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A Just Energy Transition for Africa: By Africans, For Africans

“An energy transition is ‘just’ if it is affordable, meaning that it is within relatively easy reach of the end-users, and available, meaning that the supply of energy is adequate and reliable to meet the demand of end-users” – Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP African Regional Director

Introduction

Just Energy Transition, according to the United Nations, is defined as a transition towards sustainable sources of energy in a manner that no one is ‘left behind or pushed behind’. The concept of Just Energy Transition originated from the defense of workers who are at risk of losing their jobs due to the adoption of renewable energy sources and environmental regulations thereof which later expanded to capture the interests of affected communities and other stakeholders. In the African context, the topic has gained traction due to its crucial priority for its development. Some critics across the continent have raised concerns particularly regarding potential neocolonial tendencies and unequal responsibility burdens.

(Read more: https://www.tni.org/en/article/the-energy-transition-in-north-africa )

Some critical concerns remain – with about 17% of the world’s population, Africa tends to bear the brunt of climate change the most due to low adaptive capacity, high exposure, and high sensitivity. Statistics according to the Global Carbon Budget (2023) shows that Africa contributes just about 4% of Global Carbon Emissions – the lowest across all continents. To put that into context, the average American or Australian emits as much CO2 in a month as an African does in a year.

The Challenge of Balancing Development and Sustainability

Access to energy is defined in a variety of ways, but most definitions involve having consistent and affordable access to cooking facilities as well as electricity that can be ramped up over time. Every nation’s ability to thrive economically depends on its ability to obtain a consistent and high-quality energy source (IEA, 2024). It fosters industrialization, increases productivity and economic growth, promotes human development, and is essential for achieving nearly all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The World Bank estimates that 733 million people worldwide, i.e., 9.1% of the global population, do not have access to electricity – sub-Saharan Africa alone, constitutes 600 million. A further hundreds of millions merely have patchy or inconsistent access to energy. According to the African Development Bank, over 640 million Africans lack access to energy, resulting in an electricity access rate of little over 40%, the lowest in the world.

Africa’s limited access to modern energy is impeding its capacity to achieve its development objectives and increase its resilience to climate change, according to the African Development Bank.

Bright smiles and bright futures: Young Africans excited about solar lighting solutions
(Source: borgenproject.org)

Is Africa Being Greenwashed?

Greenwashing is a deceptive tactic used by powerful organizations and companies. They try to appear eco-conscious by exaggerating their environmental efforts or spending more on marketing their “green” image than on actual sustainable practices. This is a way to mask their harmful impact on the environment.

Greenwashing isn’t just for companies – countries can do it too. They might tout a policy as “green” while ignoring its hidden environmental costs, like the pollution created by making solar panels for a “clean energy” initiative. Hiding or downplaying these downsides is another form of greenwashing.

To tackle the issue of greenwashing, the European Union, North America, and the 13 ASEAN member states, have developed classification systems for sustainable financial practices. Interestingly, the African continent lags behind in terms of developing policies that address greenwashing or meet Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) standards.

Dr. Eziakonwa, Regional Director for Africa at UNDP, emphasizes that a successful transition must prioritize affordability and availability. In her words, energy must be ‘within relatively easy reach of the end-users’ and the supply must be ‘adequate and reliable’ to meet their needs.

The African continent seems to be in a dilemma. The major threat that climate change poses to the food, water, and livelihoods of millions of people on the continent must be addressed by policymakers. The necessity of development and economic expansion, on the one hand, and the detrimental impacts that these climate change effects have on peace and security, on the other.

Expert Opinions: Voices for a Just Energy Transition in Africa

The lack of clear standards for sustainable financial practices in Africa makes achieving a just energy transition more difficult. Experts like Dr. Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), emphasize this point: “A just energy transition in Africa must leave no one behind. It must ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy services for all Africans.”

Initiatives like the Just Energy Transition Africa (JETA) initiative further highlight the need for African ownership. JETA, a non-profit project, supports African communities and organizations in advocating for a clean energy future. This emphasis on African leadership is crucial, as some argue against relying solely on developed nations for financial support.

While developed nations have a historical responsibility for climate change and should contribute financially, a purely top-down approach can be counterproductive. The African Development Bank (AfDB) emphasizes the importance of African ownership: “Just energy transitions demand that energy systems in Africa are designed to be technologically adequate, cost optimal, and economically viable.”

Finding a common ground is key. Developed nations can offer financial assistance and technological expertise, but the solutions need to be designed and implemented by Africans themselves. This ensures the transition aligns with the continent’s specific needs and development goals.

Recommendations from a Young African Engineer

Having participated in numerous conferences and summits on Africa’s energy future, here are my key recommendations as a young African for achieving a Just Energy Transition on the continent:

1. There should be more focus on local manufacture – the development of renewable energy sources like solar and wind should be prioritized, but with a critical twist – invest in local manufacturing capabilities. This would ensure the creation of more jobs, foster technological expertise, and reduce dependence on external suppliers.

2. Ensure equitable access to clean energy by implementing targeted subsidies for low-income households and rural communities. This bridges the affordability gap and ensures everyone benefits from the transition. This might involve innovative financing models like microgrids or pay-as-you-go schemes as already done in some African countries.

3. While reducing emissions is crucial, Africa also needs to adapt to the present impacts of climate change due to its poor adaptive capacity. Invest in climate-smart infrastructure that can withstand extreme weather events like droughts and floods.

4. Young African engineers and innovators are brimming with ideas for clean energy solutions. Support them through training programs, incubators, and access to capital. Their ingenuity will be a driving force in Africa’s energy future.

Conclusion

Africa faces a unique challenge – achieving energy access for millions while transitioning to clean energy sources. This article explored the concept of a Just Energy Transition, one that prioritizes affordability, sustainability, and African ownership.

Initiatives like JETA demonstrate the crucial role African leadership plays in shaping this future. While collaboration with developed nations is important, a top-down approach won’t work.  The African Development Bank emphasizes the need for “technologically adequate” and “economically viable” solutions designed by Africans themselves.

The path forward is clear – prioritize renewable energy with a focus on local manufacturing and job creation. Ensure equitable access for all through targeted subsidies and innovative financing models.  Investment in climate-smart infrastructure to address the immediate impacts of climate change.  Finally, empower young African innovators – their ideas will be the engine of Africa’s clean energy future.

By embracing a Just Energy Transition, Africa can leapfrog outdated models and emerge as a global leader in clean energy solutions. This will not only ensure a sustainable future for its citizens but also set a powerful example for the world. The sun is shining brightly on Africa’s energy potential, and with the right approach, the continent can illuminate the path towards a cleaner, more equitable future.

References

  1. African Development Bank, Africa’s Macroeconomic Performance and Outlook – January 2024
  2. United Nations Committee for Development Policy Excerpt, 2023
  3. UNDP, Tokyo International Conference on African Development, 2023
  4. How much does Africa contribute to global carbon emissions? Aljazeera, 2023
  5. African Development Bank, Light Up and Power Africa – A New Deal on Energy for Africa, 2023

Author: Rashid Latif Bukari

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