The Energy Agenda describes the choices to be made and the steps that must in…
“…Once again, the rich world sees Africans as a threat to the planet.”
As climate pledges pile up, a worrying theme is emerging that bold efforts by rich nations to decarbonize the global economy will be ruined by hordes of new consumers in the developing world buying cars, installing air conditioning, and taking planes. China’s and India’s rapid development and steep emissions trajectories have been central to these fears, but Western governments and climate activists have found little traction there.
Instead, the focus of attention has now shifted to Africa, where energy use is still very low—and where rich countries see an opportunity to apply pressure by leveraging development aid and cutting off finance. This is already leading to harmful policies that will hurt millions of poor Africans by slowing down their continent’s economic development while doing little, if anything, to help fight climate change.
Fears of a fossil fuel boom in low-income but fast-growing regions such as Africa are cited as the rationale for imposing new bans on financing for such investments. At this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, the United States, Britain, and other countries pledged to end international financing of fossil fuel projects. The key word here is “international.” While barring public finance for oil and gas projects in other countries, Britain continues to subsidize its own fossil industry, while the United States—already the world’s biggest oil producer—plans to increase its own domestic production. But even if we ignore Western hypocrisy and take their promises of rapid carbon reduction at face value, is there any rational reason to worry about African nations blowing up the world’s carbon budget? A closer look suggests no.
Scaremongering about Africa points to a disturbing undertone in rich-world debates. On climate change, as on so many other issues, many in the West seem to see Africans as a mass of passive victims lacking agency and requiring charity—the quintessential “white man’s burden”—or a looming threat to civilization. To save the planet, this thinking goes, Africans can’t enjoy a high-energy future that people in rich countries take for granted. The climate just can’t afford Africans to be prosperous.
Take Nigeria: As Africa’s most populous country and one of those most dependent on fossil fuels, it’s another source of fear about a carbon-intensive future. With vast underutilized gas resources and as one of the most under-powered economies in the world, it needs to generate a lot more electricity. Nigeria’s population is on track to surpass the United States’ by 2050, but it currently has less than 1 percent as much power capacity. So what is Nigeria’s energy transition plan as presented in Glasgow? Grow electricity capacity about eightfold by 2050 using mainly solar power. As backup for when it’s dark or overcast and to stabilize the grid, the country also wants to add the equivalent of about 20 midsized gas power plants. If that sounds like a lot, the United States has more than 1,900 such plants. If not even Nigeria can blow the global carbon budget, then we certainly don’t have any reason to fear Malawi or Liberia.
What’s more, pitting gas against renewables is a mistaken framing of energy choices. Yes, gas is a fossil fuel and contributes to climate change. But gas is still absolutely crucial for development, including for clean cooking, industrial heat, fertilizer production, and transportation. In the electricity sector, gas pairs well with intermittent wind and solar, both technically (gas power can ramp up and down quickly as needed) and financially (renewables cost more upfront, while gas costs are mostly for operations). Most importantly, gas plays a vital balancing role in the grid that can enable even higher penetration of wind and solar. That’s why Nigeria sees gas as enabling its solar ambitions. Until battery prices are a small fraction of what they are now and able to provide long-term seasonal storage, gas will remain the backup of choice in most of the world.