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A man walks past electricity pylons in Soweto, South Africa, March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Africa in Focus

Addressing Africa’s dual challenges: Climate change and electricity access

Editor's Note:

Below is a viewpoint from the Foresight Africa 2022 report, which explores top priorities for the region in the coming year. Read the full chapter on climate change.

Brookings Africa Growth Initiative Foresight Africa 2022As leaders agreed late last year at the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, if the world fails to come together to mitigate the impending impacts of climate change, Africa will grapple with drought, rising sea levels, potential conflicts over water access, and increasingly frequent severe weather events, among other possible natural disasters.

The global response to climate change must incorporate the historic emissions context. As has been widely noted, China, Europe, and the United States bear the most responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. Prioritizing the transition to renewables and imposing higher emission reduction requirements on the EU, U.S., and China will ease the burden on those nations that still need a variety of power generation methods to increase energy access.

Not only does Africa bear the least responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions, but the forests of the Congo Basin (second only to the Amazon) are vital to absorbing the CO2 emitted from other continents. Keeping the lungs of the world intact must be more valuable than cutting them down. Maintaining these natural resources is essential to combatting global climate change and requires external support to properly value and incentivize their preservation.

Another big challenge is the lack of access to electricity. Today nearly 600 million of the 1.2 billion Africans lack access to electric power. In sub-Saharan Africa, 12 million new people enter the workforce every year. Our prosperity and peace are incumbent on powering our economic development and creating enough gainful employment opportunities for our growing population. That is not something that can be done in the dark. Without achieving universal access to electricity, we will be vulnerable to underdevelopment, high unemployment, a migration crisis, and instability. Given the close interplay of these challenges as well as their threat to the overall region, we must find a way to solve both if our continent is to realize a peaceful and prosperous future.

To narrow the energy access gap as quickly as possible, Africa must employ a variety of power sources already utilized by the U.S., EU, and China while simultaneously phasing out coal. Such a shift requires mobilizing development financing to support natural gas, hydro, and geothermal projects, as well as wind and solar energy.

Importantly, the double standard for those nations in the Global North with universal energy access was on full display at COP 26. For example, EU climate chief Frans Timmermans said, “[The European Union] will have to also invest in natural gas infrastructure. As long as we do it with an eye of only doing this for a period, then I think this is a justified investment.” The EU and U.S., who control significant voting stakes in the largest international financial institutions (IFIs), then led a pledge by 20 countries to stop financing gas projects abroad. Without support from IFIs, African nations will be unable to build and maintain the infrastructure required to utilize our natural gas. This sharp contrast in words and actions sends the message that natural gas is considered a bridge to renewables in the Global North—where access to electricity is secure—while natural gas is an unnecessary luxury to Africans who still do not have access to reliable electricity.

Our prosperity and peace are incumbent on powering our economic development and creating enough gainful employment opportunities for our growing population. That is not something that can be done in the dark.

Finally, African nations must capitalize on the green economic revolution. The global transition to renewable energy will mean exponentially scaling up the production of batteries, electric vehicles, and other renewable energy systems, which depend on Africa’s natural resources. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo accounts for 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, the mineral vital to battery production. With the demand for cobalt expected to at least double by 2030, it is unfathomable that the miners, who provide the world with the material essential to the energy transition, return to homes without electricity. We need to leverage our control over such markets to elevate working conditions, move beyond raw material exports toward manufacturing and processing capacity, and capture greater portions of green energy supply chains. We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of past economic revolutions.

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