On December 12, 2015, history was made in Le Bourget, France – where 195 countries entered into a historic agreement to fight climate change by unleashing actions and investments towards a low carbon, resilient and sustainable future. Geared towards keeping the global temperature increase well below 2 degrees celsius, the famed Paris Agreement presented developing nations with the challenge of taking a less travelled path towards industrialization – by working to balance key issues such as poverty reduction, energy access and economic development with low carbon growth. Also, to strengthen their efforts towards mitigating and adapting to climate change, an agreement to financially support the climate action in developing nations was set up as a key part of the ‘grand bargain’ as well as a sweet spot in the deal for the respective developing nations.
Showing a full appreciation of the lurking doom of climate change as well as the prompt initiative of the Paris Agreement to tackle it – all 54 African countries unanimously consented to the provisions of the agreement – with each of the partisan states submitting their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in which they elaborated their plan to prioritize climate proofing development activities, particularly in economic sectors such as agriculture and energy. Out of all NDCs submitted by African nations, 45 were reported to have contained quantified renewable energy targets as reported by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Also, in what seemed to be the beginning of the end for all other energy sources that lacked the ‘renewables’ label – the 2015 Africa Progress Panel (APP) Report issued by the former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan amongst nine other distinguished Africans reinforced the need for Africa to focus on renewable energy. In tandem to this, the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) was launched – having set goals of achieving 10 GW of renewable energy generation capacity by 2020 and mobilizing African potential to generate at least 300 GW by 2030. Following these, it could have been said at the time that in Africa, the sun was rising on renewables as much as it was setting on mainstream energy sources such as fossil fuels.
In most conversations on energy, the topic of renewable energy versus fossil-fuels usually becomes a zero-sum game of one’s gain invariably becoming the other’s loss. Perhaps this rests on the logic that commitments to renewable energy adequately portrays a considerable concern for climate change. With this view, it could be said that as Nations deploy more renewables, we should expect to see, if not a reduction in carbon emissions, then a decline at least in the rate of increase of emissions over time – driven by reduced support for high carbon-emitting alternatives such as fossil fuels.
Plausible as this may be, emerging studies are now suggesting that in Africa’s reality there could be what we may call a ‘green paradox’ – in which concerted efforts to curb emissions and combat climate change through the deployment of more renewables across the continent are accompanied by unabated support for the consumption and exploration of fossil fuels in the region. In addition to this, it is noteworthy to mention that this green paradox would probably not have been so remarkable if the alleged continued support for fossil fuels came from anyone other than those who have been reputed to have taken in lead in combating climate change through the advancement of renewable energy in the region and across the world.
The Green Paradox
In Africa, it may be said that climate concerns, falling technology costs, ambitious targets, a pipeline of innovative projects and the support of foreign donor partners are driving the roll-out of renewable energy in the continent today. However, despite the abundant opportunities presented by the continent’s vast renewable energy resources, the luster of the fossil-fuel economy has proved to be a big test of Africa’s commitment to climate action – as fossil-fuel investors continue to dangle huge profits at the continent’s oil-rich nations. Also, for Africa’s developing nations – most of which may pass as latecomers to the fossil fuel boom, it could be said that a major challenge would be trying to hold on to the same emissions-reduction standards as developed countries like U.S, Germany or France – which have already benefited from decades or centuries of fossil-fueled industrialization.
All across Africa, only a few countries have seen significant increase in Renewable Energy Generation from the year 2016 till 2018 as analysed with data from the International Renewable Energy Agency. Countries like South Africa saw a significant increase in Renewable Energy Generation from 3429 MW in 2016 to 6065 MW in 2018 resulting into a 76.8% increase. Other notable percentage increases includes
Ethiopia (64.7%), Morocco (41.6%), and Kenya (26.6%). Some other countries have not increased their Renewable Energy Generation capacity; Gambia (3MW), Libya (5MW), and Guinea (382MW). Is Africa truly making progress?
In another 2018 report, an analysis by Oil Change International (OCI) stated that from 2014 to 2016, about 60 percent of public finance for energy in Africa went to fossil-fuels. Also according to the report, China – hailed as a global leader in renewable energy development, was the single largest public investor in African energy with 85 percent of its investments going into oil, gas and coal. Even for multilateral investments, the picture was not so green – it was reported that over 50 percent of World Bank’s investments in African energy went to fossil-fuels.
In a more recent study submitted to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist (ICIJ), it was reported that the World Bank – which vowed to lead in the global fight against climate change by using its loans and investments to steer developing nations towards a sustainable future, has continued to finance oil exploration and refineries even as it has been plunging investments in solar parks and other climate-friendly projects. While the bank has continued to do more in recent years to support renewable energy, the analysis conducted by German environmental watchdog Urgewald, submitted that it was yet to make a meaningful shift from fossil fuels. According to the report, the World Bank has allegedly been funnelling twice as much funding into fossil fuels as it has for renewable energy in Africa over the last five years. As Heike Mainhardt, the report’s author remarkably put it “The entrée is fossil fuels with a side of renewables”.
The case for renewable energy infrastructure in Africa is strong. With 45 countries penning down renewable energy targets, we could say that there is significant political ambition. African countries have a strategic geographical advantage when it comes to renewable energy sources like solar and wind – as most are located in expansive regions which gives them optimal access to the sun’s benevolent radiant energy. However, Africa must ‘level up’ if the continent must meet the energy access goals it has set for itself. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the lofty goal of the African Renewable Energy Initiative to deploy 300 GW of renewable energy by 2030 required a 680% increase in its current deployment rates of 2016. Evidently, there seems to have been a sizeable gap between the continent’s renewable energy targets and the actual deployment trends. It could even be added that some countries seem to be sleepwalking in the notion that there could be many years of oil extraction added.
Several studies have revealed Africa’s eye-opening untapped potential for renewable energy generation. However, time will tell if we are able to make the most of this opportunity. For every new born in Africa and every passing day without action, the pressure on governments to recycle the dirty fuels of the past increases and the window of opportunity for a clean and sustainable future closes a little bit more.
By Ebubechukwu Udochukwu, Temitope M. Adeyemi-Kayode