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Historical emitters must back Africa's shift to renewables

By Mohamed Adow - May 20th 2022

Smart electric car charging at a power station. [Courtesy]

Africa’s future is in renewables because clean energy is the only way out of its climate, energy, and development crisis.

The climate emergency we are living in demands that we rethink the relationship between energy and development. Ending fossil fuel production is now more urgent than ever. As we experience more catastrophic climate impacts, a just transition to renewable energy is crucial. Given its great potential for wind and solar energy, Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog the dirty energy path taken by richer nations, leave all fossil fuels in the ground, and jump to the clean energy of the future.

Africans experience a double curse from the fossil fuel industry. First, our communities on the frontline of extraction suffer social and health impacts, face displacement, and lose lives and livelihoods. Then our people suffer again from the droughts, floods and storms which climate change intensifies.

Investments should instead be focused on renewable energy. Access to affordable and reliable renewable energy will help Africa respond to the climate crisis, powering Africa’s development and bringing power to remote areas that fossil pipelines cannot reach. It will modernise agriculture, support expansion of industry and help communities build resilience against climate change impacts.

To ensure success in the fight against climate change, the world must consider that not every country has the resources to immediately shift to renewables. Wealthy countries, who are the biggest polluters, should act first. They have both the moral imperative and financial means to do so. African countries, that have contributed the least to the climate crisis, have less ability to immediately move to renewables and thus will need financial support to do so.

A report by the Tyndall Centre looking at phase out pathways for fossil fuel production, shows wealthy states must exit this fossil-fuelled development route by 2034. According to the study, developing countries, which have the least capacity to shift, have a bit longer but must still phase out fossil fuels by 2050.

However, African countries will not be able to achieve the much-needed energy transition on their own. And nor should they. The world’s developed economies and major emitters must support Africa to leapfrog the dirty, frightening carbon-intensive pathway. Historic emitters owe Africa a climate debt and should deliver to Africa structural and financial reparations, including climate finance and debt cancellation. These polluters must also pay for ecological restoration, phase out fossil fuels in their own homes, end extractivism abroad, and urgently shift to decarbonised modes of production, distribution, and consumption.

Currently, Africa shoulders the burden of expensive borrowing costs because of its climate vulnerability. The continent relies on loans to finance adaptation and fund reconstruction and recovery after extreme climate events as climate finance pledges from richer nations go unfulfilled. This is deeply unfair and will hold back Africa’s development. It must be rectified.

But history has shown that financial support Africa needs is not likely to come easy. Historical emitters promised to deliver $100 billion in climate finance per year by 2020. Not only is this promise itself far short of the true need for Africa’s transition, but they failed miserably at delivering this promise. When finance comes in drips and drabs, it is usually on the terms of the donor country and not designed by the Africans it will affect the most.

The case for climate reparations is clear, but Africans cannot afford to sit and wait for the West to grow a conscience. We need to mobilise our own civic spaces and governments behind 100 per cent renewable energy development pathways. We need to put forward the bankable plans for our own countries’ transitions.

We need to dictate the instruments, terms, and criteria upon which we are willing to accept international investment. We need to flip the narrative from an Africa that asks for help to an Africa that takes the lead, and allows others to join us on the journey. This home-grown approach is the only hope to mobilise international finance that truly works for Africa.

The climate crisis has already caused damage to Africa. These African countries, which have suffered the worst impacts of a crisis they did not cause, need and deserve restoration funds. If we are able to drive these country-led plans for transition, and mobilise the international finance we truly deserve, Africa can move from a dark continent where millions of children suffer or die each year from air pollution due to lack of clean cooking alternatives to a continent powered by renewable energy that will help save the planet.

Africa has been held back by colonialism, extractivism, and climate change among other injustices. But it’s future can be a bright one if it is given the finance needed to address its immediate climate needs and equip it with wind and solar infrastructure to harness its huge renewable energy potential. But this finance will only arrive if we take the lead in defining our own future on our terms, and invite others to come along.

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