The sad thing about the Russia-Ukraine war is that the 1.5 ºC-aligned energy transition looks set to be interrupted once again.
We are here today with this troubling predicament of having done little to tackle climate change during the latest oil crisis because Europe’s new gas demand is taking us back in time.
While high-income countries have been lecturing poorer countries, especially those in Africa, about the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, the Ukraine war is proving to be an embarrassing conundrum for the Western high-income countries – with energy security trumping climate security.
Europe’s energy security and the coming winter season have lifted the brakes on European economic diplomacy – ambassadors at the level of the European Union (EU) and the capitals are being told to go on the hunt for new sources of gas, oil and coal. The shift from ‘no coal’ to ‘yes to gas’ is dominating the energy demand discourse.
And there was this curious article in the Guardian newspaper that was posted on August 1 and was titled ‘African nations expected to make case for big rise in fossil fuel output’. It should have read ‘African countries’ expansion of gas bolstered by EU gas dependence’. That would have been a more apt title.
This is a lot of finger-pointing in the wrong direction, if you were to ask anybody. First, the Guardian was mistaken in saying a case is being made by Africans when the case is in fact being made on behalf of African oil and gas producers. Second, the article had an element of false alarmism. The Guardian drew from incorrectly peddled assumptions – presumably from some Africa-based ventriloquist being egged along by anti-gas cheerleaders from Europe, who themselves are watching, gobsmacked, Europe’s own full-blown contradictions and hypocrisy concerning the gas question.
It is highly unlikely that the African Group of Negotiators would allow themselves to be pushed to take up an Africa Union (AU) position on gas at the Sharm el-Sheikh Climate Change Conference at the end of this year. It has been a nonissue from the start.
Those familiar with the AU processes and the climate negotiations will tell you that it is not easy to get collective positions adopted by a committee in the AU, let alone to have the status of a African position.
The Guardian’s piece did not appreciate another missed point. Conference of the Parties or no Conference of the Parties, African oil and gas producers will keep pushing the line that it’s Africa’s time to bust the carbon budget. They have become far more assertive following the Ukraine war and as a result of Europe’s own rush for new deals on the continent. Just read the Kigali Communique that was issued at the Sustainable Energy for All forum held in the Rwandan capital in May this year.
African oil- and gas-producing States will continue to argue that using fossil fuels is their right on account of two things: Africa’s emissions are low and Africa is still poor. Both are valid arguments, except that fossil fuel extraction over many years, driven by demand from advanced and emerging economies, is yet to deliver the promised economic transformation on the continent. There has been more leakage of wealth that is now sitting in tax havens than in the coffers of producer States that could be used to address development backlogs.
The number of people without affordable energy is staggering and this is an indictment on those saying gas will help improve access to energy. North Africa, however, has managed to attain substantial levels of electrification with subsidies to back access.
The Guardian’s piece perpetuates a long-standing debate about gas versus renewables. For the continent, the transition from gas to renewables cannot be mediated by a simplistic ‘no to one and yes to the other’ stance. Transitions are a messy process and there is no room for glib answers.
It is worth pointing out that fossil fuels are an input into advanced economies, an item high-income-country economies can pay for from the receipts of their diversified economic bases and exports, as well as the petrodollars that flow out of African coffers into the high-income countries’ financial centres. For oil and gas producers, fossil fuels are the output of their economies and the foreign revenues generated by exports of the fossil fuels helps to support the oil and gas producers’ largely undiversified economies. The less diversified they are, the less these exports leave a trace on the rest of the economic landscape.
This, in turn, imperils the ability to transition from fossil dependence.
The model of extractive piracy from dirty to critical minerals for clean energy should give us no illusion that they are mediated by angelic souls uncorrupted by the smell of the dollar. One just has to look at the effects of lithium mining in Chile on the country’s indigenous people and their land, water and livelihoods. And who are the key people? A connected elite that controls the lithium extraction and supply chain in Chile – all in the name of the green revolution.
Polarised positions and debates on gas versus renewables run the risk of looking at half the picture. Those arguing for no fossil dependence on the continent should be lobbying European diplomats and Parliaments for a better transition deal for Africa, while African activists should seek better governance and accountability regarding the exploitation of these resources.
If gas is to be needed by Europe, Europe should reciprocate with cheaper and fair finance access for Africa’s clean energy transition, including beneficiating its local minerals endowment. Some of these funds can be made available through Europe’s Global Gateway Initiative and the repurposing of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development – which should be leading the charge on European and African clean energy transitions.
Change will only happen if better deals are put on the table, backed by real support and operational capacity. Clean energy transitions are preconditioned on the need to transform the existing economic models in African oil and gas producer countries that must be rooted in a decarbonisation strategy.