Can Africa lead the fight against climate change?

Africa has contributed just a tiny fraction of the global greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. But the continent could contribute in a very big way to its solutions. One might not think it, under the sunny skies of Johannesburg or in the cool breeze across Lake Victoria, but weather patterns across Africa are getting […]


Africa has contributed just a tiny fraction of the global greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. But the continent could contribute in a very big way to its solutions.

One might not think it, under the sunny skies of Johannesburg or in the cool breeze across Lake Victoria, but weather patterns across Africa are getting ever more extreme and unpredictable. And even initial sceptics cannot deny what they are seeing in front of their own eyes.

“I was sceptical of climate change initially, I thought it was just natural cycles,” says Michael Rudolph, a professor at Witwatersrand University in South Africa. “But we were involved in a project in Midrand and we were just about to harvest R100,000 ($8,000) worth of maize when we had a hail storm. The farms around there said they had never seen the intensity of a hail storm like that in 30-40 years and it wiped us out.

“We picked ourselves up, replanted, recultivated, and five months later there was another hail storm. The farmers said that in all their years, they had never seen two hailstorms of that intensity.”

As global temperatures continue to rise, similar stories are being told all across the continent. The floods in Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar at the start of the year were amongst the worst the region has seen. Swathes of West Africa are currently facing the prospect of massive drought and crop failures akin to the 1972 famine that devastated the Sahel. A sweltering heatwave in South Africa led to record high temperatures in February.

And all this was just in the first half of 2015.

According to researchers, extreme heat events that happened once every 1,000 days in pre-industrial times are now five times more frequent globally. And in a cruel irony, those most affected are the world’s poorest populations and those living in the regions that have contributed least to global greenhouse gas emissions.

Africa, for example, is responsible for just 2.3% of global emissions despite accounting for over 15% of the world’s population. Yet experts predict that under current trajectories, agricultural yields on the continent could fall by 20% in some areas due to unpredictable weather patterns. Groundwater levels in southern and west Africa could decrease by 50-70%. And huge areas of arable ground could dry out to become arid wastelands.

These prospects would be damaging anywhere in the world, but would be particularly devastating on a continent in which around 70% of the population rely on agriculture for their livelihoods and most live on less than $2 a day.

Despite having played little part in driving human-made climate change, Africa is set to be disproportionately affected by the problem. But rather than being despondent, Africa could play a disproportionately large part in combating the global problem too.

Lighting up the path to change

One of the areas in which Africa could set an example to the rest of the world is in renewable energies, and a new report by the Africa Progress Panel, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, calls on the continent to do just that.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the report notes, some 621m people lack access to electricity. This adverse situation means that many people rely on expensive and unhealthy sources of energy such as kerosene and charcoal, while the shortage of power also significantly inhibits economic growth.

The region therefore desperately needs better access to energy, but rather than following the typical path of cultivating a deeper reliance on fossil fuels, the report argues that the continent could take this opportunity to chart a cleaner route.

“Other countries, such as China and Brazil, have taken energy decisions that have put them on a high carbon trajectory and are now contributing really high amounts of carbon, so it’s in everybody’s interest to help Africa leapfrog into a low-carbon trajectory,” says Caroline Kende-Robb, Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel.

“Africa  should take a judicious energy mix that will allow it to develop at the same time, which could include fossil fuels,” she continues, “but everyone needs to ensure Africa moves on a low carbon path.”

This bet on renewables could make sense not just from the perspective of climate change, she says, but could be a double whammy in terms of being hugely attractive to investors too.

African households living on less than $2.50/day reportedly spend $10bn collectively on energy-related products each year, pointing to a potentially lucrative market. And according to Kende-Robb, the return on investments in Africa’s renewable energy sector has been over 20% in recent years.

Despite Africa’s high risk perception, this is perhaps not surprising given the continent’s incredible potential for solar, wind and hydropower. It is well known, for example, that covering just a fraction of the Sahara desert with solar panels could power the entire world, while Ethiopia has estimated that it could generate 100GW through wind power alone. Sub-Saharan Africa’s current grid capacity is just 90GW.

At the same time, there are also a number of renewable energy funds available to support investors, such as the $800m multilaterally funded Scaling Up Renewable Energy in Low Income Countries Programme and $100m renewable energy fund established by the African Development Bank last year.

Given all this, the opportunities for investors seem highly appealing. And there are in fact already a range of ambitious projects taking place on the continent.

Ethiopia’s Ashegoda windfarm, for example, has a 120MW capacity and is one of the central pillars of the country’s bid to become carbon neutral by 2027 it is also the largest wind project in Africa, though is set to be overtaken by the 300MW Lake Turkana Wind Power project when the Kenyan plant becomes fully operational. Elsewhere, Ghana’s Nzema solar plant is set to be one of the biggest in the world and increase national capacity by 6%, while in South Africa, solar, biomass and wind systems have been cropping up across the country.

However, despite the abundant opportunities and some positive signs, these developments represent just a drop in the ocean when compared to sub-Saharan Africa’s energy investment gap, which is estimated to be some $55bn per year or about 3.35% of GDP until 2030.

Technicians installing panels in one of East Africa's largest Solar farms, Rwamagana District, Rwanda.

According to many investors, it is the responsibility of African governments to drive the necessary change of environment.

“Many African governments are yet to put in place strong renewable energy policies that are necessary to attract foreign participation in the sector,” says Reda El Chaar, Chair of Access Power MEA, which has solar, wind or thermal projects or plans in nine African countries.

“Governments across Africa must take deliberate steps to establish renewable energy policies that conform to best practice and address the pertinent issues of land allocation, PPA [purchase power agreement] negotiations, and cut down unnecessary bureaucratic red tape.”

El Chaar believes that “renewable energy should cover at least 25% of Africa’s generation in 2030,” but sees political instability, complications over accessing large tracts of land, and attracting initial funding as some of the key challenges.

Addressing these issues would likely create a more welcoming environment for investors, but the Africa Progress Panel report also emphasises that deeper structural changes will also be necessary to plug the funding gap, and insists that governments have the power to mobilise huge finances already.

“Domestic taxes can cover almost half the financing gap in sub-Saharan Africa,” reads the report, before going on to call for a rechannelling of subsidies for wasteful utilities, the stemming of illicit financial flows, cautious borrowing on bond markets, and a role for international aid. There is also a growing movement for developed countries to pay an ecological tax for the materials extracted from Africa and upon which the West based its prosperity.

Everything must change

If this array of challenges were to be overcome, Africa could potentially leapfrog the world and lead the way in terms of renewable energy.

However, while following this low carbon trajectory would have many benefits for the continent and would hopefully chart a path for other regions in the long term it would have minimal impact on greenhouse gas emissions globally. After all, Africa only contributes a tiny fraction of greenhouse gas emissions to begin with, and energy is only one of many high-carbon industries.

As well as flexing its economic and regulatory muscles in order to drive clean energy projects therefore, Africa will need to flex its political muscles on the world stage if it is to drive action against climate change more broadly.

Africa alone cannot address the global problem, and given that the US, China and the European Union contribute 42% of global emissions with Russia, Brazil and India not far behind Kende-Robb believes the distribution of responsibilities is obvious.

“The issue of cutting carbon is an issue for the rest of the world,” she says. “It’s about these other countries that need to cut emissions. Look at Australia, Canada, Russia. Some of these countries are really free-riders. If we continue on the pathway we’re on at the moment, you might as well wipe out most of Africa.”

This November-December, the world’s leaders will come together at the UN’s COP21 conference to discuss the issue of climate change and come to a universal agreement with the aim of keeping global warming below two degrees.

Kende-Robb believes the conference and formal negotiations could finally see action taken, led by African representatives.

“There’s a fantastic group of African negotiators who are really trying to put the Africa case forwards,” she says. “There is a greater collective understanding that it’s the planet we’re talking about.”

TO GO WITH STORY KENYA-DROUGHT-FARMING BY Francois AUSSEILL A school boy wears worn out shoes as he carries a plastic bottle he filled with river water as he and others head back to school on August 17, 2009. In Kenya a bruising and recurring drought is driving huge numbers of subsistence farmers away from rural areas, where they are increasingly reliant on hand-outs, into congested slums. Many farmers in the region have already abandoned the land, at least temporarily, in favour of producing and selling charcoal or breaking stones in a nearby quarry for a local construction company.   AFP PHOTO/Tony Karumba

However, others are far more sceptical about the role of formal top-down negotiations and the prospect for meaningful action driven by leaders who benefit from the status quo. It is notable, for instance, that many fossil fuel companies have indicated that they are not expecting to see any politically led restrictions on their massively lucrative activities. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions have accelerated in recent years despite endless international pledges to reduce them.

“People have just gotten tired of the wealthy countries arguing amongst themselves about what they won’t do and how much they can delay what needs to be done, and how they can avoid paying the price,” says Muna Lakhani, the Cape Town coordinator of the civil society group Earthlife Africa, which claims to be the oldest environmental organisation on the continent.

“I think really the way to do it is for ourselves by ourselves. Relying on top-down stuff doesn’t work in a democracy, it doesn’t work in a communist system, it doesn’t work environmentally. We need people taking power back into their own hands and ensuring the change happens, holding leadership to account.”

A growing number of campaigners and scientists argue that there are no quick fixes and insist instead that systemic changes to a world economy based on endless exploitation and expansion are what is really needed.

But according to Lakhani, one simple starting point  at least on paper would be to call for the removal of long-standing subsidies on high carbon energy. To begin with, observers point out that G20 countries spent $88bn on subsidies for the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels in 2013, skewing the market. But Lakhani explains that indirect subsidies distort prices even further.

“If you take into account the externalities of fossil fuels human health impacts, environmental impacts, mining impacts, air pollution it’s not impossible to put a rough figure on that. And if you put that price on coal-fired power stations, then it becomes so untenable that any sensible investor would jump out of it very fast and into renewables,” he says.

It remains to be seen if the kinds of radical rethinking and restructuring necessary to combat climate change will be on the agenda at COP21, though momentum towards the event is arguably building.

Pope Francis recently distributed an encyclical that called for a fundamental rethink of simplistic market-based solutions such as carbon credits and argued that “a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful.” Meanwhile, some have been buoyed by the G7 meeting in June that concluded with a call for a 40-70% cut in emissions by 2050.

This G7 announcement was hailed by the group as a seismic shift, though others have pointed out that the pledge is not at all binding and that the world should not be contemplating burning any fossil fuels beyond the mid-century.

When COP21 comes around, African governments and citizens will be hoping a more realistic and legally binding agreement can finally be made.

However, if the talks do turn out to be as ineffectual as some fear, Lakhani believes that the continent would have both the urgent need and the ability to act in other ways.

“People forget that Africa’s power doesn’t only lie in its tiny economies and large geography,” he says. “Our power lies in controlling some of the most critical resources on the planet. If we shut down all extractive resources in Africa and deny exports, we will bring the US, Europe and China to their knees within months.”

This might seem an extreme and  unlikely possibility at present, but given how extreme the consequences of continuing on the current trajectory would be for Africa and many other parts of the world, radical solutions may be the only feasible ones.

“There is no doubt that climate change is a threat to all humankind,” says Lakhani. “Africa has the power, we’re just being too nice. Maybe it’s time for the lion to bare its fangs.”

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