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Africa chooses between renewables and fossil fuels

Ajit Niranjan
December 6, 2019

Africa emits less than 4% of global CO2 but struggles to provide electricity to half its population. Energy infrastructure built today could have massive impacts on future emissions and living standards.

Südafrika thermische Solaranlage Solarenergie-Projekt in Kapstadt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/N. Bothma

Least responsible for heating the planet, but hardest hit by the extreme weather it has already caused, African countries are mostly trying to adapt to climate change rather than slow its march.

But several of them have set "green growth" targets that rank among the most ambitious in the world. 

Ethiopia plans to become a middle-income country by 2025 without significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Kenya aims to be fully powered by renewable energy next year and provide every citizen with electricity by 2022. South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria have all adopted strategies to decouple emissions from prosperity.

Africa emits just 3.7% of global carbon dioxide a year but its population is set to double in the next three decades, triggering a massive rise in energy demand as living standards rise. Only about half of Africans today have access to electricity, and efforts to connect the rest of the continent to the grid are not keeping up with population growth. A survey from Afrobarometer published this week found expansion of the electricity grid has stalled, with only about four in 10 African households enjoying a reliable supply of electricity — little more than a few years ago.

That raises a big question: How to supply all citizens with energy — and fast — without speeding up climate change.

Infographic: access to electricity by region

Europe, which kickstarted the Industrial Revolution, and North America, which helped spread it across the world, industrialized their economies before realizing that carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels has devastating impacts on both the climate and human health. In Asia, countries that saw rapid growth in the second half of the 21st century broadly chose to industrialize first and clean up later, experts say.

Should countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya realize their goals, they may raise living standards on a scale no region has achieved without mass burning of fossil fuels. "[They are] expressing a deep desire to avoid the mistakes made by Western countries," said Chukwumerije Okereke, Director of the Center for Climate Change and Development at Alex Ekwueme Federal University in Nigeria.

Kenya, home to the biggest wind farm and geothermal power plant in Africa, derives about three-quarters of its electricity from renewable sources, and doubled the share of its population with access to electricity from 30% to 63% in the decade between 2007 and 2017, World Bank data shows.

Ethiopia, Africa's fastest-growing economy, consumes more than 90% of its electricity from renewables — mostly biomass — and is building Africa's largest hydroelectric dam on the river Nile, though this comes with problems of its own. A fight with Egypt over shrinking water resources, exacerbated by climate change, has at times threatened to erupt into conflict.

Ethiopia is "breaking new ground" in greening its economy, a study published in the journal World Development claimed in March, despite trade-offs such as expanding industrial parks and making more cement, leather and textiles. The government hopes savings in agriculture and forestry will compensate for a rise in emissions from industry.

"It is not a God-given tension," said Okereke, lead author of the study. "It is a tension that can be effectively managed through policy."

Lake Turkana Wind Power Project, Kenya
Kenya is home to Africa's largest windfarmImage: DW/M. Kwena
Mali Solar Plant
Electrifying rural regions is often easier with small-scale renewable projectsImage: Imago Images/Le Pictorium

"Leapfrogging" energy infrastructure

By switching coal and oil plants to run on natural gas, a less-polluting fossil fuel, and promoting local renewable energy, Africa can cut emissions while increasing energy access and security, analysis from the UN Economic Commission for Africa found in 2017. Even in South Africa, the most coal-hungry country on the continent, a fully renewable energy system is the cheapest, cleanest and least-water intensive option, and will also create the most jobs, a study published in the journal Solar Energy found in October.

Experts say African countries are in a unique position to "leapfrog" industrialized nations because of a lack of polluting and inefficient infrastructure. This means they are less handicapped by having to upgrade or repurpose existing buildings, such as factories and power plants, and so can build greener infrastructure from scratch.

Yet while Africa is rich in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, they are vastly underused. With just 5 gigawatts of photovoltaic panels, according to the IEA, the entire continent generates less solar energy than countries such as the UK and Germany, where there are far fewer hours of sunshine.

Most of the rise in electricity generation since 2010 has been fuelled by natural gas, mainly in North Africa, but the IEA projects gas demand across sub-Saharan Africa to triple by 2040 under current policies. CO2 emissions from oil and gas are projected to double, while those from coal will decrease.

The IEA expects energy from solar, wind and geothermal sources to increase from less than 5% today to about 30% of power generation.

A solar off-the-grid school in Nigeria

That also depends on money.

Across the world, the price of wind and solar energy technologies has plummeted to become cheaper than coal. But prices — and availability — vary greatly within Africa. Onshore wind farms built in Africa last year cost on average $0.056 (€0.051) per kilowatt hour, according to the International Rewnewable Energy Agency, about as much as the cheapest fossil fuels. Solar farms cost twice that, on average, but projects in Zambia and Ethiopia have been tendered for as low as $0.025/kWh.

Governments struggle to secure international funding for renewable energy, which can have higher upfront building costs and may provide intermittent energy — even if they cost less to run and maintain.

Some countries are also plagued by underdeveloped grids and populations sparsely spread over large tracts of land. Particularly pressing is political willpower, said Ibrahim Togola, founder of the Mali Folkecenter, which promotes sustainable development of natural resources.

"The lobby [that] fossil fuels have to get their projects financed — renewables don't have that support."

Coal pollution in South Africa
South Africa and countries in North Africa account for 70% of African electricity demandImage: DW

Air pollution

Even without climate change, over which Africa has little control, some countries may be tempted to avoid fossil fuel investments because of dirty, deadly air.

Most Africans burn biomass — such as wood, dung and charcoal — to heat and cook, releasing toxic particles into homes and lungs. Connecting citizens to a stable electricity grid could greatly reduce respiratory disease, which is the leading cause of death in Sub-Saharan Africa.

But planned fossil fuel expansion also poses a risk to air quality. The mortality rate from air pollution caused by fossil fuels will rise each year to 48,000 avoidable deaths in 2030, a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in November estimated.

Even in countries that don't plan to build more plants, health will be hit as winds blow pollutants over borders, said lead author Eloise Marais from the Atmospheric Composition Group at the University of Leicester. "Fossil fuel power plants will have widespread effects."

For an in-depth look at how African megacities are adapting to climate change, read more.

Ajit Niranjan Climate reporter@NiranjanAjit