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Africa's just energy transition: the big debate

September 04, 2023
tags:#Africa, #renewable energy, #Sustainable Development, #COP28
located:Nigeria, Angola
by:Bob Koigi
Africa leads the push for an inclusive energy transition. But the debate rages: rapid fossil fuel exit or gradual shift?

The global debate surrounding decarbonisation and a just energy transition has surged in relevance as nations worldwide explore inventive approaches to fulfill their net-zero commitments. This discourse has been particularly prominent in Africa, as the continent grapples with the challenge of alleviating energy poverty amidst a rapidly growing population projected to reach at least 2.4 billion by 2050, exerting pressure on existing energy resources.

All the while, Africa has been striving to leverage energy as a catalyst for economic development.

Tackling energy poverty

In Sub-Saharan Africa, over 600 million people lack access to electricity, and nearly 900 million do not have access to clean cooking fuels and technologies. Yet Africa possesses a vast array of clean energy sources, including abundant sunlight and strong winds, which, if harnessed effectively, have the potential to provide power to homes and industries.

To address the issues stemming from energy poverty, which is recognised as a major obstacle to Africa's transformation goals outlined in the economic roadmap Agenda 202, the African Union has taken the lead in promoting a transition to renewable and clean energy sources. This effort, encapsulated in the African Common Position on Energy Access and Just Energy Transition, emphasises an inclusive approach to ensure that no one is left behind.

The position vouches for a gradual shift from the conventional sources of energy to renewable ones in order to meet the growing energy demands.

"Africa will continue to deploy all forms of its abundant energy resources including renewable and non-renewable energy to address energy demand," reads the position. "Natural gas, green and low carbon hydrogen and nuclear energy will therefore be expected to play a crucial role in expanding modern energy access in the short to medium term while enhancing the uptake of renewables in the long term for low carbon and climate-resilient trajectory." 

The AU's objective is to align with the Paris Agreement on climate, which calls for a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050—an accord to which African countries are signatories.

Towards a just energy transition

But environmentalists have been angling for an immediate transition to renewable energy and a complete abandonment of fossil fuels in line with the vision of the Paris Agreement on climate. 

The transition to clean and renewable energy has been widely praised for the opportunities it presents and its potential benefits across various sectors and for human well-being. In addition to supplying energy and improving public health through the use of clean sources, renewable energy has emerged as a significant job creator in Africa.

According to an analysis conducted by IRENA, renewable energy sources and other transition-related technologies have already generated 1.9 million jobs across the continent. The broader energy transition is poised to create over 9 million jobs from 2019 to 2030 and an additional 3 million jobs by 2050.

According to an analysis by , renewable energy sources and other transition-linked technologies have created 1.9 million jobs on the continent with the overall energy transition capable of creating more than 9 million jobs between 2019 and 2030 and an extra 3 million by 2050. This constitutes a significant milestone as the continent welcomes an estimated 10 million young people into the job market each year. However, the current job market can only generate 3 million jobs annually.

In addition to its impact on the labor market, IRENA highlights that Africa's energy transition holds the potential to enhance people's overall well-being. This includes benefits such as reducing air pollution and addressing inequality, ultimately leaving individuals in a better position.

But facilitating a green energy shift is a herculean task that requires substantial investment. The International Energy Agency, IEA, for instance, estimates that to achieve universal energy access in Sub Saharan Africa, an investment of  USD 55 billion each year is required by 2030. 

"There is no reason why a fast transition to clean energy cannot also be a fair transition," Joseph Kibugu, Africa Manager at the Business and Human Rights Resoource Centre, told FairPlanet. "We believe three core Just Energy Transition Principles of shared prosperity, human rights and social protection and fair negotiations could provide the pathway for this transformation, helping to generate public support and benefit to communities and workers, which will be essential to the global energy transition."

The argument for a hybrid model

However, there is a perspective that contends that a complete just transition may not be feasible and could potentially harm the economic development of the continent. This school of thought highlights the fact that there are heavily oil-dependent countries such as Angola and Nigeria, where governments derive as much as 90 per cent of their revenue from fossil fuels, and the sector contributes up to 70 per cent of their foreign exchange earnings.

They argue nations should embrace an energy mix of renewable and non-renewables.

"If we’re going to have a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, we’ll need both. We’ll need fossil fuels to ensure energy security and drive industrialization in developing nations, even as the world works to pull together the necessary investments, infrastructure, and governance to make a world fueled by renewable energy work," noted NJ Ayuk, Executive Director of the African Energy Chamber, in an editorial.

Ayuk calls for the establishment of a pragmatic model, insisting that a rush to renewables and hasty abandonment on fossil fuels will have far-reaching implications for economies across the continent and will not achieve the objective of a just energy transition for all. 

His reasoning is supported by Sultan Al Jaber, the CEO of oil giant Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) and the incoming president of the next United Nations Climate Conference (COP28), who says that doing away with the current energy system before a robust alternative has been set up would jeopardise economic and climate progress. 

"What’s needed is a realistic new strategy that is practical, pro-growth, and pro-climate," Al Jaber wrote in an Op-Ed. "The strategy needs to appreciate the complexity of energy and industrial systems, and that the scale of the transition required is colossal, requiring greater alignment and collaboration on everything from capital allocation to product design, public policy, and behavioural change. This means examining the demand side of the energy system first."

A Just transition for all?

Meanwhile, the just energy transition process has faced scrutiny for its failure to acknowledge frontline communities and for instances of gross human rights violations during the installation of renewable energy projects.

A report published by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, following a decade of engagement with communities where mineral extraction and renewable energy installations were taking place, has unveiled a range of human rights issues. These concerns raised by communities encompass issues such as disregarding the land rights of indigenous people, assaults on human rights defenders, and abuses of workers' rights, among others. In response to these mounting concerns, communities have escalated their protests and initiated legal actions.

"The current approach to critical minerals extraction and the deployment of renewable energy installations is unviable. It harms local communities, is unsustainable and, in turn, generates understandable conflict and resistance which slows the transition and increases its costs," reads the report. "To ensure the energy transition is just and fair, host communities and workers must also be guaranteed recipients of the benefits. This cannot be achieved unless respect for human rights is embedded into business models."

As the demands for a just transition in Africa gain momentum and governments, the private sector and multinational entities allocate resources to translate this commitment into action, several key factors have emerged as critical for realising this transition and achieving the seventh Sustainable Development Goal of universal energy access by 2030 while ensuring that no one is left behind.

These factors include mobilising sufficient financial resources, enhancing regional integration to expand the energy development market, bolstering capacity and skills and harmonising policies to facilitate technology transfer.

"Companies and their investors have a window of opportunity to contribute to an energy transition that is not only fast, but also fair," Kibugu from the Business and Human Rights Resoource Centre said. "To do so, they must embed human rights policy and due diligence across their value chains, ensure explicit respect for Indigenous communities’ rights and focus on creating substantial co-benefit with communities and workers."

Image by Anastasia Palagutina.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Nigeria Angola
Embed from Getty Images
This discourse has been particularly prominent in Africa, as the continent grapples with the challenge of alleviating energy poverty amidst a rapidly growing population projected to reach at least 2.4 billion by 2050.
Embed from Getty Images
In Sub Saharan Africa, more than 600 million people have no access to electricity and nearly 900 million do not have no access to clean cooking fuels and technologies.
Embed from Getty Images
In addition to providing people with energy and promoting good human health through the use of clean sources, renewable energy is a key job creator in Africa.