To China or to Europe: Just energy transition in Africa


The act of balancing a nation’s interest with the urgency of growing globalised predicaments that call for, perhaps, even greater attention must be a headache for politicians – whose incumbency literally hangs on the amount of money-trees growing in the pockets of electorates.

While the pendulum of this conversation tends to swing toward the Global South, Africa-ward, the EU too is learning that good intentions may not always be enough. Even when there is unanimity in forwarding sustainable energy transition, the devil lies in the details.

The recent leaked draft hoping to qualify natural gas and nuclear power as green fuels has left Germany and France political and economic allies in a quagmire: the former is relinquishing its nuclear power and the latter is doubling its investments. You will not find more evangelical proponents of sustainable energy, and yet on nuclear power they are in disagreement.

Although all 54 countries in Africa have signed the Paris Agreement (and more than 60 percent have ratified it), they perhaps have the greatest balancing act to do. In June 2020, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicted that the COVID-19 crisis would threaten the jobs of 20 million Africans. By May 2021, according to the African Economic Outlook report published by AfDB, the WEF had missed the mark by 10 million.

The facts of the COVID-19 crisis – Africa’s worst recession in the last 50 years and its accompanying economic instability that is evidently fuelling political turmoil – may make it difficult for Angola, Namibia, Ghana, South Africa, Gabon, La Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Gambia who all made new or additional oil and gas discoveries in 2021 to accept nature’s gift as a curse.

Cumulatively, the 123 billion barrels of fossil fuel Africa discovered in 2021 could be worth trillions of dollars that wipe the tears of the 60 percent of African youth who are presently unemployed. And why should African nations not exploit this opportunity?

According to Statistica in 2020, during the pandemic when economic activity had reduced the EU’s emissions were still more than triple that of Africa’s. At COP26, African leaders were disappointed in the EU’s outlook – including contributing to blocking the loss and damage facility in the concluding climate pact. This does not bode well for collaboration.

However, climate change is real and global warming is not selective along country flags or political blocs. We all are in this together, developed or least-developed countries alike; but regrettably, poorer economies – which includes more than half of Africa’s states – will suffer more. An energy transition for Africa is urgent, and thankfully it is no longer only about climate change. It is also imperative because it makes economic sense.

The World Energy Outlook 2022 published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported solar as the cheapest source of power in history, and renewables as the cheapest energy source. The missing and only reasonable incentive for African leaders to look past fossil fuel is the investment needed to fund this energy transition, on Africa’s own terms.

The submissions made by the African Group of Negotiators (AGN) on Climate Change at COP26 were heavily focused on adaptation. Mitigation and adaptation are two rivers flowing into the same ocean. An investment in adaptation is security for the river that passes through every village and is gradually being damaged. Without it, access to potable water is far. Mitigation (emissions reduction) is the border river to the next town. No matter how important it is, in the view of many African leaders, should their citizens die of thirst, it will be of no use. A renewed partnership between Africa and Europe starts with listening to Africa.

Africa is barely crawling out of a recession at the risk of destructive political instability and is desperate for allies, even ruthless allies. An exemplar of such desperation is Mali’s newfound ‘friendship’ with the Kremlin. The influence of the East is growing – with China leading the way in strategic financing through the Belt and Road Initiative and influencing African thought-leadership through Confucius Institutes sprawling across African universities.

Africa still remains the world’s youngest population and the most resource-rich continent. With implementation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and launch of the Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS), the light at the end of Africa’s economic tunnel continues to glow forward. It would be sad if the seeds sown by Europe were to be harvested by China.

The history of African and European partnerships is at a very crucial juncture, with the quagmire of how to navigate energy transitions equally faced by both blocs. This is urgent not only because of the global climate situation, but also because of China’s increasing influence. Europe must be up to task in solidifying their position as Africa’s partner of choice.

>>>The writer is a serial entrepreneur and consultant based in Accra. He works at the intersection of sustainability, education and finance. He is the founder of Ghana for Startups, a community-driven initiative for young entrepreneurs and the host of the Change Africa Podcast. He can be reached on either 0207547604 or [email protected]

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