Just Energy Transition in Africa By Prof Yemi Osinbajo

I have in the past few months, both in speaking and even writing about this and related issues, approached the subject from the point of view of a just transition. That is, the broad notion that the burdens of climate change and its mitigation must be fairly and equitably shared between African countries – who are the least emitters, but the worst sufferers of the consequences and the least prepared for its consequences – and the developed economies who are the worst emitters and who are far better resourced to deal with its consequences of climate change.


While this climate justice point of view is crucial, it nevertheless often tends to lead to the conclusion that the only options open to Africa are adaptations and lately, loss and damage compensation.


So, for African countries, the remedy that climate justice offers appears to be rather narrow: adaptation, or more recently, loss and damage compensation, but for African countries, a challenge that is as important as containing climate change itself is energy poverty, which essentially means lack of access to energy for electricity, cooking, heating, cooling, etc, and how this inhibits any real growth or job opportunities.


Of course, we all know from empirical evidence that the availability of energy directly correlates with income, wealth and development, both at the individual and societal level. And the energy poverty issue in Africa is huge.


Over 1.3 billion people in Africa are serviced by an installed capacity of 244 gigawatts which is less than the 248 gigawatts available for Germany’s population of 83 million. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the only region in which the number of people without access to clean cooking fuels and technologies is rising. 19 of the 20 countries with the lowest clean cooking access rates are in Africa.


So, for Africa, the crucial question in the Energy Transition conversation is – how does Africa develop, and provide well-paying jobs and decent livelihoods for its growing population, within globally agreed carbon constraints? Those are the Paris Agreements, the Kigali Accord, the Kyoto Protocol for developed economies, the Renewable Energy Standards, etc.


The straight answer is that there does not seem to be a pathway. This is because the historical pathway of growth to the upper-middle-income status that has been attained today by the wealthier countries of the world was by the use of carbon-intensive energy sources. But such a growth path is not available to African countries, at least not within global planetary boundaries: the global carbon budget simply does not allow for it.


Please bear with me, there are a few sustainability jargons that I might use, so “Global Planetary Boundaries” refers to the concept developed by scientists in 2009, that there are certain limits or thresholds in the Earth’s natural systems that, if crossed, could lead to irreversible changes and potentially catastrophic consequences for human civilization and the biosphere as a whole.


Thus, if Africa were to grow to upper-middle-income status with the same carbon intensity as current countries in that income bracket, it would add 12 Gigatonnes of CO2e emissions annually by 2050, putting global net zero by that time well outside of reach.


The ‘inconvenient truth’ here, if one may borrow that expression, is that beyond being treated as a victim, whose problems will be dealt with much later on in the food chain, Africa’s own growth and development are not being seriously accommodated in the global Energy Transition conversations.


Yet, a strategic key to attaining global net zero by 2050 may well lie in seeing Africa from a different paradigm, not merely as a victim but as a solution. And I have been greatly helped in coming to some conclusions on this subject by my involvement with some of the incredible advocacy and proof of concept work that James Mwangi, Carlijn Nouwen, and their colleagues at Climate Action Platform Africa, CAP-A have done and are doing. My presentation borrows considerably from some of their research and other material.


So, beyond climate justice, may lie a real opportunity for Africa and the world. This opportunity is the distinct possibility of Climate Positive Growth for Africa. In other words, a paradigm where Africa pursues a climate-positive or carbon-negative path to middle-income status and beyond. (By the way, climate-positive and carbon negative means the same thing).


And this contains, in and of itself, part of the solution to global net zero ambitions. Because if, as is the case, some countries will not meet their net-zero by 2050 targets, then some significant portion of the world must be climate-positive or net negative, for global net zero to be achievable. Put differently, since many regions are already off track to achieve net-zero by 2050, some other regions must fill the gap, if global targets must be met.


The recently released IPCC Synthesis Report notes that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have made our world 1.1oC warmer and we are, as a global community, not on track to limit warming to 1.5oC or even 2oC as targeted in the Paris Agreement. So, Africa with its current low carbon footprints and limited legacy infrastructure, is in the best position to do that.


Let us examine the argument more closely. Africa’s endowments, renewable energy, natural resources and a young workforce, present a compelling set of circumstances for several pathways to climate-positive growth.


These pathways include the following:

  1. Low emissions consumption and production, the point being that Africa can, instead of going the carbon-intensive path to providing energy, goods and services for its own needs, takes full advantage of green technologies and practices. There is the distinct advantage that Africa can actually pursue a green course of growth without worrying about costly legacy infrastructure.


This would, of course, mean a wide range of changes in eating, living, (city designs) and transportation (electric cars) and different habits must occur.  An example of an actual project is in Kenya with the use of low-cost bio-ethanol fueled cookstoves. These are already in use with an off-take reaching 300,000 in 2021, up from just about 50,000. It is estimated that this could mean over 1 million metric tons of co2e in avoided emissions annually. And there is the additional benefit that the stoves generate high-quality carbon credits sold in global carbon markets.


  1. The second pathway is that having recognised the fact that global zero carbon ambitions cannot be realised without intentional carbon removal technologies and practices, Africa can ramp up her own potential to do this at scale through a combination of planned land use and ecosystem management, and investment in emerging engineered removal technologies. Already Africa’s large carbon sinks, currently store years of global emissions and the abundant supply of unused agricultural waste is available as biomass for clean energy production and soil improvement.


  1. The third pathway is that, with its abundant reserves of renewable energy and raw materials, Africa can become a hugely competitive green manufacturing and energy hub for the world that could also accelerate the greening of global industry. For example, by on-shore processing of 110 million tons of bauxite to aluminium, currently exported as raw bauxite from Africa to Europe and Asia, using renewable energy, between 1.3 to 1.5 gigatons of CO2e emissions can be avoided annually. Same as processing lithium within the mining locality.


Already, some of that is happening in Kaduna, Nigeria, where a lithium processing factory is being built. Zimbabwe, in December 2022, also introduced its policy on local processing of lithium. Africa also has the technical potential to produce 21 billion tonnes worth of hydrogen annually, as compared to Europe’s potential at 0.67 billion tonnes. And as green hydrogen costs fall, African manufacturing locations may become more competitive in a range of related value chains, for example, for ammonia, fertilizer and eFuels.


Thus, the paradox of an energy-poor continent becoming the green industrial powerhouse of the world is easily resolvable and it must be.


Energy poverty can only be resolved if there is a significant investment in renewable energy. That can only happen if we create the energy-intense anchor demand that makes the investment in additional renewable energy bankable. Therefore, it is not which comes first – renewable energy generation capacity or industrial deployment, both must be developed concurrently.


With industrial anchor demand, African countries can make the grid investments and create the cross-subsidy opportunity to serve unserved – and underserved retail users, in addressing energy poverty. So, the purported choice between expanding retail energy access and industrial development is a false one, because industrial development will make investment in retail access possible.


How about the dependence of countries like Nigeria on oil and gas? I think that the use of gas as a transition fuel will not significantly derail our commitment to carbon-negative growth. Nigeria’s Energy Transition Plan attempts to chart an energy transition pathway which has as its bedrock the development of renewable energy, specifically solar. The plan is to develop 250 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2060.


The plan outlines our decarbonisation strategies in the areas of power, oil and gas transportation, etc. It also mitigates against medium to long-term job losses in an industry that has dominated the economy for decades. It recommends the role of gas as a transition fuel, to balance large influxes of solar power on the grid, its use as a cheaper, and relatively clean option for base load power for industry, as we watch the cost of solar batteries plunge.


There are also practical ways in which gas, especially propane, will bridge the gap before the full use of renewables is commercially practical. To illustrate the point practically, recently some discussions have been taking place about the decommissioning of industrial-scale diesel and petrol generators used at base stations of telecommunication companies in Nigeria.


Thousands of these base stations are powered 24/7 by diesel generators. So, a proposal that was made for the complete replacement of these diesel generators with solar power and batteries met with a challenge. The Service Level Agreements that the base station operators have with the telcos is simple – 24/7 power, no downtime.


Using solar power alone today, with necessary storage facilities, would be far too expensive. The compromise that may now be reached as an interim measure (until the costs of solar batteries reduce sufficiently), is a hybrid power source, i.e., solar energy and propane-powered generators.


Propane is a much lower carbon emitter than diesel or petrol. Propane (LPG) is also already in use for clean cooking stoves in Nigeria and several different parts of Africa. There are many practical short-term uses of gas that are made more attractive because of its availability and relative cleanness, as compared to other fossil fuels.


So, considering the three pathways to climate-positive growth that I have outlined, I will repeat them:

  1. Africa pursuing an essentially green course of growth. Low emission consumption and production;
  2. Being the carbon removal center of the world, both by offering natural carbon sinks and development of carbon removal technologies; and
  3. Becoming the most competitive green manufacturing and energy hub in the world.


The proposition that Africa could bring to the table, or if you like, a grand bargain that Africa and the international community may make, is as follows:


A climate-positive growth framework, based on the premise that the world needs Africa to attain its net zero ambitions. To elaborate, a climate-positive growth framework is also both an answer to the global need for massively net negative emissions in order to attain its net zero ambitions and a solution to Africa’s growth imperatives – energy access, jobs and decent livelihoods for millions. The success of this framework will depend on certain key actions, some of which are within the control of African States, and others of the international community.


On their part, African countries will formulate clear science-based National Strategies for climate-positive growth. The strategies will be linked to specific targets for net negative contributions to global emissions. There must also be an accompanying policy and regulatory environment that would enable the realisation of the strategy and, by such means, encourage needed investments. For this, we can build on the Kigali Accord.


The international community on its part will undertake to make the required investments in Africa’s renewable energy and work out trade rules that would give access to favour low emissions production and also facilitate the rapid development of fair and equitable carbon markets. I work with the Africa Carbon Market Initiative and part of our task is to see how we can deal with the rest of the world to work out fair systems by which the Africa Carbon Market could operate effectively.


Africa, from which highly competitive carbon returns will come, can only see the capital influx, if the bottlenecks to fully functional carbon markets, such as verification, etc, are worked on. At the moment, most of the bodies that verify the value of carbon credits are based in the global northern countries, but if Africa is going to be the hub for many of these useful carbon credits, we need to have more verification companies located in Africa.


The international community must also ensure market access to African countries to sell low-embedded-emission products into the global markets in an equitable way.


The financing for this purpose ought to be appropriately nuanced to surmount the competition-inhibiting risk premiums, and cost of capital challenges that Africa faces. A good mix of development finance will be important alongside patient and flexible financing instruments, some of which have been used successfully for financing renewables. Many options, aside from the conventional; there are renewables auctions, debt for climate swaps, and of course, carbon markets.


There are of course many practical issues to be worked out, including the intermittency of solar and wind power, system integration issues, the cost of storage of renewable energy, financing, and the notorious difficulties of changing global trade rules.


These are challenges that can, with a clear sense of the existential urgency of the goals that we want to achieve, be surmounted.


The incentive to make these proposals work is the recognition that Africa can actually be the key to meeting the global net-zero targets we have set for ourselves.



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