Africa faces a complex choice: entirely eliminate fossil fuels and risk slowing down development, or alter the energy mix and maintain a balance between the environment and the economy.
DAKAR — As Africa strives to take control of its own destiny in the battle against climate change, a question often arises: Should Africa give up polluting energy sources to protect the environment?
In other words, must Africa forgo development — even though the continent is responsible for less than 5% of global pollution?
Access to energy and transitioning to cleaner energy sources is a critical global challenge in the 21st century — and even more so for the African continent. But what should the ideal energy transition roadmap look like for Africa?
What will Africa's energy transition look like?
If global climate change has accelerated in the past century, it is largely due to the impact of human activity. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have continuously released a significant amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere.
Our late realization of the medium- and long-term consequences for the planet led to the emergence in the 1970s of the idea of energy transition as a crucial tool to combat climate change.
Simply put, the term "energy transition" refers to the changes made to reduce the environmental impact of energy production, distribution, and consumption. These changes largely align with the global commitments made within the frameworks of the United Nations' 2030 Agenda or the African Union's 2063 Agenda, which aim to address ecological, climate, public health, energy cost, and economic growth issues.
A growing number of countries has codified these commitments in their domestic legislation, adopting laws on energy transition and new energy codes.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with Davies Chirchir, Minister of Energy in Kenya, and geophysicist Anna Mwangi, during a visit at Africa's largest geothermal plant in Olkaria on Lake Naivsha.
A depleted West
It's worth noting that the first fuel for the diesel engine, created in 1896 by German engineer Rudolph Diesel, was vegetable oil — but it was quickly replaced by petroleum.
From the dawn of industrialization, Western societies have organized their way of life primarily around energy that was affordable and accessible. This energy-intensive lifestyle spread quickly around the world, and continues to gain ground in developing countries.
The energy expansion couldn't have advanced so far without the discovery of fossil fuels. In its 2013 report, "Key World Energy Statistics," the International Energy Agency estimated that fossil fuels accounted for more than 80% of the world's primary energy production.
Energy crises and climate change have led to global awareness of the need for energy transition. In the late 19th century, economist Stanley Jevons predicted the eventual depletion of European coal reserves, and questioned the wisdom of relying on a finite resource. Then, in the late 1970s, conventional oil production peaked in the U.S., and the world economy was rocked by the oil crises of 1973 and 1979.
These crises made clear the vulnerability of industrial societies to energy shutdowns. Industrialized countries realized that energy security was necessary for their growth, a key part of their development model and their capitalist market economies.
In the event of an energy supply chain disruption, their existence would be threatened. Therefore, it became important to find fossil fuel substitutes, especially since global energy consumption was not decreasing — on the contrary, it was on the rise.
Catastrophic climate change effects in Africa
Achieving energy transition rests on three main levers:
• Promoting energy efficiency (including building renovations)
• Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources
• Reducing emissions through the use of less-polluting technologies, like replacing coal-fired power plants with natural gas, which can ensure grid stability while reducing pollution.
Climate change and extreme weather events have caused unprecedented damage in African countries over the past decade.
Giving up fossil fuels means giving up development in Africa — a choice far too unjust.
Each year, we witness the destruction of infrastructure and economic disruption, and, as a result, increasing unemployment. The effects of climate change on the continent can be seen in droughts in Southern Africa, floods in West Africa, and desertification in the Maghreb.
For most countries, enhancing climate resilience depends on the success of their energy transition plans. Therefore, it is crucial to consider the challenges and opportunities related to energy transition in Africa.
Members of the Turkana community rally with climate activists to protest in Nairobi, Kenya.
An opportunity for Africa
First, it's worth noting that, with the exception of South Africa, most African countries are less dependent on fossil fuels compared to the majority of developed countries. This distinguishes Africa's energy transition blueprint from that of other regions.
The essence of energy transition in Africa can be boiled down to two essential aspects:
First, the development of energy, and second, its expansion.
Energy development efforts must take into account the opportunity and the necessity of harnessing the continent's potential in renewable energies, including biomass, wind, solar, and hydroelectric. Africa can, and should, seize these opportunities to provide modern, efficient, and safer energy sources for cooking, heating, and lighting for its over 700 million people.
In terms of fossil fuels, energy development in Africa will also involve improving productivity and creating jobs in the sector. It will also require the promotion of technological development and expansion, as well as the sharing of technologies needed to meet the energy needs of a rapidly growing population.
If giving up fossil fuels means giving up development in Africa — it's a choice that is far too unjust.
*Diarrassouba Losseni Togossy is an energy and sustainable development consultant.