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Alternative energy innovation for keeping Africa’s climate below 1.5° C

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Alternative energy innovation for keeping Africa’s climate below 1.5° C

Britta Rennkamp

12 Dec 2018

5min min read
  • Climatic changes--Government policy
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he world’s climate leaders are meeting at the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Katowice, Poland, this week. The overarching question this year is how to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which 184 countries have ratified so far, to meet its main objective: keeping global warming “well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5° C”. 

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 1.5° C report a month ahead of the United Nations meeting in Katowice. The report was quite clear in its message: there is still time to limit global warming, but we need to act now to reduce emissions. The report also identifies the main emitters on our planet: the European Union, the United States, India and China. 

Why should we worry about the 1.5° C target in Sub-Saharan Africa if our total emissions only add up to 2 percent of the global CO2 emissions burden?

"The question for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa is whether they will follow the South African example and lock themselves into high energy, emissions intensive and high poverty pathways, or, whether they will be able to reap the benefits of alternative energy technologies."

The challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa is not about reducing emissions. It is about growing and developing prosperously without entering traditional carbon intensive development pathways. South Africa is an exception, as it has a locked itself in a very carbon and energy intensive political economy. South Africa’s per capita emissions are similar to those of Germany while its economic output is that of a developing country in the upper middle income category, as measured in its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The country's economy has been dominated by energy intensive industries which have historically benefitted from electricity and labour at low cost.  

The question for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa is whether they will follow the South African example and lock themselves into high energy, emissions intensive and high poverty pathways, or, whether they will be able to reap the benefits of alternative energy technologies.

Prices for renewable energy technologies have fallen significantly over the past decade. The technologies have matured and are available on the international markets. The international donor community supports projects for renewable technology deployment. Solar and wind technologies also function off- grid and in mini-grids and have proven invaluable for electrification of rural areas, which is a priority in many countries in the region. 

The global parameters for transitioning on to sustainable development pathways in Sub-Saharan Africa are in place. Why are low carbon energy transitions not a no-brainer (yet)?

There are several stumbling blocks on the paths towards sustainable energy transitions in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Firstly, the African continent is not just blessed with renewable energy resources; the region also still holds proven reserves of coal (1.2%), gas (7.1%) and oil (7.5%) resources in the ground. 

Many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have recently discovered new fossil fuel reserves. Many governments plan on building fossil fuel infrastructure to meet increasing energy demands. Mozambique, Kenya, Zambia, Senegal and Ghana, just to mention a few, are already building or planning to build infrastructure to exploit these fossil fuel reserves. 

Secondly, the political systems in most Sub-Saharan countries are conducive to big infrastructure projects in coal, gas, oil and nuclear energy. Centralised energy infrastructure projects are appealing to centralised governments as they affirm power and control. Open issue networks rarely define political decision-making processes. The processes of checks and balances can be compromised. Centralised forms of rule hence attract more centralised technological systems and vice versa. These governance structures are averse to decentralised renewable energy solutions. 

Thirdly, production and consumption incentives for exploiting fossil fuels continue to sustain fossil fuel industries internationally and nationally.  As long as these subsidies continue to flow, fossil fuels will continue to be burned, in Africa and in the rest of the world. Fossil fuel subsidies add up to US$5.3 trillion in 2015, or 6.5 % of global GDP, according to the IMF. Consumption subsidies in Sub-Saharan Africa have particularly benefitted high income households.

Fossil fuel subsidies have often grown historically into the political economies; they are often hard hidden, which makes it difficult to find the grounds for reform.

Fourthly, global competition has also dropped the prices for coal technologies. Off-the-shelf coal plant technologies are accessible fairly inexpensively from China. The Chinese government often offers financing packages which make these choices simple and appealing to local decision-makers.

How can these structural challenges be overcome? 

The good news is that renewable energy technologies can be diffused flexibly. Solar technologies especially can be deployed in the form of large-scale power plants or as individual panels on people’s homes. Community or individual ownership can go along with state-owned centralised infrastructure. Solar technologies can work for everyone, rich and poor. It just needs to be managed accordingly.

Investment in renewable energy projects in Sub-Saharan Africa is increasing. South Africa, Namibia, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi and Mauritius have implemented auction programs to diffuse renewable energy technologies. 

South Africa's renewable energy program has been successful not only in adding capacity from renewable energy technology, but it has also allowed independent power producers to generate electricity at low cost and attracted significant investment. 

The South African government managed this program successfully without tapping into the resources offered by the Green Climate Fund and the Climate Technology Centre and Network. Other countries have also managed to successfully implement renewable energy policy, despite abundant fossil fuel reserves and without international support. It's possible if there are coalitions with the interest and resources to support the implementation of such programs. 

"Solar technologies can work for everyone, rich and poor. It just needs to be managed accordingly."

The ways we build energy infrastructure to secure the energy needs of our people in a continent of two billion people will be crucial to achieving the 1.5° C target. The planning on how to manage these infrastructural challenges for 2040 will have to happen now. 

The Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) that articulate individual countries' contributions to the Paris Agreement provide an instrument to structure medium- to near-term planning on climate compatible development pathways. The Africa Group did well in making its case to consider adaptation as part of the NDC process. In return, the NDCs now need to come to life. Article 14 of the Paris Agreement requires the parties to “take stock” of the implementation of the NDCs to ensure progress towards achieving the goals of the agreement. This process is due in 2023. 

The implementation processes of the NDCs need support. These processes need to align closely to national priorities in countries' development plans. Effective planning requires participation, evidence and facilitated conversations in safe and unpoliticised spaces. Safe spaces for mutual learning between countries on the African continent, and in the Global South, will be essential to actually understand how their respective NDC can be implemented.

The seventh Conference on Climate Change and Development in Africa (CCDA-VII) held in October in Kenya has created such a space. It helped to articulate the demands and expectations of the 44 African countries who have already ratified the Paris Agreement. 

The Africa Group has identified its objectives to push for plans for climate action and investment at COP24. It will be essential for the interest of the African continent to address financial needs for adaptation, as well as loss and damage provisions as part of the “rule book” for the implementation of the Paris Agreement. The most difficult negotiation will be solving the questions about financial resposibilities, which has already created contestation between African and industrialised countries over the course of the negotiations.

The open questions for the implementation of the Paris Agreement in Africa remain: 1. how to action the NDCs in meaningful ways; 2. how to manage transitions towards renewable energy to avoid entering traditional fossil fuel pathways; 3. how to attract international investment for climate action and, 4. how to reap innovation benefits by moving on to sustainable development pathways towards a future where concerns about energy security and poverty reduction are problems of the past. 

(Main image: The United Nations' Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gives a speech during the opening of the COP24 summit on climate change in Katowice, Poland, on 3 December .– Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.