On December 12, 2015, after two weeks of intense negotiations in Paris, the world birthed a global agreement to govern climate change. This Paris Agreement which was signed by almost all countries of the world, including all African countries, contains objectives for reducing global climate emissions to below 2 degrees Celsius and ideally below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
In late March this year, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged all countries, to commit to net-zero or carbon neutrality, with clear and credible plans to achieve the target, starting immediately.
This moved some countries to set targets for net zero. Interestingly, only one country from Africa set those targets – South Africa. Whether the targets are merely hortatory or firm commitments remain to be seen. The elephant in the room in this net-zero conversation is, how do we pay for such an expensive journey?
Net-zero simply refers to the point at which greenhouse gas emissions released are counterbalanced by greenhouse emissions removed from the atmosphere. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), net zero should be the global mid-century target if we are to have a 50% chance of achieving our Paris Agreement goal.
Yet Africa cannot afford the cost of this net-zero journey. One research showed that getting the US alone to net-zero will cost $2.5 trillion. One then wonders how much it will cost African countries that still grapple with basic economic and social issues.
So what we see instead is African countries intensifying fossil fuel exploration efforts – proudly moving in the opposite direction from the net-zero destination. Uganda’s President Museveni described the ongoing $3.5 billion East African Crude Oil Pipeline project as an “economic victory bringing thousands of jobs while funding Uganda’s transition to affluence.”
In Nigeria, the government has planned to add 6 new coal plants by 2037 to the existing 23, while in its commercial capital, the world’s largest crude oil refinery is being built. Angola is building the Namibe Oil refinery as well, a $12 billion, 400, 000 barrel per day project. It appears Africa’s journey to net-zero is largely non-existent.
Yet you can hardly blame the continent as it contributes the least to global warming and it houses some of the least developed economies in the world. Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of UN-Energy, while speaking about the continent in relation to energy transition in a conversation with Reuters said, “They’re not waiting for the best solution in the world – they’re just waiting for a dignified life.”
It follows that people in need of development will gladly take such dignified life even if it comes to them wrapped in fossil fuels. One 2021 report has it that there are 490 million people living in extreme poverty in Africa, about 36% of Africa’s population.
Only recently, South Africa recorded its unemployment rate hitting a 13-year high at 32.6% – with about 15 million people unemployed. If South Africa is to keep to its net zero targets, it would be expected to decommission its coal plants which provide 90% of its electricity, which would mean putting tens of thousands out of jobs. Can the nation afford that in its current state?
Africa needs significant financial and technical support to take this net-zero journey, if not, it remains unrealistic, and perhaps even silly to embark on a journey it cannot fund. According to Damilola Ogunbiyi, “Without the financing, it’s hard to have the incentive. The funding is just not there.” The net-zero target of Annex 1 countries should include as an integral part of it, providing developing countries with financing and technical support.
By no means does this absolve Africa of its role in hitting net-zero targets, because while the continent contributes less than 4% to global GHG emissions, it is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. These effects range from insecurity to climate-induced migration, drought, flooding, amongst others. Also, the health benefits of transitioning and leaving dirty fuels behind abound.
Additionally, perhaps a critical reason is the fact that Africa’s population is set to double by 2050, a pointer to doubling energy needs. It only pays that our clean energy systems are prepared to support the boom. This is why Africa plays a crucial role in the global net-zero agenda.
According to Anthony Nyong, Director of Climate Change and Green Growth for the African Development Bank, “Many African nations are interested in low-carbon growth – but few have received anywhere near enough finance to make it a reality.”
Doubtlessly, more financing needs to flow towards Africa and equally, the necessary capacity building for accessing such financing. Also, Africa’s development finance institutions have a big role to play in designing innovative financing instruments that are well suited to the locale and that can help Africa fund this journey to net-zero.