Africa’s natural gas – necessary evil or economic saviour?

Some argue that natural gas is essential to the continent's development, but others claim that the Global North wants to extract Africa's gas for its own profit.


Image : Tomas / Adobe Stock

The question of whether natural gas can help in the transition to a low-carbon future – and whether Africa should exploit its prodigious reserves – is sparking a fierce debate.

Africa is in a bind. On one side, the imperative to secure better development outcomes is greater than ever, following two years of Covid-induced pain and the economic consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to the 2022 African Economic Outlook (AEO), 2020 saw Africa slide into its first continental recession in over half a decade, before elevated, war-induced commodity prices in 2022 put paid to the recovery of 2021 and shaved 2.4% off projected African GDP. So far, this has pushed an additional 30m Africans into extreme poverty, and caused job losses projected to exceed 20m by 2023.

On the other, climate change is making its presence felt on the continent. In just the past two years, the AEO counted 131 climate-related extreme weather events in Africa, which itself houses nine of the 10 most climate-vulnerable countries on earth. It estimates that climate change will reduce African GDP by up to 15% by 2050, with additional health, economic, environmental and security consequences for every increment of increased warming.

As Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank, told attendees of the Bank’s 2022 Annual Meetings in May, “climate change is killing Africa.”

These warnings are not going unheeded. Academics, governments, think tanks, development institutions and civil society are all searching for ways to resolve this fragility; to secure quality of life increases for the millions of Africans who have been battered by successive economic crises while simultaneously addressing the greatest existential threat the world has ever known.

And now, it seems, they have settled on an answer.

Gas to the rescue?

In many circles, natural gas has been anointed as Africa’s saviour.

The twin promises of reliable, lower-carbon power for the 600m Africans who still lack access to electricity – by some estimates, using natural gas instead of coal can halve the emissions intensity of power generation – and desperately-needed export and taxation revenue for countries like Ghana, Mozambique, Senegal and Mauritania that have discovered massive untapped gas reserves are proving attractive to many.

Voices from the African Development Bank and African Finance Corporation to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and former UN climate envoy Mary Robinson – not to mention hordes of eager heads of state and fossil fuel companies themselves – have placed natural gas at the centre of Africa’s development future.

“Natural gas must remain a fundamental part of Africa’s energy mix,” said Adesina, during the same speech in which he delivered his bleak assessment of Africa’s climate-induced mortality.

“For stability, for jobs… natural gas is still necessary for development.” 

Just a few days earlier, at the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Kigali, the host, President Paul Kagame, led 10 African countries in signing a communiqué that demanded the international community “support Africa in the deployment of gas… [to] address development gaps [and] put Africa on a pathway to economic prosperity.”

NJ Ayuk, executive chair of the African Energy Chamber lobby group, puts it more simply. “Drill baby drill,” he told the FT in June, “you’ve got to be kidding if you think we’re going to leave a single drop of our hydrocarbons in the ground.”

Is gas a transition fuel?

Many of the supporters of natural gas promote its apparent properties as a transition fuel, a lower-carbon alternative to coal that, proponents argue, can be quickly mobilised to help wean the world off fossil fuels.

This reasoning underpinned its inclusion in the European Commission’s sustainable finance taxonomy, released in early 2022, drawing fierce accusations of greenwashing and requiring the EU finance minister to defend the decision as an “imperfect” solution, which reflects “the need to move with all the means at our disposal.”

But for some, “imperfect” does not go far enough. They worry that both the technical case for gas – as an easy recourse for power-starved Africans – and the environmental rationale – as the “bridge” to a net-zero world – are flawed. At best, they say, it reflects a poor understanding of the technological alternatives. At worst, it is a cynical smokescreen, thrown up by Western fossil fuel companies more concerned with securing a few more decades’ profits than the development needs of vulnerable Africans.

“This notion of gas as a transition fuel is getting weaker and weaker,” says Richard Halsey, a Cape Town-based policy adviser at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and co-author of a recent report analysing the case for gas-fired power in South Africa. “We really can’t justify exploiting untapped [gas] reserves.”

From a pure climate perspective, the ambition to extract vast quantities of new fossil fuels would certainly appear indefensible. Scores of analyses, from the IISD to the International Energy Agency and the environmental science working group of the IPCC, find that production from already-licensed oil and gas fields – to say nothing of any future exploration – will release carbon emissions well beyond what is consistent with the 1.5 degree ceiling enshrined in the Paris Agreement, whether burned in Europe, North America, Australasia or Africa itself.

But even leaving these concerns to one side – a tall order given the climate-induced destruction currently being wrought on the African continent – Halsey says that “from a development perspective there needs to be much more nuance.”

‘No longer a necssary evil’

Halsey argues that the notion of gas as a necessary evil given Africa’s energy deficit reflects the state of renewable energy technology a decade ago. It might have made sense then, he says, “when renewable energy cost a whole lot more and energy storage wasn’t even really on the radar”. 

But it doesn’t any more, he argues. Internationally, the price of batteries has halved in just two years, which many argue puts paid to the idea of gas as a backstop for power grids to service peak demand. So too with green hydrogen, which, while not yet cost competitive, promises a high-intensity, zero-emissions fuel capable of powering heavy industry, freight, shipping and aviation.

Africa’s incipient power systems may even be a boon, says Varun Khanna, an electrical engineer and consultant at the Clean Energy 4 Africa think-tank. “With little legacy infrastructure to deal with, countries have the ability to vault themselves to the forefront of world renewable energy deployment.”

Mohamed Adow, founder and director of Power Shift Africa, gives his own frank assessment: “The narrative that renewable energy cannot power Africa is false. It’s being pushed by money-hungry multinationals that are after Africa’s oil and gas for profits.”

He gives the example of his native Kenya, which has achieved the highest electrification rate in East Africa using 75% renewable energy. And while Kenya is a leading light, it is just one of the 22 African countries that, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, already use renewables as their main energy source.

If these countries were given the resources and funding required to scale up their investments, Adow claims – if the West gave Africa “what it owes us” – there is no reason why they cannot follow Kenya’s lead.

Who profits?

Those insisting that Africa forego an emissions-intensive development trajectory risk sounding out of touch. As Mo Ibrahim, chair of the eponymous foundation, puts it, “to end fossil fuels financing… means kicking away the development ladder for millions of Africans”.

But it is worth asking, given the bone-rattling speed with which alternatives are progressing and the catastrophic impacts of a fossil fuel free-for-all, how exactly natural gas became established as the central rung on the development ladder in the first place.

“There is a very real danger of the Global North using Africa’s need for development as an excuse to extract as much gas as possible for their own use and profit,” says Halsey.

According to a 2022 report from BankTrack, Milieudefensie and Oil Change International, just 33% of African fossil fuel production scheduled for the next 30 years is controlled by African companies. The vast majority is owned by European, Asian and North American interests, with TotalEnergies, Eni, ExxonMobil and BP alone accounting for a third.

Notwithstanding the short-term construction boost as these projects come online, the report suggests that these ownership patterns make it very unlikely that African firms, communities and countries will ever see significant financial returns from the exploitation of the continent’s fossil fuel reserves.

So too from the product itself, the use of which for cooking and heating forms the other half of the expected development dividend from expanded African gas production. According to the BankTrack report, almost all current and future reserves are destined for export to international markets, where they fetch prices several orders of magnitude higher than the average African can afford to pay.

Amid high-profile visits by European leaders to gas-producing African nations – Chancellor Olaf Scholtz visited Senegal and Niger in May to shore up Germany’s claim on these countries’ future gas production, while in March Italy reached large new supply agreements with Angola, the DRC, Algeria and Egypt – some are questioning whether their development will survive a collision with Western demand.

Nigeria, after all, has long evidenced the “resource curse”. Despite being Africa’s largest fossil fuel exporter for over half a decade, it also has the largest energy access deficit in the world.

Stranded assets?

Alive to the risk of stranded assets, Mohamed Adow has no doubt that the West’s self-interest underpins Africa’s gas bonanza. “It wants to plug an oil and gas shortage in the short-term…[but] in the end Africa will be left with redundant fossil infrastructure and end up even further behind.”

As decarbonisation becomes an ever-more urgent environmental, economic and technological imperative, the continent’s leaders will need to ensure that Africans do not pick up the cheque for Western prosperity, ending up holding a dead crop in one hand, and a cold lightbulb in the other.

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