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FEATURE: Are fossil fuels really a solution to energy poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Gracia Munganga, MAPS Africa Programme Manager at the Energy Research Centre (University of Cape Town), looks at the impact fossil fuels have on energy poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa and how low-emission development pathways could be developed as a viable option. 

Access to modern energy is globally recognised as a prerequisite to economic development; yet energy poverty remains one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s (SSA) greatest challenges. In 2011, only 32% of the SSA population had access to electricity and 79% relied on biomass for cooking. The sub-region is, however, endowed with tremendous renewable and non-renewable energy resources. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that production of natural gas in Africa will double between 2009 and 2035; this translates into a total production of 7,100 billion cubic metres of natural gas by 2050. Many of these resources today remain largely untapped, but this is set to change in the years to come.

Countries in the region are setting ambitious targets in terms of energy access. In Rwanda, for instance, 16% of households had access to electricity in 2011; in 2012 the administration decided to revise the original target of 40% of households connected to the grid by 2020, to reach 70% by 2017. The significant gas, coal and oil discoveries that were made in recent years in the continent may drive SSA countries to pursue the well-charted and not-so-successful road of a development pathway based on the exploitation of fossil fuels. Conflict,unequal gains, the destruction of other vital economic sectors, further energy poverty – these are all potential consequences of over-reliance on fossil fuels. Africa’s top oil producers, namely Nigeria, Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea, have all been plagued by conflict in the past decade and score poorly on the World Bank’s control of corruption index.

Capacity and access to electricity grids has grown throughout SSA. This is as a result of the economic growth and increasingly consumptive patterns of a burgeoning population set to count 2.4 billion people by 2050. This means that SSA countries, which up to the early 21st century were net carbon sinks, will become – or have already become – net emitters.

Significant gas and coal discoveries were recently made in Mozambique. Two coal-powered thermal stations are already planned. The country boasts the seventh-largest reserves of natural gas in the continent with reserves of 126 billion cubic metres. The reserves could hold as much potential value as 30 to 40 times the current GDP of Mozambique. In a country where only 20% of the population has access to electricity, these discoveries undoubtedly put a new spin on the country’s emissions futures and developmental aspirations. But how is the exploitation of these resources likely to meet Mozambicans’ energy needs? What development pathway should Mozambique follow to ensure an inclusive and equitable growth and the preservation of its fragile environment?

Key questions that need to be asked in considering the exploitation of fossil fuels include:

  • To what extent should fossil fuels be used to generate energy for local development?
  • What will the country’s future energy and emission profile look like?
  • What is the appropriate rate at which fossil fuels should be extracted?
  • Should fossil fuels be exported or used domestically?
  • What are the potential unintended impacts of their utilization on the environment and society at large?
  • Will the resource be exploitable in an equitable manner to ensure inclusive growth?

These are questions that the Mitigation Action Plans and Scenarios (MAPS) Programme could help answer. MAPS investigates alternatives to high-carbon development pathways through national scenario planning processes. Supported by CDKN, MAPS is currently investigating the feasibility of running a MAPS programme in four African countries: Ghana, Mozambique, Rwanda and Zambia.

Why should developing countries consider embarking on low-emission development pathways?


Raising a Wind Turbine in DurbanThe conventional narrative argues that developing countries cannot be denied their ‘fair share’ of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to meet their development targets and reduce poverty. SSA’s current 2% contribution to global GHG emissions pales in comparison to that of industrialised countries. In 2010, Africa consumed far less fossil fuel (3.7% of the world total) than it produces (12.4% of world production). Besides, industrialised countries are still not shying away from expanding their use of fossil fuels.One could argue that potential gains from investment in mitigation actions in SSA would be negligible compared to offsets that could be made in medium-to-high-income economies.

Embarking on a low-emission development path offers multiple benefits, allowing economic growth to rest on job creation and clean technologies, while avoiding the high financial, environmental and societal costs associated with fossil fuel extraction.


Why should developing countries rethink exploiting, or how they exploit, their fossil fuel endowments?

However, domestic consumption is fast accelerating. Total CO2 emissions in Africa, mostly attributable to the combustion of petrol and diesel, increased by 26% between 2000 and 2009 and, given the continent’s energy poverty, will rise even more in the next decade.

Fossil fuels can contribute to the development of the domestic energy industry but this often comes at the cost of deep socio-economic ramifications. Most fossil fuel-rich countries in Africa are afflicted with the ‘resource curse’, which entails unequal benefits between the rich and the poor, economic distortions and a failure to stockpile the resource for times of scarcity. The ‘Dutch disease’ refers to instances when the export of newly discovered fossil resources increase the exchange rate, making exports uncompetitive and thereby damaging traditional sectors such as manufacturing or agriculture.

China’s current environmental woes also offer a compelling example of the environmental and health ill effects associated with playing catch-up on the back of an emissions-intensive pathway.The coal burnt to fuel China’s economic growth has left a permanent grey cloud hanging over the nation. It is reported that coal is responsible for 500,000 premature deaths in China every year.

Instead of spending scarce resources on non-renewable, environmentally damaging destructive extractive industries, SSA could focus on high-value added and lower carbon intensive industries powered with sustainable energy sources  as a pathway to development. The opportunity to leapfrog from a carbon-intensive development pathway into cleaner development is one of the key elements that could justify a focus on low-carbon development.

Most SSA countries have, or are currently devising, climate change response strategies; whether these strategies will effectively influence their development planning remains to be seen. Current development plans critically need to be revised to integrate in a concrete manner the multiple developmental benefits associated with a low-carbon development pathway, including energy security, economic development and climate resilience. The MAPS approach could play a significant role in providing the evidence base for countries planning to exploit fossil fuel resources, through scenarios identifying options to maximise welfare returns whilst minimising GHG emissions and at the same time curbing potential loss and damages from climate change.

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