Africa has sunshine all year round – with 7 of the 10 sunniest countries worldwide. The region has great potential for renewable energy, but requires international support to unlock it.
A funding deal announced at last year’s UN COP26 climate summit between South Africa and the United States, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union, if successfully implemented, could be a model for future support to Africa and other developing countries.
Most of the world’s least developed countries are in Africa, currently 33 of them, demonstrating the development challenge the region is facing. Africa is responsible for only 3.8% of global CO2 emissions. Most of its emissions are related to land, and half of its energy related emissions come from only a handful of countries. South Africa, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Nigeria produce 84% of the continent’s power sector CO2 emissions.
Meanwhile, the majority of Africans do not have access to electricity. Without energy it is almost impossible to attract investments.
The region has a major opportunity to build its economies directly on renewable energy systems, avoiding the fossil fuel phase. The first step is to mainstream climate change into low carbon economic development plans and to implement them through effective policies.
Our recent report outlines science-based national 1.5 degree Celsius compatible pathways for eight African countries, identifying key benchmarks, challenges and opportunities. For example, South Africa could increase the renewables share in its power generation from about 5% currently to 78-90% by 2030 and the COP27 host Egypt could phase out gas from its power generation by around 2040.
Critically, African countries should avoid investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure – a point underscored by the IEA in its report which states that there can be no new coal, oil, or gas projects if the world is to stay below 1.5oC of global warming. The reliance on fossil fuels by some African countries has not, for example, solved energy poverty nor significantly improved socio-economic conditions in the region.
Any new fossil fuel investment would pose risks for African economies: a lock-in of high emissions, stranded assets, and loss of competitiveness and jobs as the world moves away from fossil fuels. That would add more debt these countries cannot afford and continued poverty for many Africans.
Meanwhile, solar has now become the cheapest source of energy generation. This is good news for Africa, the region with some of the highest solar radiation levels globally. The costs of wind and solar energy have declined by over 72% and 90%, respectively, between 2009 and 2021.
Investing in renewable energy is not only good for the climate, it makes social and economic sense. Generating domestic energy from renewables can create more jobs than fossil fuels – a 0.2% increase globally in employment compared to a business as usual scenario.
Installing mini-grids in areas that are not well connected to the power grid network providing livelihoods and energy access for communities, thereby supporting local development.
The use of renewable energy sources also makes supply more reliable and leads to energy independence. This is particularly important for countries that rely on imports of fuel such as diesel, which is currently used to power generators to meet daily energy needs. Savings from fuel import expenditures could be channeled to areas like health and education.
Electrifying sectors such as transport would also bring immediate health benefits by reducing air pollution. For example, some African cities are very dependent on fossil-fuel-powered scooters. According to Lancet, air pollution caused 1.1 million deaths in Africa in 2019 alone.
For Africa, and other developing regions, the ability to build renewables-based, sustainable economies is very dependent on other countries’ support. The current climate finance infrastructure has not allowed Africa to secure the kind of funding it would need to unlock low carbon development.
There is a clear need for new, innovative funding mechanisms. While it is too soon to tell if the South Africa deal will have the expected impact, it is a good example of new ways of providing climate finance.
Investments in projects with significant potential socio-economic benefits would not only help African countries to increase access to energy, but also to develop their economies to be able to sustain themselves.
Solar and wind will need to provide the biggest share of global electricity demand in a 1.5C compatible world. Africa, as a developing region with abundant renewable energy resources, can become a leader in green energy and avoid locking in fossil fuel-based development path. With the right support, Africa can unlock its low carbon opportunities for a climate resilient future.
By Deborah Ramalope – head of climate policy analysis at Climate Analytics.