Africa’s Dilemma: Energy or Environment

            Pollution has been significantly diminished in developed countries due to the use of less polluting energy sources such as unleaded gasoline and natural gas. As a result, the skies over cities in developed countries are much clearer today than they were decades ago. Still, there continues to be pollutants that many are concerned will lead to a global catastrophe. The countries and regions seen as contributing the most: China, India, North America and Europe are constantly engaged in discussions over how to mitigate this threat. Climate change is real; the source and the most effective mitigation strategies are still uncertain.

            The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) current Global Environment Outlook report says that Africa must act now on the environment given the continent’s population growth.

“Africa faces a great challenge of sustaining rapid economic growth as its population is expected to double to approximately 2.5 billion by 2050, while safeguarding the life-support system provided by its rich natural capital, which underpins the realization of its long-term vision. It is therefore imperative that such growth must consider the region’s relatively weak environmental governance and a paucity of accurate and up-to-date environmental and socioeconomic data for evidence-based decision-making,” the UNEP report states.

Despite having 65 percent of the world’s arable land and 10 percent of the planet’s internal renewable fresh water source, the continent’s environment is threatened by poor environmental management that affects not only its countries, but also by extension the rest of the world. According to UNEP, more than 70 percent of people living in sub-Saharan Africa depend on forests and woodlands for their livelihoods, but a significant share of African resources are used unsustainably, including in the increased mining for critical minerals that enable modern technology. Significant resources are lost through illegal activities in mining, logging, wildlife trade and unregulated fishing, as well as environmental degradation and loss. It is estimated that Africa loses an estimated USD $195 billion annually of its natural capital through illicit financial flows alone.

            So, there is much work that needs to be done in safeguarding Africa’s environment, and it doesn’t have to be an either-or question of Africa protecting its environment without developing sustainable energy resources.

Then again, heatwaves and wildfires in developed countries have increased fears of out-of-control climate change effects. Unfortunately, Africa finds itself caught in the middle of global debates that too often center on what African countries must do now when none of the major culprits in global climate change are successfully pressed to do likewise on an accelerated timetable. This leaves Africa to deal with a three-sided conundrum: abundant fossil fuel resources Africans are urged to forego, the need to industrialize during an era of concern over climate change and the lack of technology and funding to make the transition to lower emission societies. Each one would be troublesome in and of itself, but when you add all three, they become an almost insurmountable obstacle absent outside assistance.

            In recent years, African governments have been asked to help bear the burden on fighting climate change by abandoning fossil fuels in lieu of renewable energy. Of course, while African countries have abundant sunshine for solar energy, coastlines for tidal energy, mountains for wind energy and some volcanic activity for geothermal energy, the technology is not yet sufficient to allow these forms of energy to immediate supplant fossil fuels, on which many African economies depend for revenue.

            In an article in the 1 August issue of The Guardian, the quest for African abandonment of fossil fuels has now run contrary to the sudden energy needs of developed countries.

“New exploration for gas, and the exploitation of Africa’s vast reserves of oil, would make it close to impossible for the world to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels,” the article stated. “However, soaring gas prices have made the prospect of African supplies even more attractive, and developed countries, including EU members, have indicated they would support such developments in the current gas shortage.”

Now that African natural gas is required to replace what is lost due to sanctions on
Russian gas, production in Africa is now seen as a boon despite earlier environmental concerns. It must be remembered, though, that Chinese gas exploration in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region has caused serious health issues for residents without sparking significant environmental outrage globally. If the search for and production of African energy supplies are to be accelerated, the environmental watchdogs must be as scrupulous about safeguarding Africa’s environment as they are on their own environments.

During the height of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, from about 1760 to 1840, it did not include much of the rest of the world except as sources of raw materials. The secrets of mechanized textile production, the development of industrial tools, steam power and efficient steel making were not shared with the developing world at that time. Colonialism expanded after industrialization as the demand for raw materials such as cotton grew exponentially. Japan began trying to catch up in industrialization in the late 1800s, but by then African nations had begun to succumb to colonial control, preventing any independent effort to join what by that time was considered the Second Industrial Revolution.

Just when African governments and their private sectors are trying to industrialize, COVID-19 and the Ukraine-Russia war have caused many developed country companies to withdraw from operating in developing country locations, mostly in Asia, and brought their production home in a process known as deglobalization. This wave of deglobalization initially does not affect Africa as much as Asia, but it will inhibit future investment in industrial activities in Africa (except perhaps energy production).

The African Continental Free Trade Area will not be able to expand on its current timetable, small and medium enterprises will lose connection to global value chains and technology will become scarce if African countries are disconnected from the global economy and unable to access financial and technical resources needed to catch up sufficiently to effectively integrate into the global economy.

That brings us to the issue of investment in pollution mitigating technology. African countries release minimal greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere but suffer an outsized impact. Swedish child environmental activist Greta Thunberg said she was avoiding all future international environmental conferences because of her disappointment that promises made at such gatherings are not kept. One might dismiss the preaching of an adolescent advocate, but such complaints are not confined to her. Dr. Rose Mutiso, Kenyan research director of the Energy for Growth Hub, told the BBC News recently that one refrigerator in a developing country uses more electricity than the average African uses in a year. That the deficit of electric power in Africa undoubtedly is known by donors.

“Yet African countries are being constrained by rich nations who make grand statements about their commitments while continuing to burn fossil fuels at home,” she recently lamented in the article.

In addition to financial and technical assistance being requested by African government for environmental efforts, Dr. Mutiso said developed countries could also try lessening their own contribution to greenhouse gasses. She estimated that “Kenya already generates a far greater share of its renewable power than the US or Europe.”

In her opening speech at the current 27th Conference of Parties (COP26) on the environment, Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, said the devastating loss of lives and livelihoods this year due to extreme weather events clarified how important it was to convene COP27 despite the impacts of COVID 19 still being felt.

“We are on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7C, while we should be heading for the 1.5C goal. Clearly, we are in a climate emergency. Clearly, we need to address it. Clearly, we need to support the most vulnerable to cope. To do so successfully, greater ambition is now critical,” she said.

But the question remains whether developed countries will live up to past promises and look beyond their concerns about how climate change affects their own countries. There is a reported $100 billion requirement to support developing countries in their fight against climate change that affects them. There is hope expressed about Africa “leapfrogging” the technology gap to produce renewable energy for electricity, but it requires significant funding. The question is: from where will it come?

If we are all in this together on our planet, will the developed world end up using some of their resources to help others facing melting ice on mountain tops and eroding shorelines, as well as drought and other natural disasters that do not directly affect them?

Talk is cheap; action is not.