘clean’ aspects” of these great innovations, “the dirty aspects of the production process are out of sight.” It makes social sense, therefore, to embrace green energy with great caution and prepare for mitigating strategies for unintended environmental consequences that Africa may have to live with. While the onus is on political and thought leaders to put the balanced views in broad perspectives, political expediency may stand in the way of appropriate responses and the people may ultimately bear the brunt.
It does not yet appear as if national and regional leaders are taking serious practical or coordinated steps either to promote the renewable energy options or to make provision for handling their consequences, especially the social and environmental problems that may arise. Individually, all the 54 African countries are at different stages and on different trajectories in their renewable official positions. Together, under the African Union (AU), the response has been anything but inspiring. Strategy document of the Africa Energy Transition Programme is the vision of the African Energy Commission (AFREC) for the energy development in Africa, driven by AU Agenda 2063, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement on climate change. The document, which is currently in its third year of release, since 2019, is described by AFREC as representing “the guiding principles for AFREC to launch and implement its continental programme on Energy Transition that will cover all African member states in phases. AFREC will work closely with different regional research institutes, experts and decision makers and International partners to coordinate the implementation of this programme in order to achieve its main objectives of transforming and developing the energy sector in a way that meets the aspiration of the African people in an environmentally and climate compatible manner.”
If a projection into Africa’s future in renewable energy is to be attempted, on one of the possible trajectories, it can be said that it will be a mixed bag of fortune and misery: fortune in ways similar to those accruing to the state and oil companies from petroleum, diamond, copper, gold or uranium, and misery in ways similar to the experiences of petroleum-rich Nigerian Niger Delta area, gold mining region of South Africa, copper mining region of Zambia, cobalt mining region in DR Congo and uranium mining region of Niger Republic. While the fortune goes to national governments, a handful of deep pocket people and multinationals, the misery is shared by the hapless and restricted populace that cannot fend or fight for themselves when their environmental rights are violated. A case in point in Nigeria was the gruesome and unlawful execution of Ken Saro Wiwa for fighting in defence of the rights of his people against oil conglomerates. The state waded in, but did it in favour of the oil magnates. Similar cases may not be hard to find in the renewable energy era, especially as some beneficiary countries might be pulling the strings from behind the stage, manipulating poor African countries to do their biddings.
Inasmuch as energy transition currently refers to the global energy sector’s shift from fossil-based systems of energy production and consumption — including oil, natural gas and coal — to renewable energy sources like wind and solar, as well as lithium-ion batteries, there is an urgent need for a more explicit definition to reflect the fact that the ingredients for powering the renewable energy are basically mineral resources which are subject to the same problems that other mineral resources are exposed to. Things are not likely to be radically different as environmental degradations and pollutions are common denominators. In many developing countries, mining has been beset by many problems, such as environmental pollution, especially of water bodies, internecine crises and hostilities, and expropriation of lands in ways that drive agricultural practices and food production to marginal lands, especially when mining sites encroach on good agricultural lands.
Given the familiar but unpleasant stories of many African national leaders over the years, extending till now, there is not much cause for optimism that political leadership will do anything differently. At the AU level, there may not be much to cheer. In her foreword to the 2019 AFREC publication, Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner of Infrastructure and Energy, “AFREC has taken the initiative to develop the Africa Energy Transition Programme to be the main umbrella under which different policies and programmes fall. This Programme aims to fully mobilise Africa’s own energy resources and potentials; bringing energy to the top of national and regional agendas; and taking approaches that put Africa directly on to innovative, low carbon energy development pathways, avoiding the fossil fuel lock-in now facing most industrialised and emerging economies.”
A mistake being made presently by the developing countries in their embrace of the renewable energy options has been inadvertently highlighted by the AFREC report wherein it posited that “Africa relies today heavily on fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal) for its electricity generation and domestic energy consumption. Yet, of the hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of proven conventional natural gas resources in sub-Sahara, Africa has only exploited approximately 1%. At the global level, Africa’s production of natural gas in 2017 accounts for only 6.1% of total production, of which 53% is exported outside the continent (BP, 2018). The remaining is mainly used for electricity production and to a lesser extent to meet cooking needs, particularly in North Africa. Aside from electricity generation, the use of natural gas for the development of the agricultural sector, infrastructure, chemical industries or residential use is marginal in Sub Saharan Africa.” What therefore would have been better contemplated is the idea of a gradual – as opposed to sudden – transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy source in Africa. The entire world cannot adopt a one-size-fits-all approach to the transition. If Africa’s development trajectory is currently benefitting from fossil fuel and a sudden shift would upset that trajectory, it makes economic, social and political sense to adopt a slow-and-steady approach, allowing the two old and the new to exist side-by-side, while observing their comparative advantages and disadvantages in the African context. In the process, the pros and cons as well as the upsides and downsides of the two opposing options can be compared in many ramifications.
The AFREC’s report concurred that “there are of course many challenges to overcome in achieving the energy transition for Africa. These include affordable access to modern energy services, persistent reliance on traditional biomass energy sources; heavy reliance on fossil fuels; poor infrastructure and low rates of electrification; major technical and institutional capacity constraints; inadequate systems and infrastructure for regional energy cooperation; rapid population growth and urbanisation; and weaknesses in energy governance. In addition, there are constraints in access to the substantial financial resources and investment security needed – particularly for the broad set of new and much more diversified set of owners that will need to shape the new renewable and more distributed energy systems in the making. Farmers, cooperatives, SMEs, municipalities and other both public and private entities will be active participants and actors in Africa’s energy futures.” Of note is the report’s emphasis on leadership, an issue that this write-up seeks to emphasise strongly. “Successful energy transitions will depend on African leadership and ownership of the process. This will mean fully mobilising Africa’s own energy resources and potentials; bringing energy to the top of national and regional agendas; and taking approaches that put Africa directly on to innovative, low-carbon energy development pathways, avoiding the fossil fuel lock-in dangers now facing most industrialised and emerging economies.” Well intentioned as that may sound, the leadership conundrum is the starting point in all that Africa will need to put in proper place in all its considerations on energy transition and all the complications that will come with it. African leaders will need to be realistic, and AFREC action plan will have to be pragmatic if the continent is not to be at the position of weakness as the world transits into the new era of energy order.
Frontpage January 14, 2018