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Why Africa can’t make do with renewables

Lhe latest report from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation published in September is rich in information that can change the perspective of the approach to the question of investments and on fossil fuels and renewable energies. Did you know that on average 40.5% of electricity in African countries comes from renewable sources? This is higher than the global (34.1%) and European (39.1%) averages! And yet, Africa is today faced with the colossal challenge of having to develop, even industrialise, in the context of an acute global climate crisis for which it bears very little responsibility. The African continent produces only 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN. At the same time, around 600 million people across Africa do not have access to electricity and 930 million do not have clean cooking fuels according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation report titled “Addressing the Africa’s Energy Deficit: Climate Change, Renewables and Gas”. This deficit weighs heavily as it is estimated that power shortages cost the continent around 2-4% of gross domestic product (GDP) per year. The Foundation also underlines the fact that the increase in energy demand is inevitable on a continent whose population is expected to almost double by 2050 and triple by 2100.

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The change of foot of the industrialized countries

The energy issue has returned to the heart of global geopolitics since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th.

“The Ukrainian crisis has triggered a European backlash, but African gas must first serve Africans,” say the experts from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. Indeed, since the start of the war in Ukraine, European countries have shown a renewed interest in the issue of energy security, leading to a change of footing in the use of fossil fuels. Germany, for example, has “started to re-ignite coal-fired power plants that were originally scheduled to shut down, while Norway, the UK and the US have all started ramping up oil and gas production. The EU has also recently decided that gas can be classified as a green investment under certain conditions”.

At the G7 summit in June, participating countries officially opened the door to more gas financing. “With a view to accelerating our exit from dependence on Russian energy, we underline the important increased role that deliveries of liquefied natural gas (LNG) can play and recognize that investment in this sector is necessary in response to the current crisis. In these exceptional circumstances, state-backed investments in the gas sector may be appropriate as a temporary response. […] they said.

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A card to play for gas produced in Africa, but…

And it is to Africa that many European countries are now turning. Germany has started talks with Senegal on the offshore financing of gas fields. In order to reduce its dependence on Russia, Italy has concluded gas agreements with Algeria, Angola, Egypt and the Republic of Congo. “While the announced investments are welcome, the fact that they have been driven by Europe’s concern for its own energy security rather than a greater appreciation of Africa’s unique energy situation is a source of of concern”, emphasizes Ben Chandler, senior researcher for the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

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… concerns remain

Renewed investor interest in African gas is seen as a boon for the continent, but only “if it is integrated into global plans, rather than simply becoming an alternative source of fuel for European homes and industries”. . Investments should also support infrastructure development plans that deliver power to African markets. One of the most important projects in recent years is the so-called “Gas to Power” in Senegal, the objective of which is to define a framework to optimize the entire natural gas value chain, from the supply up to the distribution of electricity to end consumers. ” The energy transition in Africa must therefore be based on the mobilization of the vast renewable resources of the continent, as well as those of natural gas which, by the way, is the least polluting fossil fuel, and this in order to facilitate the generalized access of the populations to electricity and the achievement of the development objectives of the continent “, insist the authors of the report.

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The Glasgow Agreement, a sword of Damocles over African countries

In recent months, many voices have been raised, particularly among African leaders and officials, for Africa to continue to benefit from financing for the exploitation of fossil fuels. Indeed, the commitment announced during the last climate conference, COP26 in Glasgow, by some twenty States, including the United States and France, to end by the end of 2022 the financing of Fossil energy projects abroad without carbon capture techniques have created a wave of panic.

“At a time when several African countries are preparing to exploit their significant gas resources, the cessation of funding for the gas sector, on the pretext that gas is a fossil fuel, without taking into account the fact that it is also and above all a clean energy, would deal a fatal blow to our economies in search of emergence, ”said Senegalese President Macky Sall during the Sino-African Cooperation Forum (Focac) organized in November 2021 in Senegal. “Blocking the financing of the gas sector is to add a great economic injustice to the climate injustice that Africa suffers more than all the other continents”, he had insisted. It must be said that the final agreement snatched from Glasgow explicitly called into question, and this is a first, fossil fuels as the main culprits of global warming, calling for “the withdrawal of inefficient subsidies” to these energies.

Senegal, which places great hope in the future exploitation of the gas and oil fields discovered in the Atlantic in recent years, plans to produce its first barrels at the end of 2023 or in 2024 in a context where Africa would represent 41 % of new gas discoveries in the world for the period from 2011 to 2018. As for Mozambique, it is now known to have 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, almost twice the reserves of Norway, who is the 8e world producer of natural gas. The African countries that produce gas and oil, as well as those where recent discoveries of these fossil fuels raise hopes for development, do not therefore intend to give it up for the moment, despite the recommendations of the last climate conference in Glasgow.

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Responsible realism must prevail…

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation agrees in this direction. She argues that Africa cannot afford to turn its back entirely on fossil fuels as it stands. Because renewable energy alone cannot provide the reliable, low-cost electricity supply that the continent sorely needs to industrialize and provide reliable public services such as health and education.

The other reality to take into account is that renewable resources vary considerably from one country to another. Thus Ethiopia, endowed with vast hydroelectric and geothermal resources, has a much greater potential that can enable it to use green technologies in the short term, unlike a country like Nigeria heavily dependent on oil and gas.

Another important data: intermittency. On rainy days, the solar panels do not work at full capacity and at the same time they do not produce any energy at night. On calm days, wind power can be reduced to a small fraction of its capacity. And there is no shortage of examples of the shortcomings of renewable energies. Suffice to say that at a time when the continent is called upon to industrialize, fossil fuels are still necessary for very energy-intensive industries such as steelworks or cement factories.

As for natural gas, it is in no way synonymous with climate catastrophe for Africa and the world, explain in detail the authors of the report.

Although it is home to 17% of the world’s population, the continent consumes only 5.9% of the energy produced in the world. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the average electricity consumption per capita in Africa is only around 600 kWh per year compared to a world average of 3,200 kWh, 6,100 kWh for the Union Europe and 4,600 kWh for China. “If sub-Saharan Africa (minus South Africa) were to triple its electricity consumption using all gas, it would only add 0.6% to global carbon emissions,” they continue.

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… to also support African investments in renewables

According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, African states are not standing idly by.

Between 2010 and 2019, governments more than tripled public investment in renewable energy to $47 billion from $13.4 billion the previous decade. “With access to appropriate financial markets, renewable energies could account for up to 67% of electricity production in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030,” adds the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena).

On the ground, however, it is clear that the continent’s potential remains largely untapped. To say that five of the ten countries with the greatest solar potential on a global scale are in Africa… Thus Namibia (1er world rank), Egypt (4e), Lesotho (8e), Libya (9e) and Botswana (10e). Continuing their demonstration, the authors of the report estimate that the full mobilization of the wind potential in Chad, Mauritania, Niger and Mali would make it possible to multiply by more than 30 the electrical capacity of these four countries. That is to say…

That said, major renewable energy projects are underway, such as that of the African Development Bank called the “Desert to Power Initiative”. This is a solar project which, by 2030, should increase the existing capacity of the eleven countries of the Sahel region by almost 40% and offer, for the first time, access to electricity in 90 million people. The only major problem: the realization of such potential requires climate commitments from the rich countries, which is not won in the current context of bailout.

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