How can Africa meet its energy needs without depleting its natural resources and further damaging its natural environment?

By Struan Murray

Although Africa as a whole is the continent least responsible for the emission of greenhouse gasses and other causes of environmental degradation, it is globally considered as the continent most at risk of climate change. Due to instability in the Middle East and increasing development and population growth, countries are seeking alternative energy sources to
meet their demands. African countries have emerged as a crucial supply source, which some scholars have argued has led to a second ‘Scramble for Africa’ to gain access to the continent’s rich energy and mineral resources.

Emerging powers such as India and China have developed foreign policy strategies offering economic infrastructure assistance in exchange for access to energy resources. However, a negative consequence of the intense demand for natural resources in Africa has sometimes led to economic instability, conflict and environmental damage. In response, the African
Union included sustainable development as one of its official objectives when it adopted the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) as the continent’s new development plan. This aims to end poverty in Africa and to direct African countries towards sustainable growth and development. This initiative recognises the importance of protecting the
environment and Africa’s rich supply of natural resources.

Developing countries strongly believe that because of the global North’s historical dominance in the production of CFC’s, combustion of fossil fuels, toxic chemicals and hazardous wastes, they are responsible for the thinning of the ozone layer, global warming, and international contamination. The South identifies the North’s excessive consumption patterns as a key cause of global environmental degradation. A vital debate which encompasses global environmental politics between the North and the South is their
different perceptions on whether national development will cause more environmental problems or act as a cure for them. Global environmental politics is becoming increasingly intertwined with core economic and socio-development concerns of countries. A shift towards sustainable and green energy and away from fossil fuel, would decrease the international demand for oil, and therefore improve energy security and economic self-efficiency,
particularly for western countries of the North.

The oil connection between the West and the Middle East is key to the current geopolitical structure, and a ‘green shift’ would improve political independence in the advanced economies. However, because there is no single international authority which governs sovereign states, states have little incentive to change their consumption and production behaviour, no matter how it affects the environment of another state. In addition to this,
countries have many conflicting national interests, values and priorities, making cooperation difficult.

The International Energy Agency’s statistics suggest that more than two-thirds of the projected increase in emissions will come from developing countries; these are projected to exceed industrialised nation emissions by 77% by 2030. According to the ‘Key World Energy’ statistics, developing countries will remain big users of coal- the most carbon-intensive of
fossil fuels. As populations and economies grow in African countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa, so does the demand for energy. Many AU member states do not have adequate policy frameworks to deal with environmental challenges such as climate change, and have no clear national strategy. While countries such as South Africa, Ghana
and Kenya have showed incentive and movement towards creating national response strategies, other countries such as, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Botswana have no clear national strategy for climate change, despite being a signatory to the UNFCCC.

Although maintaining a common position is a key objective for the African Group, within the coalition there are IO’s that represent different positions. For example, Algeria, Angola, Libya and Nigeria, are members of AMCEN and OPEC. OPEC recognises the realities of global climate change, yet they have emphasised that it is not just oil which should receive the focus in efforts to reduce emissions. They highlight the role of coal as a significant
contributor towards GHG emissions. This draws attention to South Africa- the continent’s largest coal user, producer and exporter. South Africa’s energy sector is dependent on coal for 77% of its total energy.

In terms of mitigation and regional development, the South African government stated that how the “Grand Inga” hydropower project located on the River Congo is a central element in its move towards utilising the regions renewable energy sources. The South African government has emphasised the projects importance in supplying clean renewable
electricity to the whole of Africa. However, the project has been increasingly challenged by limited investment and political and economic instability.

Alternative sources to generate energy away from fossil fuel sources and towards solar, wind, hydro and bio energy sources of energy are known as ‘clean’ or ‘green’ energy sources. However, how ‘green’ are these sources? Do they not also cause ecological damage to the natural environment? Environmental effects from hydropower have proven to cause environmental impacts through the emissions of methane from the decomposition of biomass reservoirs, while other dams have caused serious ecological problems through natural habitat destruction. Dams can also block the movement of aquatic species and limit the sediment and nutrient flow, which affects natural deltas and floodplains.( However, if designed with care, dams can also act as new habitats for birds and other species.)
Hydropower offers a good illustration of the importance of site selection and project design.

Using renewable energy sources will not eliminate low levels of GHG emissions and conventional air pollution, as manufacturing and transportation of these products and technologies will produce some emissions and pollutants. For example, some photovoltaic (PV) cells, which make up solar panels, generate toxic substances that can contaminate
water resources. In addition, the installation of renewable energy installations can also disrupt land use and wildlife habitat. In order to develop sustainable policies, policy makers must understand the relative
environmental impacts of alternative energy sources, including how the impact of renewable energy technologies compare to those of fossil fuel technologies and to opportunities for improvements in energy efficiency.

Without reliable empirical evidence which shows the cost-benefit between investing into clean energy technology, and the ecological benefits these alternative sources will bring, it is unlikely that African governments will invest heavily into such initiatives. The biggest challenge for African leaders in the 21st century will be how to eradicate poverty, improve
the standard of living for its citizens, and meet their energy demands, without depleting their natural resources and further damaging their natural environment.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *