LAGOS, Nigeria — The staff at Big Cabal, a media start-up, wanted to ditch its diesel generator, but needed something to keep the office air-conditioners running. The generator was noisy, expensive and, maybe worst of all, bad for the environment.
Hoping for a greener solution to its problem, Big Cabal in 2019 bought solar panels for its two-story office building.
But the leap to solar didn’t go according to plan — and the reasons illuminate the big challenges Africa faces from climate change. The region is rich in fossil fuels and is eager to use them to fix its notoriously unreliable power grids. But to slow global warming, nations must burn less oil and gas, not more. Meantime, Africa is heating up much faster than the rest of the world.
For starters, Big Cabal found that the solar panels cost about threetimes more than the generator in maintenance costs. And, even though the company’s finance manager, Sophia Abu, scouted for the most powerful units the company could afford, they still weren’t quite enough to run the air-conditioners. So while Big Cabal’s staff, who write technology and culture news, sweltered in the summer heat, the AC units hummed cheerfully and pushed out warm air.
“We’ve had to buy more batteries, and more panels,” Ms Abu said, as well as special air-conditioners that work with solar inverters, devices that can accommodate battery storage.
Now, the diesel generator is back, screaming behind the office. The company switches between power from the local utility, the generator and the solar panels.
That juggling act gets to the heart of a big question facing African nations: Who gets to keep using fossil fuels, and for how long, during the transition to clean energy?
“When they say cut in Africa, what do they want to cut?” asked Titus Gwemende, Zimbabwe-based climate director at the Open Society Foundation, a grants organization. “There’s nothing to cut here. African countries are the ones on the receiving end of this problem. It’s the bigger emitters that should have the responsibility to cut,” he said. “We should be sensitive to history.”
A swift transition is crucial in the global fight against climate change. But not only would that be particularly costly in poorer nations, many African countries have an abundance of natural gas or other fossil fuels, and they argue forcefully that the rest of the world doesn’t have a right to tell them not to use it.
Proven crude oil reserves on the African continent total more than one hundred billion barrels spanning eleven countries, with Libya and Nigeria among the 10 biggest producers globally. The region is rich in gas, too: Combined, Nigeria, Algeria and Mozambique hold about 6 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves.
As world leaders meet at COP26 in Glasgow, Some African leaders and activists are, for the first time, vocally opposing a speedier pivot to renewables for their countries. Instead, they are pressing for a slower transition, one that would embrace a continued reliance on fossil fuels — particularly natural gas, which burns more cleanly than coal or oil, but which still pumps planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Their calls come at an awkward time.
This year alone, scientists and researchers have issued numerous reports showing the damage that the widespread burning of fossil fuels has caused to the climate over the decades. The scientific findings highlight the urgency of switching to cleaner energy if the world is to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius from preindustrial times, a target set by the Paris accord, the agreement among nations to slow climate change.
Beyond that temperature threshold, scientists say, the risk of calamities like deadly heat waves, water shortages and ecosystem collapse grows sharply.
But in order to hit that target and avert the worst climate catastrophes, analysts here say, African nations should be supported financially by wealthier ones as they seek alternative pathways to reducing emissions.When the time comes, Mr. Gwemende said, developed countries should also transfer technical knowledge on renewables to Africa.
Pulling Away the Ladder
Insisting that African countries transition more swiftly to renewables, some analysts say, is akin to developed nations using a ladder to climb a wall, then pulling it up before developing countries can do the same.
Under growing pressure to act, development banks and richer countries alike have been rolling back their support for fossil fuel projects like coal-burning power plants.
In 2017, the World Bank cut funding for projects like these and began to invest more in renewable energy projects. And in Glasgow, rich countries like Britain, the United States, Canada and Denmark have pledged to stop spending on fossil fuel projects abroad by 2022, barring some exemptions.
So far, at least one gas project in Mozambique, a gas-rich country in southern Africa, will not be going ahead according to the Africa Energy Chamber, an advisory firm. The oil giant BP has said it will roll back its oil and gas production, including on the continent.
African leaders are voicing their displeasure. In several seminars at the Glasgow climate conference, as well as in opinion pieces in recent months, they’ve taken sharp jabs at these cutbacks.
“Efforts to restrict fossil fuel investments in Africa are even harder to stomach because many of the wealthy countries behind them — including Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — include natural gas in their own multidecade plans to transition to clean energy,” Yemi Osinbajo, Nigeria’s vice president, wrote in Foreign Affairs in the run-up to the talks, known as COP26.
Nigeria depends largely on gas for electricity, and on crude for revenue. “Climate action shouldn’t mean strangling all fossil fuel projects but rather facilitating the flow of capital to the countries that need it most,” Mr. Osinbajo wrote.
Sub-Saharan Africa contributes about 3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, among the lowest of the world’s regions. Yet African countries are particularly hard hit by the consequences of climate change. The region is warming faster than the global average and experiencing bigger increases in sea-level rise.
Parts of East Africa haven’t seen rain in years and are battling droughts. The Sahel region of West Africa has recorded an sharp rise in conflicts between farmers and herders caused by vegetation loss. And in southern Madagascar, families are boiling cactus leaves for food in what the United Nations is calling one of the world’s first famines induced by climate change.
Yet, at the same time, the development stakes are particularly high for the continent, which is home to some 1.2 billion people, half of whom don’t have access to electricity — a groupequivalent to the entire population of the European Union.
The problems in electrification are wide-ranging and vary from country to country: Absence of power-generating capacity, absence of technical expertise, and widespread corruption.
There are plans, under the African Union, to rely largely on renewables by 2050 but only a handful of countries like South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and Morocco have high renewable capacities presently.
More Time, More Money
In the Lagos office, a ding announces a power cut. But the lights quickly blink on again, as the solar system takes over.
Big Cabal’s employees have settled into a routine with their complex mix of electricity sources. But it required much time and money.
It’s that time and money that African leaders say the continent needs more of, in order to make a transition to renewable power. Renewable technologies are expensive in almost all regions, but, on top of those costs, African countries also face the expenses of industrializing, providing better health care and building food and education systems.
However, getting world leaders to agree to keep funding oil and gas projects could prove difficult. In Glasgow, Britain and other rich countries have pledged to fund Africa with billions of dollars to increase warning systems, protect vulnerable communities in the Sahel, and, for coal-reliant South Africa, to help speed the transition to clean energy.
But some are not enthusiastic about the new announcements. The same countries promised $100 billion annually in 2009 to developing countries, but those funds have been slow to come. The announcements are only a first step, said Lily Odarno of the Clean Air Task Force, a Washington nonprofit. Until the money arrives, she said, “it’s better to wait and see.”
Meanwhile, the U.N’s environmental agency says developing countries spend about $70 billion on adaptation costs — responding to floods and droughts, for example — annually.
Sidelining Africa’s concerns could have consequences, analysts say. Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to see doubled population growth rates by 2050 and Nigeria will overtake the United States to become the second-most-populous country in the world. Africa also has the fastest urban growth rate in the world. By 2050, these populations are likely to be using up a lot of energy, whether it is clean or not.
Some analysts argue that Africa’s leaders should, in fact, make faster progress on renewable energy, citing in particular the continent’s huge solar potential. Happy Khambule, a senior political adviser with Greenpeace Africa, said his organization rejected the calls to continue using fossil fuels on the continent and equated it with “burning up the house we all live in.”
But overall, the message from African leaders at this month’s Glasgow climate talks is that the continent should be able to stick with some fossil fuels as part of the transition, considering the region’s economic and historic realities.
“It will be a successful COP if the bulk of the action is done by countries outside the continent,” Mr. Gwemende, of Open Society Foundation, said. “It will be successful if the monies are dispensed by the big emitters. But our work should go beyond COP. There’s more work to do after.”