A Just Energy Transition for Africa
Energy poverty is one of the major challenges holding back Africa’s transformation agenda, as clearly articulated in the African Union’s Agenda 2063. About 70% of the African population is not connected to the electricity grid, yet the AU 2063 agenda emphasises that energy is the backbone of economic transformation. Lack of clean, affordable energy is thus a critical challenge in Africa, and one that has recently started getting the publicity that it deserves.
How clean energy in Africa is financed is another important component key to making the energy envisioned energy transformation in Africa just. Countries will be meeting in Paris at the end of this year, 2015, to agree on a new Global Climate Agreement. As part o this process, more than 150 countries have put forward national pledges of how they plan to undertake actions to combat climate change. African countries have also put forward their pledges; an analysis of these pledges by the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) indicates that most African countries have identified and even developed plans to cut emissions from energy usage. These countries have also noted that they would need financial and technological support to implement these plans. This thus presents an important opportunity to target and attract investments on clean energy, as opposed to carbon-intensive, fossil fuels.
A number of high-level initiatives have been launched, all with the aim of addressing and ending energy poverty in Africa. The UN Secretary General launched the high-profile Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative in 2011, with the major objective of achieving universal energy access by 2030. This initiative resonated strongly with African countries, with 42 of these countries joining the initiative. A group of leading economists has also proposed a Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change, which outlines a 10 year programme where countries joining the programme would contribute 0.02% of their GDP annually to the research, development and deployment of clean energy.
The focus is on clean and sustainable energy in Africa, which is an important aspect. The Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) is an initiative funded by multiple donors with the aim of scaling up access of clean energy at the small and medium scales.. Furthermore, a landmark report released earlier this year by the African Progress Panel (APP) made a compelling case for sustainable energy transformation in Africa.
These initiatives emphasise: sustainable energy which has an underlying social justice agenda as fossil fuel-based energy is coming under increasing scrutiny at the global level due to their contribution to climate change. The G7 earlier in the year called for significant cuts in fossil fuel usage and decarbonisation of the global economy by the year 2100. Leading investment firms shave also identified investments in coal as risky, leading some to term coal as ‘stranded assets’, which means that exploiting coal has become economically unviable in some places already. These trends should be instructive to Africa, where numerous coal and oil deposits are being discovered, that investments in such forms of energy may not be economically viable in the near future, thus going against the grain of the envisioned sustainable energy transformation.
The good news is that there is an economic case for African countries to skip carbon-intensive energy systems and transition to low carbon, clean technologies. Africa has experienced such a transition before in the telephony industry, where these countries skipped over landlines to mobile phones, which have been transformative in many ways.The remarkable transition of African countries to the mobile technology era, by skipping the landline phase, has been used as an analogy to make the case for why African countries should skip the carbon-intensive energy infrastructure and transition to a clean, sustainable energy. This case has been clearly articulated in many platforms, but one aspect that has always been left out is the ‘justice’ aspect of it.
Another important element of ‘justice’ in Africa’s transition to clean energy is how the implementation of these projects impact people, especially the most vulnerable. For instance, Africa’s energy transition should not lead to other problems, such as forced displacement of people to facilitate the construction of mega dams, an issue that has been of great controversy. Whatever clean energy projects that are planned for implementation in Africa, they should ensure that they do not have such negative side effects.
In order for the clean energy transformation in Africa to be just, it should also be accessible and affordable. Currently, access to energy in Africa is very costly; the average power tariff in African countries is US$ 0.13 per kilowatt-hour, while in most developing countries in other parts of the world, the cost is between US$ 0.04 to US$ 0.08 per kilowatt-hour. Therefore, affordability should be at the core of all energy transformation projects in Africa.
The narrative on Africa’s energy transformation has been dominated by anecdotes of how clean energy is transforming local households, especially in rural areas. The main focus is on how clean energy cook stoves are curbing health hazards of indoor pollution and also transforming households. This is an important development, but only one side of the narrative. What should be given equal importance is the need to develop clean energy systems at the industrial level in African countries. There has been growing momentum on the potential of mini-grids, such as in the G20 Energy Access Action Plan for Africa. However, this should not just be limited to connecting a few households. The need for industrial-level scale of this transformation should be given much more prominence.
Finally, developing and implementing a just energy transformation in Africa requires multi-stakeholder engagement. The private sector is a major player in mobilising investments in clean, renewable energy. Governments have the important responsibility to ensure that they have enabling policies in place to fast track this transformation. These have received ample attention, but think tanks and research institutions also have an important role to play, although they have not received much prominence in this. Think tanks and research institutions should undertake research on how to best design and implement renewable energy programmes and projects through appropriate research and even piloting of projects. For instance, ACTS played an integral role on how to best implement low-carbon technologies by understanding any impeding challenges and also engaging the target communities in designing such projects and programmes. For instance, the Innovation and Renewable Electrification in Kenya (IREK) project is a poignant example of how cutting edge research can support successful implementation of transformational clean and renewable energies.
In sum, Africa’s sustainable energy transformation will only be successful if it is underpinned by justice