During the African Union conference last week, lobby groups from several countries, including Kenya, urged the regional body to look into ways of stopping the use of coal. They also asked the AU to explore ways of phasing out other fossil fuels like natural gas and oil over the next three decades.
To many, this petition is outrageous. This is because the bulk of Africa’s energy needs is derived from fossil fuels. Most homesteads are lit by paraffin lamps, vehicles are fuelled by petrol or diesel while cooking is done using paraffin or gas, if not firewood. Although coal is not widely used, coal-powered power plants are becoming increasingly popular.
In fact, Kenya plans to bolster its energy capacity through the proposed Lamu Coal Power Station. Considering that a big number of Kenyan households have no access to grid power, the project, with the potential to generate 1,050 MW, is a godsend.
Besides lighting up homes, the energy from the coal plant will be a shot in the arm for the economy as it will help spur the manufacturing sector. Needless to say, it might also push down the high cost of electricity.
All these would be positive developments, which the majority of Kenyans would be happy to see happening.
Against this backdrop, the plea by the lobbyists for African countries to cut down on fossil fuels sounds hollow -- the “usual activists’ noise”.
But that is not the case. While fossil fuels play a central role in our daily lives, there is a growing need to rethink their use. Countries, especially in the developed world, are cutting down on fossil fuels as they have a direct link to global warming.
Burning of coal, oil, and natural gas produces greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, which are responsible for global warming.
Therefore, while fossil fuels do make our lives better, they are responsible for making the same lives miserable by creating extreme weather events.
The recent devastating floods and mudslides witnessed in many parts of the country have been blamed on climate change. Recurrent droughts, too, have been linked to the same phenomenon.
The world, Africa included, must make a choice; whether to keep warming the world and therefore fuelling climate disasters, or reversing global warming by minimising use of fossil fuels.
While we cannot yet ditch diesel and petrol-fuelled vehicles and embrace electric vehicles as is increasingly happening in the Western world, Kenya can reduce its carbon footprint by strengthening investment in solar, wind, hydro and thermal power.
Luckily, the country is well endowed with these resources, and the government and private companies have been tapping into them.
Some argue that advanced countries rode on fossil fuels to grow their economies and so we must do the same to get to their level. This may be true. But we need to ask ourselves whether development that breeds destructive torrential rains, floods and droughts is worth the while.