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This Week in Climate: COP27's lone success could unlock Africa's renewable future

In This Week in Climate, we look at how COP could help Africa transition to renewables.
Julian Moore
Nov 28, 2022 8 min read
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COP27 was billed as “the African COP”, and for all its failures to reach global agreements, the creation of a loss and damage fund from the conference may yet succeed in helping the African continent transition to renewables.

The loss and damage fund will increase investment from rich countries to help developing nations adapt to climate change while supporting clean energy. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates the energy transition will require $5.7 trillion of investment each year until 2030 to keep a 1.5 degree scenario alive.

That’s a hefty price tag well out of reach for many developing countries, and the loss and damage regime will be essential in reaching those goals. But the details of the agreement have been left for upcoming negotiations leading into COP28 next year.

African countries are at a critical fork in the road in their respective energy transitions. How the post-COP27 negotiations play out will determine which of two competing visions for climate action will win in Africa.

Business as Always

One possibility for Africa’s transition will be to follow the European model of building out fossil fuels as a stepping stone toward renewables.

EU climate chief Frans Timmermans indicated support for this path at COP27 when he said “renewable energy needs to play a key role, but I also believe that gas can play a transitional role.”

That seemed like a contradiction coming from the official who pushed emerging economies like China for firm carbon drawdown commitments while simultaneously endorsing the expansion of one of the most harmful fossil fuels.

But in the context of Europe’s energy crisis, the message seemed all too clear to some African activists: don’t build out fossil fuel infrastructure except when Europe needs them to solve an unforeseen energy crisis.

It also raised some eyebrows because building out more fossil fuels means more loss and damage in the future. Which led some African leaders to wonder: If rich countries are hesitant to pay for those impacts now, can Africa really expect them to be more willing to pay up when harsher and more expensive impacts arrive in the future?

Besides those political concerns, leaning on natural methane gas (or fossil gas, if you prefer) to help Africa transition to renewables poses an economic dilemma. What happens in a few years when, having met its short-term energy needs with African gas, Europe follows through with a switch to renewables and no longer needs gas?

In that scenario, countries like Mozambique could be left with billions of dollars’ worth of stranded assets.

Mozambique is currently one of the world’s smallest producers of methane gas but is sitting on the third-largest untapped reserves in Africa. Mozambique currently supplies 70% of its power from hydroelectric, a proven renewable energy source. However, those resources only reach 30% of its people.

Incoming loss and damage funds from the loss and damage fund will play a decisive role in determining which of the two sources plays a bigger role as Mozambique expands energy accessibility to the 70% of its people that currently live in energy poverty.

The prospect of building multi-billion-dollar albatross that will continue emitting decades into the future seems incompatible with long-term climate goals and economic development. But if Timmermans’ words are any indication, they could be the most likely short-term outcome.

The Path for Renewables

Fortunately, several African countries are already leveraging international funds for some of the most promising renewable technologies on the planet.

Changes to international finance proposed as part of the loss and damage scheme at COP27 could vault these projects to the front of Africa’s transition and make it easier for other countries to follow.

Take Ethiopia, where 96% of the country’s electricity comes from hydroelectric dams. At first glance, that’s an enviable renewable energy portfolio compared to almost any other country. But it still represents an overreliance on a single source, which is why Ethiopian officials sought and received $184 million from the World Bank to begin a 70 MW geothermal plant at the Aluto-Langan Power Station.

Projects like that have allowed Ethiopia to become energy exporters to neighboring Kenya without extracting a drop of oil or liquid natural gas.

Kenya is building out its own geothermal resources, prompting President William Ruto to suggest Africa should leapfrog fossil fuels altogether and grow its economies on renewables alone.

It’s an exciting prospect but will only be possible if future loss and damage funds prioritize the Kenyan/Ethiopian model over gas projects.

To be clear, these renewable projects carry climate justice risks of their own. A report from earlier this year documented several cases of land disputes and human rights violations tied to wind and geothermal projects in Kenya. Hundreds of people have reported being ejected from their homes to make way for renewables.

Back to the Future

International funding will be key for these transformations, but a third alternative may call for a return to forgotten traditions.

Architects in West Africa are rediscovering the virtues of mud huts to stay cool without the use of air conditioning. The mixture of clay and reinforced materials allows mud buildings to stay several degrees cooler than concrete. Concrete is a favored building material in Africa since so many countries have local production capacity, but these contribute significantly to Africa’s carbon footprint.

Contrary to popular belief, traditional mud huts with vaulted ceilings can withstand rain and as well as concrete structures when built properly.

At the same time, West African farmers are growing more fonio, a healthy and especially drought-resistant grain that features in traditional cuisine going back 5,000 years.

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The Author

Julian Moore