Perspective is everything. For climate activists, the recent pledge that more than 20 countries and financial institutions made to stop public financing for overseas fossil fuel projects was seen as a promising first step toward achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, one of the goals of the Paris Agreement.
For many of Africa’s oil- and gas-producing states, however, the pledge is not good news at all.
The commitment, made during the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, applies to unabated fossil projects, those that do not use carbon-capture technology. The blanket ban will go into effect by the end of 2022.
African states have been hoping to eradicate widespread energy poverty, grow and diversify their economies, and pave the way for a just energy transition through the use of natural gas resources.
Yes, they can still pursue natural gas projects on a limited basis without foreign support – and they are. Frankly, most African countries still need foreign investors to fully capitalise on their oil and gas opportunities.
Where wealthy nations have used Africa’s resources yesterday, there is no will to help Africans benefit from their own petroleum resources today.
Senegalese President Macky Sall brought these concerns to the fore in his recent statements before the General Assembly of the United Nations. He questioned how it was that investors might lump in natural gas, the cleanest of all fossil fuels, with coal, the dirtiest.
“We will not accept that polluting countries, responsible for the situation of the planet, tell us that we are no longer going to finance fossil fuels,” Sall said.
“Our countries cannot succeed in the energy transition and abandon the polluting schemes of industrialized countries without a viable, fair, and equitable alternative,” Sall continued. “The exploitation of natural gas as a transition energy should be supported.”
Sall’s focus was on Senegal, but the points apply to countries throughout Africa.
Those countries that have cut off funding are sacrificing little. The impact will not be felt by those sitting in London and other capitals, but by the world’s poorest people. Not only is this path unfair, as Sall said, it smacks of climate colonialism.
A job not done
Infrastructure built in Africa during colonial times was intended solely to export natural resources.
Today, approximately 580 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack reliable electricity. Colonialism is not solely to blame for our situation, but it has played a role in it.
The construction of power plants, fuelled by gas, are one of the most effective tools in Africa’s ability to tackle this situation.
Maddeningly, just as gas-to-power initiatives started gaining traction in recent years, pressure for African countries to stop producing gas began building. And the new pledge to stop funding overseas fossil fuel funding is yet another obstacle to eradicating energy poverty.
Also frustrating is that this ban’s impact on global carbon emissions is negligible at best.
Sub-Saharan Africa is collectively responsible for barely half a percent of all global CO2 emissions over time. The US, UK, European Union, Japan and Russia are responsible for around 57%. Even if sub-Saharan Africa tripled its electricity use immediately — and used natural gas to power it — the additional CO2 would be equivalent to only 1% of global emissions.
Not all fossil fuels are the same. Natural gas emits the least amount of carbon dioxide into the air when it is burned.
For African countries, natural gas represents additional opportunities for monetisation. Revenue from its production, transportation, processing and use can be used to build infrastructure, fund government social programmes and support job-training initiatives.
As a feedstock, gas can be used to grow a local petrochemical industry, which in turn, could create even more jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for Africans.
The International Energy Agency made waves with its declaration that no new projects would be acceptable under net zero plans. However, it has conceded that there is a clear link between expanding electrification and access to gas.
This link is “not going to go away anytime soon”, the IEA said in September. “Gas remains an important tool for balancing electricity markets in many regions today. As clean energy transitions advance on a path towards net zero emissions, global gas demand will start to decline, but it will remain an important component of electricity security.”
Running the risk
This point is widely acknowledged. The UK has dialled up gas plants – and coal – in recent months to cover shortfalls. Cutting this supply off rapidly would endanger energy supplies.
Abandoning fossil fuels, natural gas in particular, would put African countries at risk, too.
President Sall, in his UN speech, recognised this fact.
“Senegal considers that stopping funding for the gas sector, on the pretext that gas is a fossil energy, without taking into account the fact that it is also and above all a clean energy, would be a serious attack to our efforts at energy transition, universal access to electricity, competitiveness and economic and social development,” the president said.
Those priorities – from ensuring universal access to electricity, to promoting socioeconomic development – aren’t unreasonable.
The pledge made at COP26 has been praised for freeing revenue for green energy investments. I won’t deny that African countries will need the international community’s support and investments to successfully implement wind, solar, and other renewable energy projects in Africa.
However, the logic behind the fossil fuel funding pledge suggests that it’s impossible to invest in both fossil fuels and green energy initiatives. It isn’t.
Instead of backing African countries into a corner and forcing them to accept energy limitations to which other countries aren’t ready to commit, the global community could achieve far more by working with Africa’s hydrocarbon-producing nations, listening to them, and respecting their needs and economic goals.