TO CHINA OR EUROPE: JUST ENERGY TRANSITION IN AFRICA

This article is of one a two-part series published in the Business and Financial Times newspaper as a contribution to the conversations at the Africa-Europe Week 2022

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 hangs on the number of money trees growing in the pockets of electorates. While the pendulum of this conversation tends to swing towards 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 recently leaked draft hoping to qualify natural gas and nuclear power as green fuels has left Germany and France, political and economic allies, in a tangle; the former is relinquishing its atomic arms, and the latter is doubling its investments. You would not find more evangelical proponents of sustainable energy yet, on nuclear power, they are in disagreement.

Although all 54 countries in Africa have signed the Paris Agreement (and have all ratified it), they perhaps have the most extraordinary 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. It is no surprise that Covid-19 kicked off Africa’s worst recession in the last 50 years. The economic instability and political turmoil fueled by the pandemic present a difficult challenge for countries like Angola, Namibia, Ghana, South Africa, Gabon, La Cote D’Ivoire, Egypt, Zimbabwe and Gambia. They all made new or additional oil and gas discoveries in 2021 and must decide whether to accept “nature’s gift” or ignore it. 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% 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 emission was still more than triple 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 history of resistance 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 include more than half of African countries, would suffer more. An energy transition for Africa is urgent; thankfully, it is no longer 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 most affordable 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 terms.

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 African Group of Negotiators(AGN) submissions on Climate Change at COP26 heavily focused on its recommendations on adaptation. Mitigation and adaptation are two rivers flowing into the same ocean. Investing in adaptation is security for the depleting river that passes through every village. 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 would 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. Mali’s newfound “friendship” with the Kremlin exemplifies such desperation. 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 remains the world’s youngest population and the most resource-rich continent. With the implementation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) and the launch Pan-African Payment and Settlement System (PAPSS), the light at the end of Africa’s economic tunnel continues to glow. It would be saddening if the seeds were sown by Europe and harvested by China.

The history of African and European partnerships is at a shaky interlude, with the dilemma of navigating energy transitions faced by both blocs. And as the global climate situation worsens, so does China’s influence. So more than ever, Europe must be up to solidifying its position as Africa’s partner of choice.

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