Creating an Effective Net-Zero Partnership with Africa

U.S. and European climate envoys just finished a listening trip to Africa in advance of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 26). Press reports suggest they discussed a $5 billion transition program that could help Africa accelerate the transition from coal, oil, and gas toward renewable energy. U.S. deputy special envoy for climate Jonathan Pershing told a press briefing on October 1 that he was optimistic Africa could “leapfrog” developed countries’ experiences and adopt lower-carbon-intensity industrial and energy technologies, including the evolving hydrogen economy and electric vehicles. He also acknowledged that countries like South Africa could not transition from coal until a “combination of alternative technologies, of renewable supply, [and] of a better transmission grid” is available and flagged the importance of financial support for that transition as well as for climate adaption initiatives.

At the same time, however, Pershing advised against the development of African oil and gas resources, warning that any future investments might end up “stranded” as the world transitions to renewable energy. However well-intentioned, the warning against developing gas and oil resources is unrealistic; gas and oil are integral parts of Africa’s domestic economies and international trade and are likely to be for decades.

As for power generation, Africa does not have sufficient renewable energy capacity to meet its current and growing demand for electricity. Alongside investing in renewables, African governments and foreign partners should use new production of natural gas for domestic uses, including the fuel for new gas-fired power plants. These plants could be an integral part of Africa’s transition to a carbon-neutral (net-zero) economy by 2050.  

The Wrong Target

Pershing’s warning that oil and gas investments in Africa will be at risk of “regulatory action” and higher financing costs is the latest indication that Western governments are ending investments in upstream oil and gas in developing countries, including by instructing their delegations to international financial institutions to cease support for these projects. This shift is due in part to the finding that developing countries’ CO2 emissions are growing so rapidly that they are on track to exceed those of developed countries by the end of the century.

But the proposal that Africa forego natural gas development, specifically, is flawed on substance and policy. On substance, it would fail to make a meaningful dent in limiting global CO2 emissions. The United Nations recently estimated that global CO2 emissions are set to increase by 16 percent by 2030 compared to 2010. As the Energy Information Agency’s International Energy Outlook makes clear, the main driver of those increased emissions over the next 30 years will come from China, India, and Southeast Asia. Africa’s total CO2 emissions, including transportation and electricity generation, only contribute 3.7 percent to annual global CO2 emissions. Even if all the countries in sub-Saharan Africa tripled their electricity consumption overnight, and all the increase came from power plants fueled by natural gas, this would only add 1.2 percent to annual global emissions.   

Suggesting Africa forego development of natural gas is also bad policy. It overlooks the fact that African countries recognize the problems of burning coal and diesel (and charcoal and kerosene for cookstoves) and are already planning to switch to cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy. Several African countries (e.g., Ghana, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and Mozambique) are planning to replace coal-fired generation with natural gas power plants while they build out renewable energy generation capacity. Countries across the region are scrambling to provide innovative green solutions to cope with the world’s fastest rates of urbanization, including improved building efficiencies and transportation links. To get to its greener goals, however, Africa will need more electricity; in many cases, the most feasible solution for the next several years will be high-efficiency natural gas-fired plants.   

Possibilities for Partnership

Rather than approaching African countries from the zero-sum standpoint of requiring only cuts in emissions, there is an opportunity to achieve meaningful climate contributions by enlisting African countries as part of a net-zero solution, working with them to develop and execute national plans for carbon-neutral (if not carbon-negative) economies by 2050. This would shift the focus of the discussion to specific policies and projects that can accelerate reductions in the emissions that matter most (e.g., nitrogen oxide, methane), while facilitating the transition from coal-fired electric power to natural gas-fired plants and renewables, and expanding collaboration on key practices, such as regenerative agriculture and the technologies of the future. Potential focuses include:

  • Methane capture. Nigeria could continue its efforts in capturing its fugitive and flared methane, using it to replace most, if not all, of the diesel it currently imports to generate electricity. There is an opportunity for cooperation with other natural gas producers, including Angola and potentially Mozambique. Greater cooperation with Africa’s many mining companies could also expand the methane capture agenda.

  • New technology pilots. Africa has tremendous needs for infrastructure spending over the next 20 years and could provide a great place to test and scale new technologies to capture carbon and use it industrially, including for cement and road building. Similarly, many nascent technologies to capture carbon from the air require significant space and nearby markets, both available in Africa.

  • Green energy minerals development. Africa is the source of many of the specialty minerals that the global green economy already needs in much greater quantities (cobalt, copper, and lithium, to name but a few). Partnering with African countries to create the additional mining and processing capacity (much of which will require electricity) should be a win-win proposition.

The global community should learn a lesson from the response to Covid-19 and adopt solutions that are purpose-built for all of us, not just some of us. Each country and region will have its own special issues that need to be addressed. The world should recognize that Africa, more than any other continent, presents a real opportunity to create multiple flavors of partnerships to get to net-zero (and beyond) as soon as possible.

Laird Treiber is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.