By Vera Songwe, Damilola Ogunbiyi and Amani Abou-Zeid
During the United Nations High Level Dialogue in Energy in September 2021 – the first such dialogue in over forty years, the UN Secretary-General – H.E. Antonio Guterres – in his address urged countries to take urgent measures towards the rapid phase out of coal power capacity in OECD countries by 2030 and in the rest of the world by 2040. Mr Guterres noted that efforts must be made to ensure that “…no one is left behind in the race to a net zero future…” and that “…the global energy transition must be just, inclusive, and equitable…”, while recognizing that “…no two national energy transition pathways will be identical…” While Africa’s climate ambition and the drive towards net zero emissions must be relentless, the continent’s energy transition cannot be identical to the rest of the world and needs pragmatic solutions.
The current geopolitical shock arising from the crisis in Ukraine has compounded the severe impacts already being felt by African countries because of the socio-economic impacts increasing climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the war in Ukraine has shifted forward the gear for countries to step up efforts towards the clean energy transition away from fossil fuels to renewable and cleaner energy forms. European countries are rethinking their energy plans and policies. And there is increasing possibility of the use of more coal-fired power plants in Europe, thereby impacting on climate goals. But most importantly, the crisis is causing sharp rises in fuel and food prices globally, with huge impacts on African countries. The crisis has caused European countries to rethink their energy strategy and seek new sources of oil and gas to replace Russian supplies. Meanwhile, the prices of renewable energy technologies have seen sharp increases, after many years of costs declines, at a time when African countries need more deployment of these technologies. This situation calls for renewed thinking on Africa’s energy access, mix and green transition approach, including the role of natural gas in this process.
The global drive for a green transition and net zero emissions present African countries with risks and enormous opportunities. At the same time, Africa’s energy access and transition must be compelling and must be defined and owned by Africa. It must reflect Africa’s very low contribution to global emissions and comply with the Paris Agreement that recognises the need for the emissions of developing countries to take longer to peak while developed countries need to do more and do so urgently. However, Africa’s energy transition must also be based on tapping the huge opportunities in terms of energy access, jobs and industrial development using the continent’s abundant renewable energy resources.
Global development agendas are all premised on peoples’ right to sustainable development and poverty eradication. Actualizing this right and bringing hundreds of millions of Africans out of poverty requires widespread access to secure, affordable and reliable energy. However, the reality is that the region remains the world’s least electrified, with inadequate, unreliable and generally expensive supply, severely constraining development ambitions.
Africa, with 17% of the global population, accounted for only 3.1% of the over 26,823 terawatt-hours of electricity generated, and 3.3% of the primary energy consumed globally in 2020, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. The International Energy Agency (IEA) states that the continent’s average per capita electricity consumption is only about 600 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year compared with a world average of 3,200 kWh, and 6,100 kWh for the European Union (EU) and 4,600 kWh for China. In terms of power plants, Africa’s total installed capacity of about 233 GW is only 12% of that of China.
Climate change is already impacting African economies disproportionately, even though the continent has contributed the least to global warming, with a share of only 3.9% of global fossil fuel emissions in 2020. In fact, excluding South Africa and North African countries, the rest of Africa contributes only 1% of these emissions.
In this Decade of Action to attain the Sustainable Development Goals, Africa’s energy situation calls for ambitious and pragmatic measures, otherwise the continent will be left further behind by 2030. With the right support, Africa can harness its abundant energy resources to transform its economies and become a global leader in inclusive green growth. This potential was very high on the agenda of the African Ministerial Roundtable that held during the SEforALL Global Forum in Kigali. This roundtable of 14 ministers of energy and environment from 10 African countries, hosted by the Republic of Rwanda, concluded with the Kigali Communique on a just and equitable energy transition in Africa. It will also be very high on the agenda of the forthcoming Specialized Technical Committee on Energy and Infrastructure of the African Union Commission and at COP27 in Egypt.
To achieve this energy transformation, natural gas is critical as a transitional fuel because its critical for the baseload required to integrate renewable energy. A key incentive for huge investments in Africa is the prospect of a strong and reliable energy system with high flexibility that can integrate increased shares of variable renewable power (solar photovoltaic and wind). System flexibility could come through generation, transmission and distribution and storage infrastructure, as well as through demand-side management to integrate high shares of renewable energy. Natural gas power plants can provide system flexibility by being able to respond rapidly to changes in demand in very short time intervals.
Natural gas can facilitate the phasing out of more polluting fossil fuels. Although it is itself a fossil fuel that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, increasing its use in power generation enables African countries to phase out more polluting fuels such as coal, diesel, Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) and traditional biomass, while bringing on board more renewables. There are presently about 34 GW of oil and coal power plants capacity in Africa that are more than 40 years old and thus due for early retirement. It may be possible to switch from coal and HFO to natural gas using existing infrastructure to deliver more climate-friendly energy. Besides, continuous flaring of natural gas associated with oil extraction only goes to inflate GHG emissions without any return on development. Globally, the amount of gas flared annually – estimated at 142 billion cubic meters – could power the entire sub-Saharan Africa region.
Increasing the share of gas in Africa’s energy mix will only marginally raise its share of global emissions to 4.5% in 2040, while allowing for greater shares of solar and wind power that would otherwise be possible. Furthermore, natural gas as a transition fuel is critical to addressing the huge challenge of lack of access to clean cooking with LPG. Over 80 percent of Africans lacking access to clean cooking. This impacts mainly women and girls and results in about 500,000 unnecessary premature deaths each year related to indoor pollution from dirty cooking solutions.
Natural gas therefore promotes a win-win for energy access, clean cooking, better jobs, and climate ambition. Producers such as Algeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan include use of natural gas in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The safeguards in the Paris Agreement provide the basis for climate justice and a just transition for African countries as well as other countries where development efforts are highly constrained by climate change, global geopolitical shocks, and the absence of meaningful international support.
Investing in gas as part of a just transition towards more sustainable and climate resilient development is of vital importance to Africa’s pursuit towards achieving sustainable development and poverty eradication, especially with the increase in African gas producers, up from 11 in 1990 to 29 in 2019. Meanwhile, China is bringing online more coal power plants to hit peak emissions by 2030 and is at the same time the global leader in wind and solar power deployment. Germany is phasing out coal by 2038 and leads Europe in its use of renewable power. African countries need similar transition strategies that help them tackle energy deficits while enhancing climate action in a just way.
Africa must urgently overcome the challenges to unlocking gas as the critical transition fuel for its economic ‘renaissance’, energy access, industrialization, climate ambition, and recovery from COVID-19. In particular, African countries with natural gas need to prepare just transition plans as part of revised NDCs and work on a continent-wide strategy for a just transition and transformative investments in gas that enable more renewables at speed and scale.
This is especially critical in the face of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, that has given rise to uncertainty in Europe’s already skyrocketing gas market. There is an opportunity for Africa’s gas market to develop to fill this gap and serve domestic and international markets. Africa, with its rich gas reserves, would need to attract investments towards achieving this renaissance.
The Ukraine crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the climate crises put Africa at a new development crossroad from which, with the right leadership and support in defining and designing its energy mix, it can proceed to attain its development aspirations for a peaceful and prosperous Africa that leaves no one behind, while contributing to keeping climate change at bay.
Vera Songwe is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa
Damilola Ogunbiyi is CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All
Amani Abou-Zeid is Commission for Infrastructure & Energy, African Union Commission