Sub-Saharan Africa and the challenges of global warming

January 12, 2024 Energy

At COP 28, discussion of the climate efforts expected of African countries highlighted the trade-offs that require political and ethical choices that go beyond the issues of financial support that rich countries are promising Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) to enable it to transform its energy model. 


COP 28 and Sub-Saharan Africa 

The political enthusiasm that follows each "Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change" (aka COP) is matched only by the disappointment of scientists who observe the steady increase in the stock of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere, and the concern of the inhabitants of the poorest countries, who are largely powerless to cope with the disruption they are experiencing. This is particularly true of sub-Saharan Africa. 

Nearly 400 million Africans (around a third of the continent's population) live in extreme poverty. Approximately 600 million still have no access to electricity. SSA accounts for just 6% of the world's energy consumption and 3% of global electricity demand yet is home to 14% of the world's population. The lack of electricity also explains why 990 million of its inhabitants rely on wood and fossil fuels for cooking, particularly in rural areas. 

Against this backdrop, any decisions taken at COP 28 must be assessed not only in terms of their climatic impact, but also in terms of their impact on the speed with which the continent's shortfalls will be overcome. This requires the removal of barriers to investment and financing for clean energy, which in turn requires an awareness of the need for greater equity in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 


COP 28's "requirements" for Sub-Saharan Africa  

The Dubai Declaration of December 13, 2023 is presented as a victory for reason, as for the first time it refers to “transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems… so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science" (paragraph 28d). The declaration is promising in its form, since it establishes that this transition must be just, orderly, and equitable, and determined nationally. Unfortunately, the semantic vagueness surrounding the first three adjectives, combined with the restriction of the fourth, gives rise to fears that the commitments are insufficiently concrete. Many countries, subject to the short-sightedness of their public opinion, will continue to act as free riders on a boat that is moving too slowly, since most of them, particularly the richest, are not rowing hard enough. Africa will therefore have to continue fighting for its rights. 


The trade-offs involved in decarbonizing sub-Saharan Africa 

All players agree on the need to better manage CO2 emissions in all countries. The transformation of the African energy model, essentially based on the combustion of fossil fuels and biomass, is inevitable. Fortunately, there is plenty of room for maneuver. For example, solar, wind and geothermal energy still only account for 1% of the continent's energy consumption. 

This enormous potential for transformation no doubt explains why the decarbonization effort required of African countries is far greater than their share of global GHG emissions, which is around 4%. However, the requirements set out in the agreements underestimate the "physico-chemical reality", the "politico-economic realism" and the heterogeneity of the technical and financial options of the countries in the region. At the level of principles, it is easy to argue that reducing emissions is in the interest of SSA, since any new addition to the CO2 stockpile is harmful to the planet and, what's more, the combustion of carbon products leads to respiratory illnesses, particularly in children. In practice, however, the combination of a massive and rapid transformation of energy sources and the increase in energy consumption required to improve living conditions in SSA will be difficult to achieve in the short or even medium term without a massive external contribution. 

Prospects for improvement are also threatened by the policies adopted by many rich countries to reduce emissions associated with international trade. For example, from 2026, the European Union's "border carbon adjustment mechanism" will impose a tax on products from countries that do not have a system to penalize GHG emitters. The idea is to avoid placing European companies subject to the emissions trading scheme at a disadvantage in world trade. Adopting this mechanism without any adjustments to protect the poorest countries, particularly those in Africa that have not achieved a sufficiently rapid energy transition, is not in keeping with the moral ambitions of COP28. Indeed, it could imply a rebalancing of exports towards raw materials, annihilating industrialization efforts with non-negligible consequences for the continent's growth options and the well-being of its populations. Global decarbonization efforts are therefore far from neutral for SSA's development prospects, and involve ethical trade-offs. But there are also economic trade-offs. 


Trade-offs linked to carbon sinks 

The risks associated with carbon adjustment at European borders are heightened by the European Union's efforts to develop carbon sinks, in particular to prevent deforestation. But then again, this policy is not neutral for SSA. One of the tools of the Green Pact for Europe is to block imports of products derived from deforestation, such as cattle, cocoa, coffee, palm oil, rubber, soya, wood, and a number of by-products such as chocolate, furniture and printed paper. This could significantly reduce the continent's export revenues. 

To compensate for these lost revenues, the countries concerned can only rely on the sale of carbon credits (CCs) under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. These credits are purchased by companies subject to decarbonization constraints, for example in California and Europe. But disagreement persists over the implementation of Article 6, which may not be to the benefit of credit issuers. Indeed, there are serious doubts about the quality of these credits (do they really reflect a GHG absorption capacity?). These doubts are driving down the price of carbon and therefore the benefits of the instrument for African countries. 

These weaknesses are compounded by the fact that some countries with forest areas cede credit trading rights to specialized companies such as Dubai-based Blue Carbon. This replicates the model of confiscating the added value of natural resources that made the fortunes of European companies in colonial times. A potential correction is offered by the African Carbon Markets Initiative (ACMI) launched at COP27. The ACMI aims to make CCs one of SSA's main export products. The effort is significant, but once again illustrates the difficulties of finding instruments that do not involve arbitration or corrective measures. 


The search for coordinated negotiated solutions 

For decisions leading to arbitration to be operational, developed countries will have to do their part. This message is clear in the "Nairobi Declaration" signed in September 2023. It recalls that if developed countries wish to benefit from SSA efforts in the fight against global warming, they must at the very least ”honour the commitment to provide $100 billion in annual climate finance, as promised in 2009 at the UNFCCC COP15 in Copenhagen”. Not deforesting has a cost, which must be shared equitably between the beneficiaries, i.e. first and foremost the rich countries. Financing local change is a global affair requiring complex governance capable of rapid decision-making. Unfortunately, the slow pace of the growth of awareness of this necessity is not compatible with the urgency of the many needs to be met. 


Published in La Tribune
Photo: Construction of solar panel array structure - Malawi - Wikimedia Commons - JonStrand