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Africa sets off toward a sustainable energy future

by Mohamed Adow, Christian Aid | @mohadow | Christian Aid - UK
Wednesday, 2 December 2015 16:36 GMT

Workers repair a section of a giant pipe used for channelling steam to the generating turbines at the Olkaria Geothermal power plant, near Naivasha west of Kenya's capital Nairobi, October 10, 2014. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The world’s most energy-poor continent heads toward meeting its own energy needs, and cutting climate change

Yesterday was the proudest day of my six-year history as an observer of the UNFCCC climate change conferences. My first year, COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009, left much to be desired. But by day two of COP21 here in Paris, the summit has already provided much cause for celebration.

Yesterday African heads of state launched the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), through which the continent is expected to deliver at least 10 gigawatts of new and additional electrical installed capacity by 2020. The initiative also set an aspirational goal of at least 300 GW of new and additional capacity by 2030.

Endorsed by African heads of state and environment ministers, and supported by the G7, the AREI aims to help Africa pursue sustainable development, meet the goal of universal access to clean, appropriate and affordable energy, improve well-being and foster sound economic development.

What’s more, it will help African countries move closer to delivering their low-carbon development strategies, while enhancing economic and energy security – particularly for the poorest and most marginalised.

As both a Kenyan and a climate policy expert, I have never been more proud. The significance of this announcement is not to be understated: it is an exceptional moment in Africa's history and a game-changer for the continent.

To put it in context, Africa has a huge energy deficit: some 600 million Africans live without access to electricity. Sub-Saharan Africa’s current total energy output is about 150 gigwatts. The new plans would deliver double that amount, and all of it clean and renewable.

Home to about 14 per cent of the world’s population, Africa has the lowest global carbon footprint on the planet. The continent’s inefficient energy system is characterised by energy that is imported, expensive, environmentally unsustainable and dependent on fossil fuels and wood fuels.

And yet it suffers from some of the worst impacts of climate change. This is the injustice of the climate crisis.

But the good news is that Africa doesn’t want to join the league of polluters. In fact the world’s most energy-poor continent is now making a major contribution not just to the global goal to cut climate pollution, but also towards its own goal of meeting its own energy needs.

Africa, thankfully, is not locked to dirty energy infrastructure that has laid waste to many other parts of the world. Ours is not a continent held hostage to fossil fuels.

Rather, it is blessed with incredible opportunities for renewable energy – whether it’s solar, wind, small-scale hydropower, geothermal or biomass energy.
In fact, the president of the African Development Banksuggested recently said that Africa has the potential to deploy 11 terawatts of solar energy, 350 gigawatts of hydro, 110 gigawatts of wind and 15 gigawatts of geothermal.

That’s why Africa has a very real chance to lead the world in realising these easily available and under-utilised natural resources, allowing it to pursue a low-carbon trajectory and deliver a green future for its energy-poor people.

As former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo wrote yesterday, “A great opportunity lies in reach for Africa’s leaders at the Paris climate conference… it (the summit) provides a powerful springboard for African countries to capitalise on the opportunities at hand.”

Indeed, rather than sitting on their heels discussing moral arguments, African governments are already leading by example and setting big goals within a timeframe that can help deliver the level of ambition we so desperately need at COP21. This is Africa’s “new climate diplomacy” — a concrete and solutions-oriented approach towards solving real world problems.

I and my colleagues at the international development agency Christian Aid believe that one of the core elements Paris must deliver is a clear, collective, long-term mitigation commitment – one that builds on the globally agreed target to limit average global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, giving a shared direction of low-carbon living by the middle of this century.

But Africa is not waiting for 2020, when the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) towards the agreed goal will be implemented. It’s ready to act now, in the pre-2020 period. By coming forward with a contribution that is additional to its collective INDCS, it demonstrates leadership that many feel is lacking in the climate negotiations.

Now, what we need from world leaders is a willingness to get behind Africa’s low-carbon revolution. The African Union, an alliance of 54 countries, plans to mobilise $20 billion for its renewable initiative. However, it anticipates that part of this programme will include the $100 billion that rich nations have pledged in order to help mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts in developing countries.

Let’s be clear: climate finance is the elephant in the room at these talks. But finance and technological support for poor countries’ development paths is what it will take for Paris to be a genuine success, one that will truly address climate change and set the world on the road to renewable energy.

Perhaps yesterday’s announcement will change the public perception of Africans – no longer seen as coming cap in hand, reliant upon the global north for support, but as the pioneers of the green revolution. I, for one, am delighted that we’re setting the pace in Paris.

As COP21 continues I’ll be watching that the promises are delivered, especially for the hundreds of millions of energy poor Africans back home.

Mohamed Adow grew up in Kenya and is now Christian Aid’s senior climate change advisor.