ENERGY TRANSITION AND CLIMATE ACTION will dominate many major global policy and investment discussions in the foreseeable future, particularly in the next decade and a half or even far beyond. The reasons are clear: the world urgently needs to be rescued from self-fulfilling prophecies arising from the massive and unabated technological developments that have held the world and its inhabitants hostage. The voices of politicians desperately seeking heroism will grow more strident, and so shall the voices of activists and investors seeking to capture some investment opportunities in the new industry – that of energy – shrouded in the environment advocacy. As a consequence, various regions will have to pay different extents of prices, in cash or in kind. Africa will pay far more in kind, relative to the damage done to the global environment in the course of the industrial revolution over the past two-and-a-half centuries.
It is a fact that there are strong voices for and against the energy transition campaign. Some want the transition to be done rather more slowly to enable the world adjust, some others want it done at great speed and rapidity, justifying their argument with the serious problems associated with global warming and the need to keep the world’s temperature increase at 1.5oC. The voices of those in moderate camp are hardly heard at all, or are not pushing any agenda as aggressively as the pro- and anti-fossil fuels are doing. The moderates are not necessarily as neutral as they appear to be and cannot afford to be docile, but rather a stabilising force. The semantics of “phasing down” rather than “phasing out” of coal in the final report of the COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 meant so much to either side of the great divide on energy transition. Whichever side the pendulum swung, it had to benefit one group more than another. And what the negotiators needed to understand was that no outcome was completely error-free or risk-proof because of the subsequent actions that would follow.
On the face of it, the “phaseout” advocates anchor their arguments on the need to speedily end coal use, followed by other fossil fuel in energy generation. They opined that a lot of damage has been done to the world by fossil fuel use. The “phasedown” advocates, on the contrary, argued that the removal of fossil fuels in the energy mix cannot afford to be sudden, as it may come with some negative consequences. Environmental activists from Africa that erected their tents in the camp of “phaseout” campaigners are missing some great and very important points. While it makes sense to decarbonise the energy market and aim at net-zero carbon energy, it does not sound that easy in reality, especially for developing countries. Rather, the campaign should be that the developed countries that have polluted the world for over two centuries take the lead in decarbonisation while giving the developing countries some timeframe and conditions upon which to adjust and catch up. If the campaigners are truly looking at fairness and a world of less poverty and higher rate of economic development, this makes some sense. Rapid “phaseout” will hurt developing countries.
Angola recovered from 27 years of bitter internecine conflicts and got off to a good start, transforming into a big economy because of petroleum resources. Angola is Africa’s second largest oil producer, with the oil sector accounting for about 47 per cent of total GDP and more than 90 per cent of exports. The oil exports serve as Angola’s main revenue source as the country’s impressive economic growth rate is being driven by its oil sector. Although there is an on-going transformation of a state-led oil economy to a private-sector-led growth model, the World Bank reckons that this will be a long-term process and the oil sector will continue to play an important role during this transition period. Ghana began producing oil in December 2010, thus bringing a structural transformation to its earlier agrarian economy that was mostly dependent on the export of cocoa and other agricultural commodities. Should those countries rapidly abandon their new-found sources of wealth in pursuit of decarbonisation race in which they have little or no chance of keeping pace with the major advocates?
Uganda discovered commercially viable oil deposits in in 2006 and has been working on using the commodity to promote growth and development for the country. Early in April 2021, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni signed the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project agreement with his Tanzanian counterpart Samia Suluhu Hassan. The agreement was to remove one of the final obstacles to the building of the pipeline, which will transport crude oil from fields in western Uganda, near Lake Albert, to a port on the Tanzanian coast in move intended to encourage investors to start pumping more than $5 billion into East Africa. Shortly afterwards, Greenpeace environmental activist NGO rose in opposition, arguing that EACOP poses environmental risks. Some other relatively less popular environmental activist NGOs also rose up against the EACOP project, stating concerns similar to that of Greenpeace. Perhaps, except for the dictatorial rule of Museveni, which may become more hardened and vicious against the people of Uganda, the discovery of oil reserves in Uganda can bring a short-term boost to the economy. The timing of the environmental activism thus seems inappropriate for a country that has been in economic doldrums for decades and is desperately in need of economic stimulus.
A fortnight ago, Germany announced the closing down of three more of its nuclear energy plants, promising that the nation’s remaining reactors will close down by the end of 2022. Developed countries, such as Germany, could afford to discontinue such option in the energy mix as part of their contributions toward climate action. The nuclear reactor sites have been the point of convergence of many activists, campaigning against the continued use of nuclear power plants. Nuclear energy has been described as one of the safest and environmentally friendly, but could turn deadly when accidents occur, albeit infrequently. Examples are in few major disasters recorded in recent years as in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011. But the success of the lobbyists in getting the nuclear plants closed down presents a strong basis for concerns for the solar energy’s future as well Africa’s future. A tweet on Friday morning from the UN Climate Summit News, @UNClimateSummit, stated that “carbon offset schemes are favouring industry profits over addressing climate change. Although governments made progress in #COP26, we still need more explicit transparency rules and to prevent double counting.” This is a scary sign of what is coming in the future of climate change advocacy and energy transition which is an integral part of the climate action being heavily and aggressively promoted.
In “The dark side of solar,” a report on “how the rising solar industry empowers political interests that could impede a clean energy transition,” published by the Brookings Institution, Varun Sivaram contended that decarbonisation projects could be impeded if pursued in certain ways. He said the decarbonisation “revolution is in fact a long way off as fossil fuels still supply most of the world’s energy needs.” Today, according to him, “solar power provides just two per cent of the world’s electricity, and the generation of electricity, in turn, accounts for just a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Sivaram expressed worries that coalitions of solar advocates might channel some of their political influence toward pressuring governments around the world to enact policies that would make deep decarbonisation more expensive and complicated. Such advocacy coalitions – with “interests from industry, civil society, and political organisations—might appear united in pushing for renewable energy deployment to combat climate change, but actually harbour a variety of political goals that diverge from global decarbonisation.”
Sivaram identified three examples of public policies that might impede long-term decarbonisation, but nonetheless are backed by the solar industry or its political allies. He emphasised that these raise concerns about the political power unleashed by solar power’s rise. He noted that, in countries including Germany and the United States, some environmental groups are mounting pressure on “policymakers to shut down nuclear reactors, even though nuclear energy and another unpopular energy source, fossil fuel plants equipped to capture carbon emissions, are important elements of a pragmatic decarbonisation strategy. Second, the U.S. advocacy coalition that once supported both innovation in and deployment of solar energy now mostly supports deployment, content to leave underfunded the innovations needed to harness solar power’s full potential. And third, factions of the solar industry across the developed and developing worlds have all lobbied, with some success, for barriers to free trade of solar components, which make it more costly to deploy solar power.”
A visit to the website of the African Union (AU) website in search of information about Infrastructure and Energy showed one thing: the Agenda 2063 on Infrastructure and Energy remains a wishful thinking. Although it was written in a scantily populated page that the department will “increase energy access to the African people, improve livelihoods and to ensure environmental sustainability,” there is hardly any specific ambitious energy project published on the website. AU Agenda 2063 on energy thus remains long on good intentions but still short on pragmatic action. The existing policy vacuum and non-responsive actions provide an idea of how far behind Africa will remain in energy matters. No matter how much any development agency from within or outside Africa promises to do, the burden still rests on the shoulders of individual countries and the continental regional body to decide on their development trajectory and its growth rate on energy and work towards it.
A press release issued on November 9, 2021 on the AU website has a headline with this question: Is energy transition the answer to Africa’s Climate Change and Socio-Economic Development? What will it take for Africa to reach net-zero emissions? The statements credited to Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy at the African Union Commission, “that it is in the best interest of Africa to join global efforts, to transition towards Net-Zero emissions, in order to mitigate future impacts of climate change on the continent and also reduce the costs of adaptation” sound rather nebulous and theoretical, lacking in apparent strategy. Part of her statement reads: ‘‘The availability of abundant renewable energy resources on the continent such as hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal and bio-energy can transform Africa’s energy sector to modern and sustainable energy through both grid and off-grid systems. These resources offer opportunities to accelerate clean energy access on the continent through energy transition and especially factoring natural gas as an energy transition fuel for power and clean cooking.’’ By 2063, a lot must have changed. The transition pathway for Africa should therefore create a corridor for development, allowing the use fossil fuels or other options in the meantime.
Dr. Abou-Zeid’s emphasis “that Africa’s political will and commitment is highly significant to accelerate the uptake of renewable energy as evidenced by the targets within countries national plans reflected in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to achieve climate and development ambitions” was particularly significant in the sense that it stated the obvious. But, beyond that, it remains just a statement. The AU website made an indisputable statement that “Africa need(s) to be realistic in choosing the energy transition pathways which address her unique requirements/circumstances.” Although there are mentions of the “African Energy transition programme blue print” for the African Energy Commission (AFREC) which aims to provide a clear understanding of transformations of the energy system needed in the short, medium and long term, Africa looks set to play into the hands of energy monopolists from the developed countries in the years ahead. In particular, Africa may be subjected to new forms of exploitation since the technologies and business models for green energy are most likely to continue to originate from outside the continent. In addition, nothing seems to suggest that Africa presently has an idea of its own competitive edge in the green energy space or what it takes to assert its own strength. Until those gaps are filled, Africa’s place in the new energy economy may still be far behind. But such situation can be positively turned around if the political leaders are truly keen on doing so.