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Rich countries getting Africa hooked on dirty energy must clean up their act

by Mohamed Adow | @mohadow | Christian Aid International
Tuesday, 24 July 2018 10:10 GMT

Electricity pylons are seen along the cooling tower of the defunct Orlando Power Station in Soweto, South Africa, June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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

Africa’s billion people have a chance to show the world that the link between development and dirty energy can be broken

The growth of renewable energy in the rich world is one of the good news stories in the battle to tackle climate change. As wind and solar power has dropped in price it’s being delivered in greater quantities across developing countries.  This growth is still not fast enough and needs to accelerate but it shows that these countries can see the benefit of having clean, ever cheaper, renewable energy at their disposal.

However, a new study out this week exposes how while rich countries are keen to reap the benefits of clean energy at home they don’t want to extend them to Africa, the continent in most need of new energy and blessed with vast renewable potential.

The report from Oil Change International has revealed the shocking truth that 60% of the energy investment from rich countries to Africa between 2014 and 2016 was spent on fossil fuels.   These donor countries claim they want to see Africa thrive and prosper yet they choose to invest their money in carbon-based fuels. These drive climate change which has a disproportionately damaging effect on Africa and act like economic development in reverse.  These rich countries have aid budgets which promote development in Africa with one hand while fuelling climate change with the other, cancelling out any development gains.

Not only is the majority of African energy investment in fossil fuels, less than 2% of the total supported ‘distributed’ renewable energy such as off-grid solar and mini-grids that have been shown to have the biggest potential to bring energy to those in remote parts of Africa that need it most.  This strategy will leave almost three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africans in the dark with no electricity.

China’s investment in Africa is well known but this report shows that when it comes to helping build Africa’s energy infrastructure it is entrenching old, dirty, energy systems which will hold the continent back while the rest of the world – including China – adopts clean, cheap, technologies of the future.  China is rapidly replacing its polluting fossil fuel plants with renewables to prevent its cities from being overcome by air pollution but it’s happy to dump its dirty energy on Africa.  If renewables are good enough for the Chinese population then they’re good enough for Africa – especially as Africa has such an abundance of renewable energy resources. 

One almost wonders whether this African fossil fuel push is a way for richer countries to create a market for dirty fossil fuel reserves that they don’t want to burn at home?

Getting Africa hooked on fossil fuels when better alternatives are available is like a drug dealer making sure he doesn’t get hooked on his own supply while eagerly turning the next generation into addicts.  

The Oil Change International report shows that this dearth of renewables investment is not for lack of opportunity. Japan, not known as a green leader, is able to fund more clean energy in Africa than the combined investments of Germany, France, Italy, South Korea, China and the USA.  The EU and China like to burnish their climate credentials on the global stage and yet in Africa they have a dirty secret. Maybe they should have a word with their Japanese colleagues about where to find these clean energy projects.

The other interesting finding is that only three countries hoover up more than half of the public energy investment in Africa: Angola, Egypt and South Africa. This imbalance means the majority of Africa is missing out. Those countries, three of the richest in Africa, are not where energy poverty is most severe. Rather than pouring dirty energy money into Africa’s richer countries, donors need to switch to a more distributed approach and target the continents widespread renewable energy potential.

Africa is a continent with a youthful and growing population. For it to catch up in the global development race it needs to learn from the mistakes of the rest of the world and leapfrog the polluting energy that powered the industrial revolution.  If Africa does take that path then not only will it spend years locked into an expensive and out of date energy system, global efforts to stem the tide of climate change will be lost.   Africa’s billion people have a chance to show the world that the link between development and dirty energy can be broken.  But it’s vital that rich countries stop funnelling its wealth into short sighted fossil fuel projects and instead put Africa – and the world – on a cleaner and brighter path.

Mohamed Adow is International Climate Lead at Christian Aid