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New clean energy push could kill off Kenyan oil and coal dreams

By Macharia Kamau | February 18th 2020

The African Union last week received a somewhat strange petition.

Several lobbies from Kenya and the region wanted the regional body to look into ways to immediately stop the use of coal while exploring how to phase out the use of oil and gas over the next three decades.

What is strange about the lobbies’ request is that on the face of it, it would appear out of touch with reality in Africa considering that numerous countries across the continent are heavily dependent on these fossil fuels to power their economies.

Others, including Kenya, are angling to start earning what could translate to billions of shillings from the sale of oil and coal. The lobbies in their petition urged AU to adopt strategies that should over time see the reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

The civil society organisations noted that the region is endowed with resources such as wind, solar and geothermal, which would make it possible to easily transit from use of “dirty” fuels to clean energy, especially in power generation.

This is against what has become a popular, even populist move among developed countries, to ditch coal as an electricity generation source while exploring alternatives to power vehicles and industries.

Major development finance institutions are also cutting funding to the oil, coal and gas sectors.

“All coal must end immediately and all other fossil fuels phased out by 2050,” said Alvin Munyasia, from Oxfam International when the groups presented their petition to AU.

“Any such fossil fuels should only be in the short-term if there are no viable clean alternatives and must be part of eventual phase-outs to low carbon energy. No new coal power plants should be built anywhere.”

Mohamed Adow, director of climate and energy think tank Power Shift Africa, noted that countries buying into coal or heavily investing in other fossil fuels could in the coming years find themselves with obsolete technologies in a few years.

“African countries investing in fossil fuels risk creating stranded assets and an unmanaged and disorderly transition from fossil fuels. We can either intentionally develop new ways to meet our energy needs without increasing our emissions or altogether lose the window of opportunity to ensure a safe climate and a sustainable future,” he said.

Such arguments are, however, unlikely to find an eager audience among many African countries, with a number of economies heavily dependent on coal, oil and gas to both fire their economies as well as earn them foreign exchange.

Kenya and Uganda are in the early stages of developing their oil industries, while Tanzania is looking banking on new natural gas finds to boost its economy.

Leaders from across the region have said they would press on with commercialising fossil fuels. “We cannot expect African nations, which together emitted seven times less carbon dioxide than China last year and four times less than the US… to undermine their best opportunities for economic development by simply aligning with the Western view of how to tackle carbon emissions,” said NJ Ayuk, the chairman Africa Energy Chamber, in an analysis on why African countries should continue exploiting coal, oil and gas. The lobby has in the past noted that while it does not deny the impacts and severity of climate change, the region still has major gaps and that it also needs time to transition from fossil fuels.  

It adds that the Western countries pushing the green agenda and campaigning for the abandonment of fossil fuels developed on the back of the “dirty” fuels that they are castigating. It insisted that Africa should be left to benefit from its natural resources.

“Our natural resources are important for our development. We cannot ignore what the continent needs in the interest of supporting global trends when our economies remain underdeveloped,” said the lobby, which draws membership from companies, local and multinationals, operating in Africa.

“Our hydrocarbon potential is vast and Africa is home to a number of emerging economies who are steadfast on taking their rightful place in the global energy sector; our time to industrialise is now.” 

A Bloomberg NEF report notes that the country is among the largest investor destinations.

Kenya accounted for a third of all 2018 foreign inflows in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), which amount to $1.4 billion (Sh140 billion) of investments in renewables.  

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