I foresee an African just energy transition that is anchored on the continent’s vast renewable energy sources as well as grid interconnections of intra- and inter-regional power systems, complemented by natural gas as a transition fuel, pending the development of cost-effective green hydrogen and affordable energy storage systems
and other clean sources of flexible generation. Moreover, the transition must be facilitated by adequate financial resources as well as technical capacity to efficiently develop, operate, and maintain the emerging technological solutions. The transition must, however, also proceed in the context of synergizing climate action and socioeconomic development agenda, including increasing access to quality electricity supply and providing access to clean cooking.
This context is vital, given that in 2021, nearly half of all Africans did not have access to electricity while a billion people did not have access to clean cooking. At the current rates of investment in energy systems on the continent, Africa will thus not achieve affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all, as encapsulated by SDG7, a UN Sustainable Development Goal.2 Also, at 500 kWh—and even lower in Sub-Saharan Africa—the per capita electricity consumption across the continent remains a tiny fraction of consumption levels in developed countries. Africa’s just energy transition must focus on addressing the continent’s energy poverty. However, one size does not fit all. There are some countries that have carbon-intensive economies, while others produce minimal greenhouse gas emissions. South Africa and Egypt, for example, contribute 1.17 percent and 0.67 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions respectively from fossil fuels and industry, whereas most other African countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as Ethiopia, Zambia, and Mali, hardly contribute anything toward the continent’s current 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Approaches to the transition must therefore be specific to a region and country. Thus, while the few African countries with higher carbon intensities and near-universal access to modern energy must focus on decarbonization, most countries on the continent will concentrate on increasing access to quality electricity supply and providing access to clean cooking for the billion Africans who rely on wood- or charcoal-burning fires for cooking. Thankfully, Africa is endowed with abundant renewable energy sources, that remain largely untapped. These must be harnessed to anchor low-carbon development pathway.
At the same time, the security of the continent’s energy supply must remain sacrosanct, the socioeconomic impacts of the energy transition must be addressed, and the achievement of sustainable development goals related to energy as well as the African Union’s Agenda 2063 must be guaranteed. These aspects must inform the transition, which is also predicated on (i) access to adequate financial resources, (ii) the availability of cost-effective technologies, and (iii) the technical capacity of the countries to efficiently develop, operate and maintain emerging technological solutions. It is not simply a matter of Africa “leap-frogging” fossil fuels as the often-quoted cliché suggests. Availing African countries with adequate concessional financing in a timely manner will enhance their trust in developed economies, thereby strengthening confidence in, and sustainability of, Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETPs) and other transition plans. In my mind, Special Drawing Rights are an ideal way to finance the Africa’s JETPs and climate action in general.
To further embed a low-carbon trajectory, it will be necessary to accelerate the development of (i) cost effective green hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuels in power production and as feedstock for harder-to-abate sectors such as steel, cement, and long-haul transport, and (ii) affordable energy storage systems and other clean flexible generation. Meanwhile, the capacity of African countries to efficiently develop, operate and maintain the emerging technological solutions must be strengthened. The foregoing will also determine the speed of Africa’s energy transition and, therefore, the continent’s ability to complement global ambitions toward the attainment of the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the increase in global average temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Energy transition is not a step-function. Instead, the energy mixes characterizing Africa’s just energy transition will evolve with time, depending on access to the drivers mentioned above and the speed at which viable cleaner energy alternatives are developed. Hence, in line with the Paris Agreement, the African Development Bank intends to continue to strategically support Africa’s natural gas sector, to facilitate the transition to clean energy, and to promote climate adaptation and resilience. This approach recognizes that, in addition to grid interconnections, gas is an important enabler for increased integration of renewables in the energy mix, as its flexible generation readily compensates for loss of solar and wind generation in case of sudden weather changes. It also supports the use of natural gas to increase access to clean cooking and the health benefits thereof.
Moreover, there is a remaining carbon budget of 400 gigatons of CO2 equivalent emissions compliant with the 1.5-degrees Celsius goal. This budget should be allocated in inverse proportionality to the historical emissions of regions, thus enhancing the fairness of the energy transition from a global perspective, while enabling increased renewable energy penetration in developing countries, which have contributed the least to historical emissions. This principle is enshrined in the Paris Agreement. In this regard, who would begrudge tiny Gabon if it exploited its gas to boost its baseload power generation, increase access to electricity, and provide a source of clean cooking while continuing to absorb almost a third of France’s annual total greenhouse gas emissions? On the same token, would it not be beneficial if Tanzania used its natural gas to increase its population’s access to clean cooking from the current 4 percent, while reducing emissions from use of biomass or charcoal and curbing deforestation? Also, why shouldn’t South Africa use its new gas finds or imports from Mozambique to safeguard its security of supply by converting its newer coal plants to run on gas— thereby reducing emissions by about 40 percent in the medium to long term, pending development of cost-competitive green hydrogen?
To answer these questions, what is required is a holistic, honest, and pragmatic consideration of the energy quadrilemma, i.e., the need to find balance between energy reliability, affordability, and sustainability, as well as its impact on the social dimensions of energy. This approach is tantamount to synergizing climate action and socioeconomic development and is key to a just energy transition. In the meantime, developed nations must simply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
This article is authored by Dr. Kevin Kariuki, the vice president for Power,Energy, Climate and Green Growth at the African Development Bank. The piece is originally published in the 2023 Global Energy Agenda.