Climate Change and the Energy Transition in Africa
How should the continent respond?
by Peju Adebajo
We know the numbers. 1 in 4 people on this planet will be African by 2050. By then, the continent’s population is projected to double, growing at 2.6% per annum with 10 to 12 million people entering the workforce every year.
We also know that Africa has substantial economic and development challenges:
- 1 in 3 Africans lives below the poverty line
- GDP per capita in Africa ($1,970) is five times lower than the global average ($10,925)
- 65% of the population depend on subsistence farming for basic livelihood
- Africa bears 25% of the global burden of diseases
- Of the 860 million people globally who have no access to electricity, 600 million of them live in Africa
And we haven’t factored in climate change yet.
Africa and The Climate Change Paradox
We may not know the exact trajectory of the impact of climate change, but we know “there will be more hot days” and “sea levels will go up”. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, Africa — with its hot temperatures and wide zones of semi-arid and arid regions — will be the worst hit. The temperature rise will place huge burdens on agriculture and biodiversity and lead to more extreme events such as frequent and more severe droughts, erratic rainfall, heatwaves and flooding of coastal cities.
Africa faces a critical dilemma of having to drive economic growth and lift people out of poverty while remaining responsive to the demands of climate change.
Being less industrialised and developed, the continent is one of the most fragile and least resilient. But it is only responsible for 4% of global emissions, so why should Africans have to pay?
Unfortunately, climate change knows no borders.
Considering that the effects of climate change will fall disproportionately on developing countries and poor people — many of whom are farmers — Africa needs to think more in terms of adaptation, i.e. minimising the changes that are already here and preparing for those it knows are coming. The consequences of gender inequality could also be made worse, as women and girls often bear the brunt of the effects of resource shortages in the home and suffer gender-based violence.
Africa’s Clean Energy Options
Africa has vast unexploited clean energy sources comprising 10 terawatts of solar potential, 350 gigawatts of hydroelectric potential, 110 gigawatts of wind potential and an additional 15 gigawatts of geothermal potential. Here is a brief assessment of the sustainability of some of the sources:
Hydropower, while relatively inexpensive, has the challenge of being immobile. Because dams are built across rivers and rain-fed water bodies are seasonal, there are also periods of low supply. Furthermore, such reservoirs affect biodiversity and displace communities and wildlife.
Solar and Wind Power
Africa has huge potential to deploy solar power due to its geographical position, and to a lesser extent wind power. However, the sun and wind are intermittent, and do not generate power 24 hours a day or 365 days in the year, whereas our need for power is constant. Solving this requires storage in batteries or supplementation with other energy sources. Space to install solar panels is also needed, and conversion ratios (the amount of sunlight that gets converted into electricity) need to improve. The good news is that the cost of batteries and solar cells is rapidly decreasing, and innovation is moving at a rapid pace, so there is an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog the challenges and deploy solar power. Though it is probably the best option for off-grid and last-mile connections, especially where the requirement for power is low, solar power on its own may not be able to completely replace fossil fuel-generated power.
Another clean energy option not discussed enough is nuclear power. It is clean and efficient, but expensive to build, with long gestation periods. There are also security and waste disposal concerns, but I believe this option should be explored.
The Barriers to Overcome and the Opportunities at Hand
To exploit the full potential of renewables, African countries must develop and implement policies that can catalyse the growth of the sector. Some of the factors currently inhibiting growth include:
- Weak regulatory frameworks which make it difficult to attract investment
- Unclear and unstable policies which increase the risk of doing business
- Weak institutional capacity to manage and proactively plan for the future of energy
- Weak grid infrastructure, with frequent collapse, high loss rate and limited capacity to absorb off-grid generation
- Low awareness and education on renewables
- Low purchasing power and high upfront costs of decentralised solutions
- Import-dependent economies and continuous devaluation of currencies, which means end users may not benefit from decreasing global costs
Africa’s energy transition must recognise the need to increase energy access and grow generation capacity at affordable cost and reliability.
To surmount these obstacles, Africa must aspire to manufacture off-grid solar products locally. Countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia are making some progress. For instance, the 2020 Nigeria Economic and Sustainability Plan targets the electrification of 5 million households, 100% of local assemblies and 15% local manufacturing companies in 2022. Still, the government must continue to streamline policies and put in place appropriate import duty and fiscal regimes. There is a need to also replace traditional cooking fuels like wood and charcoal which are prevalent on the continent and have led to acute health damage and impaired productivity, especially among women and girls.
The International Energy Agency estimates that an annual investment of $28 billion up to 2030 is needed to bridge the energy gap in sub-Saharan Africa. With limited financial capabilities of many countries, financing gaps can only be bridged by institutional and private investments. This goes to show that while aiming for clean energy and net zero-emission, Africa’s energy transition must recognise the need to increase energy access and grow generation capacity at affordable cost and reliability, while meeting fast-growing demand.
In conclusion, Africa needs the support of the international community to achieve this energy transition. The continent contributes the least to global emissions, but may suffer the impact the most, destroying lives and livelihoods. Fortunately, the 2022 UN Climate Change Conference (COP 27) is expected to take place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt later this year. This is a vital opportunity that should not be missed by African countries to put forward burning issues and use their collective capacity to secure a better deal for the continent.
Africa needs more transparent and reliable climate funding, carbon markets that work, and climate adaptation and reparation to affected communities. This is the chance to make a case. Now is the time to push for bold climate actions. There is no more time to waste.
Peju Adebajo is a seasoned C-level Executive with experience across a number of industries in Africa and the UK including building materials, agriculture, renewables, bedding, food, consulting and banking.
She was the former CEO of Lumos, a solar homes systems company in Nigeria and is currently a Non-Executive Director at Ibstock plc, on the Advisory Board of Lagos Business School and the Renewable Energy Association of Nigeria. Peju is a member of The Room and contributes to other organisations including Women on Boards and The Boardroom Africa.
She won the 2015 CNBC Africa Businesswoman of the Year award, the 2013 Harvard Business School Nigeria Leadership award, and is on the Cranfield University’s 2021 ‘100 Women to Watch’ UK list and the LinkedIn 2021 UK Top 10 Green voices.