Africa should go its own way on gas

Renewables alone cannot deliver the reliable energy required for economic development in Africa, while gas bridges the gap for countries that are not ready to kick the hydrobcarbon habit.

Opinion by

If the past is any guide, at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, African delegates will have their five minutes in the sun and then once again, their demands for mitigation funds will receive a lot of sympathy but not action. 

There is no doubt that Africa will once again be urged to join the movement towards zero fossil fuels and reduce its production of oil, gas and in some instances, coal.

This time however, the discussion will be more nuanced as Europe is facing economy-bursting costs and even shortages of gas as a direct result of the war in the Ukraine. There is even talk of returning to coal. Principles, it seems, take second place when the cold begins to bite!

Calls to scale down African gas production

But Africa is being asked to scale down and eliminate its oil and gas production, especially gas which is abundant off the African coast and which can be not only a major factor of development for the continent but an energy source its growing population desperately requires.

“No,” says Mo Ibrahim. He wants Africans to use whatever they have to develop their economies rather than follow the latest trends initiated by developed countries.

Ibrahim made a fortune by breaking all convention and introducing mobile telephony to “technologically primitive Africa” way back when. Some in his industry in the West called him a lunatic.

Today he is sitting on billions of dollars but is still totally wedded to the development and emancipation of Africa – especially in the realm of ideas – and is always ready to break received wisdom if it makes no sense.

His Foundation has published an eye-opening study: Addressing Africa’s energy deficit: Climate change, renewables, and gas on the eve of Cop27. 

It bursts many myths about Africa’s gas production and consumption, and indeed shows that Africa is a world leader in renewables. For example: Almost one quarter of the electricity generated through off-grid solar globally in 2019 was generated in Africa, says the report.

Renewables cannot power Africa’s development

But renewables alone cannot deliver the reliable energy required for economic development and public services.

“We have 600m people without electricity. How can we even think of development if people don’t have power? How can we have education, hospitals, business, companies, social life, TVs, tablets, computers, whatever? Development is a major issue for us and power is essential,” said Ibrahim in a recent interview with the UK Guardian.

And gas is the answer. “Natural gas occupies a special place in the energy world, standing at the nexus of economy and environment. It’s abundant, accessible, and affordable… it bridges the gap for those not quite ready to kick the hydrocarbon habit, but interested in a more climate-friendly form of fuel,” says NJ Ayuk, executive chairman of the African Energy Chamber, in his book Billions at Play: The Future of African Energy and Doing Deals.

“At 455.2trn cubic feet in 2020, Africa’s own gas reserves could go a long way to meeting the continent’s growing energy demand, while new discoveries are constantly being made,” says the Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s report. 

“Mozambique is now known to have 100trn cubic feet of natural gas reserves, almost twice the reserves of Norway, the world’s 8th-largest natural gas producer. In Mauritania and Senegal, 450bn cubic metres of offshore gas have recently been discovered, more than in the entire European Union.”

But, the report states: “Most of the continent’s gas is produced for the export market and not to meet domestic energy demand.” Gas accounts for less than 10% of the total domestic energy supply in half of the continent’s gas producers.

Only 8.2% of natural gas exported by African countries in 2019 stayed on the continent, with over half (53.6%) heading to the EU. In Mozambique for example, three quarters of all gas is exported. Meanwhile, less than 5% of its population use clean cooking fuels and less than 30% have access to electricity.

Africa must use more of its own gas

Clearly, this lopsided situation must change and Africa must ignore the calls to reduce its gas production while it diverts more of it to its own uses. 

“If the whole of sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa) were to triple its electricity consumption entirely using gas, it would only add 0.6% to global carbon emissions,” the report reveals.

Ibrahim has a piece of advice to give to the lobbies demanding an end to gas production: “If [renewable energy] is valid, why don’t those guys jump immediately and stop using gas? They’re not doing that – they’re building LNG infrastructure, they’re actually even reopening coalmines. So you’re giving me advice which you’re not following yourself,” he told the Guardian.

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