As the energy crisis grows, Europe has re-fired its coal stations, American companies have increased oil drilling by 60% and Britain has approved fresh gas permits. Over past climate change pledges, western governments are prioritizing the energy needs of their citizens. Yet their green policies prevent the poorest nations from doing the same.
There is now an effective ban on fossil fuel projects abroad. At the 2021 COP26 conference in Glasgow, 39 countries including Britain, Canada, France, Italy and the United States, signed a commitment not to support the international funding for the sector.
Their logic is that slashing funding will curb future emissions. Yet in many African nations, ceasing energy investment investment will have next to no impact on the world’s thermometer. Africa accounts for 17% of the world’s people, but less than 4% of global carbon emissions. If all of Sub-Saharan Africa was to triple its energy consumption overnight using natural gas, the additional C02 would make up a mere 0.6% of global emissions.
The continent is in desperate need of reliable and affordable energy to develop its livelihood, provide jobs and lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Around half of Africa’s almost 1.3 billion citizens currently live in energy poverty. It’s no small wonder that the president of Nigeria — Africa’s largest economy — is issuing warnings that Western energy policies will result in an Africa-wide energy crisis.
It also goes beyond electrification. Natural gas is the feedstock for nitrogen-based fertilizers that are essential for alleviating the food insecurity risk that 346 million Africans face. It is also an efficient fuel source for the manufacturing of cement, steel and other industrial products.
Nobody denies that renewables like wind and solar are an important part of the solution, but they aren’t yet sufficient. Battery technology that is needed for when the wind isn’t driving turbines or the sun isn’t shining is still too costly.
Even so, some African countries are ahead of their Western peers when it comes to renewables. More than 75% of Kenya’s electricity generation is from renewable energy, and it might become 100% renewable in the not too distant future. Twenty two other countries use renewables as their main source of electricity and Africa is the continent that is closest to carbon neutrality. In stark contrast, renewable energy sources made up only 12.2% of America’s total energy consumption in 2021.
Moreover, withdrawing funding for fossil fuel energy sources isn’t going to facilitate the green transition, but hamper it. Without access to cleaner fossil fuels like natural gas, the older, dirtier coal-fired power stations will continue to be relied upon. Likewise, citizens and businesses will keep using heavily polluting diesel and heavy fuel oil generators — the continent’s most popular modular energy sources — when the grid doesn’t meet their needs.
No country will move away from a locally available energy source when there is no other alternative, especially when the need to industrialize is acute — as it is across Africa. And no country in history has industrialized without utilizing locally sourced fossil fuels for energy — including all of those preventing Africa from doing so today.
For Western leaders, it seems that promoting bold green climate change ambitions is easier in the poorer countries who depend on their financial support, rather than at home where they fear electoral backlash.
It’s no wonder that Africans are outraged about western hypocrisy and double talk. The industrialized world, including China and Russia, is the cause of the climate crisis, not Africa. The sooner we create more nuanced policies to cater to their circumstances the better. We cannot punish the continent for the problems we created. In the meantime, Africa must also help itself. Power capacity should be planned years ahead, whilst steps must be taken to improve governance.
This year’s COP is being held in Africa. The Western world should listen to the concerns of the continent, and then refine the policies that choke off development for the world’s poorest.
Paul Hinks is the chairman of Invest Africa US and chairman and CEO of the energy investment companies Symbion Power and MyHydro.