The Importance of Sustainable Energy in Africa’s Climate Strategy

The Importance of Sustainable Energy in Africa’s Climate Strategy

By Laura da Silva

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Despite contributing less than 4 percent of total global emissions, Africa already finds herself suffering catastrophic effects of climate change due to the large uncontrolled use of fossil fuels and unsustainable carbon emission globally.

The discussion about climate change is particularly crucial in Africa as it is the region set to be hit the hardest by the effects of climate change. West Africa has already been identified as a climate-change-hotspot, with its effects likely to lessen crop yields and production, and impact food security. This, combined with large desertification caused by decreasing rains and increasing temperatures, threatens to increase food insecurity in the wider region, the effects of which are already becoming apparent. In fact, between 2015 and 2016, the number of under-nourished rose from 200 million to 224 million in Africa.

Moreover, these effects of climate change are extremely economically crippling for African countries specifically as there is a greater economic dependence on climate impacted industries. Indeed, the risk consultancy firm ‘Verisk Maplecroft’ estimates that the GDP exposure in African countries vulnerable to effects of climate change will grow from $895 billion in 2018 to about $1.4 trillion in 2023—nearly half of the entire continent’s GDP.

It is clear that the current situation will continue to deteriorate unless current adaptation and mitigation efforts improve.

The African Union’s Strategy

Realising the need for coordinated action across the continent, the African Union has drafted a strategy on climate change which focuses on strategic and institutional developments that are critical for African countries wishing to combat the effects of climate change. Part of this strategy includes the formation of the Climate Change and Desertification Unit (CCDU) at the African Union, which aims to “provide policy and political guidance, and to enhance coordination and harmonization of Africa’s activities in the field of climate change.” The African Union itself has taken a position of policy guidance and leadership rather than focusing on the implementation of specific goals and frameworks.

The African Union’s strategy on climate change focuses on combating current issues associated with global warming. It specifically emphasises the importance of mitigating current problems, whilst developing and implementing disaster management and risk aversion tactics to deal with further devastating effects of climate change.

While the African Union’s strategy is thorough in outlining the importance of combating the current effects of global warming and developing risk management structures, it is short on actual efficacy analysis. Additionally, the strategy neglects the significance of a sustainable energy production model in preventing further atmospheric carbon accumulation, and fails to acknowledge the shortage of energy supply and the increasing urgency in filling this gap, especially as Africa’s urban population is set to triple by 2050.

With the increased urbanisation of African countries and forecasted population growth looming, it is clear that a sustainable energy production plan should be the focus of Africa’s strategy to combat climate change.

The Importance of Sustainable Energy Production

Unlike many developed countries who have built up dependencies on unsustainable industries such as oil, coal and gas, and are now struggling to cut ties, Africa has a comparatively underdeveloped energy sector. This coupled with the falling prices of renewable energy, points to a unique opportunity for African countries to build a sustainable energy model from the ground up whilst demonstrating leadership and ingenuity on an international stage.

Power generation and electricity access is a transcontinental problem in Africa. This is largely due to issues of neglect in infrastructure development and investment, as well as poor regulatory frameworks. “Despite being home to 17 percent of the world’s population, Africa currently accounts for just 4 percent of global power supply investment.” This large shortcoming in government planning and regulation directly results in inaccessibility throughout the continent; West Africa’s electricity access rate is at 47 percent, Southern Africa is at 43 percent, Central Africa is at 25 percent and East Africa is at 23 percent – all of which fall far below the global average of 87 percent.

Realising the need to correct this shortfall sustainably, many African countries have considered a shift to nuclear power. South Africa currently has the continent’s only commercial nuclear power plant, but African countries have a disproportionately large interest in nuclear energy, making up almost a third of the 30 countries around the world considering adopting this energy source (according to the International Atomic Energy Agency).

These shifts come despite concerns that nuclear power is unnecessarily expensive, especially when Africa has a comparative advantage in off-grid solar and hydroelectric power. Undeterred by this, countries from Egypt to Ghana are pushing ahead with nuclear plans, arguing that they provide a reliable baseline of energy to complement renewables such as solar and wind.

But with any of these rapid energy sector changes, intense regulation and oversight are needed. Nuclear power presents challenges, specifically for regulation over environmental impacts and legal frameworks required on nuclear non-proliferation, safety, and security. Furthermore, with any investment into the implementations of nuclear energy, Africa will need a more intense culture of accountability, transparency and cooperation, as according to Lassina Zerbo executive secretary of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, “lack of cooperation is a key challenge holding African countries back from growth throughout their energy sector”.

Although many countries have begun plans to grow their energy sectors, it is clear that the projected growth is nowhere near where it should be in order to keep up with the growing African population. In fact, it is forecasted that in 2040, 90 percent of all those without access to electricity and almost 50 percent without access to clean cooking will be living on the African continent.

It is clear that African countries need to prioritise investment and development of their energy sectors, but achieving a reliable electricity supply across Africa would require around $120 billion a year through 2040. Mobilising this level of investment is a significant undertaking, and it cannot be done without increasing regulatory policies that increase the efficacy of public funds.

Although this development is costly, evidence shows that investment into sustainable energy production in Africa is crucial. Not only is renewable energy a great opportunity for African countries to expand their electricity grid and to fuel investment and job creation in the region, but it also has a high success rate in effectively mitigating potential carbon pollution. A study conducted by the European Environment Agency on the implementation of renewable energy sources found that “without the additional use of renewable energy since 2005, the EU’s consumption of fossil fuels would have been about 7 percent higher in 2012.” This breaks down into preventing an increase of 13 percent in coal demand and a 7 percent increase in natural gas demand – which is a significant amount considering that the current population of Africa is just short twice that of Europe.

Concluding Thoughts

The African Union’s plans for mitigating the effects of climate change are important for tackling current issues such as desertification and food insecurity. However, it is clear that how Africa meets its growing energy needs in the near future is crucial for restricting atmospheric carbon accumulation and limiting the increased vulnerability of African countries to the effects of climate change.

It is essential for Africa to address the direct problems affecting her people, but there needs to be a greater focus put on developing a robust energy model for the future of the continent which promotes both sustainability and security for the growing population.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.

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