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Climate experts to African governments: Ignore COP27's soft stance on fossil fuels, go for renewable

Africa's climate experts urge the continent to look beyond COP27's faux arguments for fossil fuels and adopt cleaner energy sources.

Wanjira Mathai, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute during an interview with bird story agency at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

By Kate Okorie, bird story agency

A significant number of environmental disasters have occurred across communities in Africa this year. In the lead-up to the "African COP," there was a massive expectation that the world would notice these communities and develop a solid plan for climate change mitigation measures.

However, in a manner characteristic of recent conferences, negotiations dragged on for days before the bleary-eyed delegates reached an agreement to establish the landmark loss and damage fund, but talks about eliminating fossil fuels — the root cause of the climate crisis — fell through.

Even though 80 member states had called for the phasing out of all fossil fuels, the final policy text featured vague language on just energy transitions; both "low-emission and renewable energy" were highlighted in this regard, leaving it open to misinterpretation by countries reluctant to make the transition to clean energy.

The surprise inclusion of "low emission energy" as an energy source for the future fails to build on COP26 progress towards eliminating all forms of fossil fuels and permits the continued exploration of dirty fuels like gas, which has long been touted as a transition fuel by fossil fuel lobbyists.

The fossil fuel industries sent a record 636 delegates at this year's climate change conference in Egypt — this number is almost five times the average number of registered party delegates from across Africa — and there is a strong suspicion that their presence may have influenced the outcome of negotiations.

These lobbyists base their arguments for fossils on three things: the energy poverty experienced by approximately 600 million people in Africa, the perceived need to attain development similar to western nations and the hypocrisy of these developed nations who continue to explore oil within their borders.

"Oil-rich countries are making a significant amount of money from fossil fuels, so we cannot blame African countries for wanting to benefit as well, but what we cannot have are new investments in a declining market because those will be stranded in the future," warns Wanjira Mathai, Vice President and Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute.

However, countries like Nigeria have produced oil for over five decades yet have low human and capital development. This is partly because a large share of the profit is remitted to the multinationals funding the projects, and very little is directed to public funds. There is also enough evidence to show that Africa exports a large percentage of its oil to sponsoring countries. On the other hand, local communities are left to bear the consequence of a degraded environment.

A report by Oil Change International (OCI) found that if the fossil fuel industry proceeds with its plans for Africa in the next thirty years, it will lead to the emission of an additional 62 billion tonnes of CO2, which is not compatible with the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement.

The rapid adoption of clean energy resources like renewables is crucial to stay on the path to 1.5C, which is believed would facilitate long-term socio-economic development. A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows that the 1.5C pathway can increase Africa's GDP and net jobs by 6.4 per cent and 3.5 per cent, respectively, by 2050.

Economics favour renewables as a better energy alternative, but there needs to be more political will to harness the sector.

As of today, investments in fossil fuels exceed renewable energy. Annually, the African fossil fuel industry receives $33 billion in investment, more than six times greater than the $5 billion invested in renewables.

Barely a week after COP27, Nigeria announced a grand investment of over $3 billion to explore a new oil and gas project in its Northern region, while Uganda is not backing down on the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project alongside Tanzania.

New fossil fuel projects have a long lead time, and if the world succeeds in bringing down its consumption in line with the Paris Agreement, these projects risk failing to recover their upfront costs.

"Africa has the opportunity not to repeat the same trajectory of development that western nations have taken and part of that would involve retreating from fossil fuel exploration," says Tandolwethu Lukuko, National Node Coordinator of the South African Climate Action Network.

According to Mathai, the continent has one of the highest renewable energy potentials in the world — hydroelectricity, wind and solar. "It's a huge one for us," she remarked.

Africa houses 60 per cent of the best solar resources globally and could emerge as one of the leading producers of hydrogen made from renewables. However, Africans need more finance to explore their renewable energy sector.

"At the current cost of capital, it is not viable for us to look at expanding grids for renewables," she said.

According to Mathai, there has been some hesitancy to adopt renewable energy sources at scale because of infrastructure costs and associated risks. Still, this presents a solution to Africa's energy crisis, and as a rapidly growing market, it holds much potential for the economy.

Climate experts believe that coal, oil and gas are a distraction for Africa, considering that it is a declining market. Although lately, the energy crisis in Europe has left many countries in the region scampering after gas producers — fossil-fuel-producing countries have recorded groundbreaking profits due to the rise in demand for their products.

"There is demand for gas, but that is only for the present," said Mathai. European countries and the United States are doubling efforts to develop their renewable energy sector; as of 2021, the CO2 emissions in the two regions have dropped by 10 per cent and 9 per cent, respectively.

"For countries in Africa without a large energy infrastructure, they should look to clean energy. They don't need to go back to fossil fuels," says Khodani Mulaudzi, City Advisor, Climate Change Mitigation, South Africa.

Amid reluctance to completely transition away from fossil fuels, renewable energy deals still outnumbered dirty ones at this year's climate change conference. Africa secured a handful of these deals, including the launch of the Africa Just and Affordable Energy Transition Initiative (AJAETI), an all-Africa inclusive project to increase the "share of renewable electricity generation by 25 percentage points by 2027 and obtain a power sector based on renewables by 2063."

The global climate conference may have failed to deliver on a significant area. Still, much of the power rests on individual African nations to explore their abundant renewable energy supply to foster a just energy transition.

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