Africa is facing a burning question: is the development of fossil gas infrastructure the right choice for its future?
A wave of new evidence suggests that gas exploitation will not bring the expected long-term economic and development benefits for the continent. Instead, the short-term winners would be the international fossil fuel companies currently circling Africa, and the European countries looking for stop-gap alternatives to Russian gas.
Gas contributes to climate change
Of all the continents, Africa is the one suffering the most from the impacts of climate change as it is warming the fastest and has the fewest resources to adapt.
But climate science is clear. To limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels – which would allow the planet to avoid the worst climate impacts – there can be no new coal, oil, and gas development globally.
What’s more, research published in the journal Environmental Research Letters in May reveals that almost 40% of “developed reserves”of fossil fuels must remain unextracted to meet the 1.5ºC target, i.e., that governments and companies should not only cease licensing and developing new fields and mines but also decommission many of those already developed.
The message is simple – the world must move away from fossil fuels, including gas, as fast as possible.
It is true that Africa has historically been responsible for a very low percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, waiving the global obligation to stop gas expansion in Africa on the grounds of historical fairness would only make sense if gas was a good long-term choice for Africans – which is not the case.
A dash for gas in Africa will primarily benefit the multinationals, not Africans
Raw material extraction in Africa has a long history of privatising the profits and socialising the damages, which has left many communities worse off than they started, despite upfront promises to the contrary.
A case study of Mozambique by think-tank E3G shows how the notion of “gas for development” has failed. In addition to the conflict and corruption surrounding gas projects in Cabo Delgado, household spending in the area has dropped by 38% in five years.
The government strategy to use gas discoveries to lift Mozambique out of poverty has not worked, and Mozambicans are now on average poorer than when gas was discovered, while inequality has also increased. Even if these big gas projects had gone better, they are operated by TotalEnergies, Exxon, and Eni – all multinational companies based in the Global North.
Germany is currently in talks with Senegal about tapping large gas reserves, but despite the media spin, this is not about alleviating energy poverty in the region – it is about securing non-Russian gas supply in the wake of the Ukraine invasion.
Stranded assets, better alternatives, and leapfrogging
A 2021 report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) found that lower-carbon alternatives for gas are either already cheaper or will be in the future.
Investments in gas will therefore likely lead to stranded assets – meaning that this infrastructure will lose economic competitiveness or viability well before the end of its anticipated lifespan. In India, a massive 60% – 14.3 GW – of gas-fired power stations were already declared stranded in 2015, and 11 GW of these facilities had only been running for five years or less.
The energy sector is experiencing a massive technological disruption. The capabilities and costs of renewable energy and energy storage have improved dramatically in the last decade. In many cases this negates the notion that gas is necessary as a “transition fuel.”
In fact, there are already opportunities for low-carbon alternatives to leapfrog some gas functions. For example, utility-scale batteries can replace gas plants used for a short period of time to cover peak electricity demand. As other gas alternatives also become cost competitive, the fuel will be squeezed out of the market entirely. Meanwhile, the implementation of sustainable energy systems will create green jobs and drive economic development.
It is in this context that African countries must determine if gas is still a rational choice for their national interests. There are many vested interests and gas lobbyists pushing hard for African gas – and a quick buck – but cheaper, climate-friendly alternatives are undoubtedly a better medium- to long-term choice for Africans and the planet.
Richard Halsey is a policy advisor on the South African energy team at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.