Divestment Doesn’t Mean Degrowth
February 3, 2022
There is ongoing debate at the nexus of climate and international economics about whether the Global South ought to scale up investments in fossil fuels. A recent article published in Foreign Policy, for example, argues that because Africa’s carbon footprint is so low, growth in the use of fossil fuels would not endanger climate progress elsewhere. Citing a pledge agreed to at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) among countries to halt overseas fossil fuel projects, the authors describe these Western policies as “green colonialism” that amounts to “climate redlining.” To achieve energy and economic autonomy, the thinking goes, the African continent deserves to increase its use of fossil fuels.
Arguments like these make a series of assumptions—that the expansion of fossil fuels on the African continent will not have deleterious environmental consequences, that renewable energy cannot be deployed in sufficient quantity to meet current and future demand on the continent, and that the West should not set a sustainable development agenda that is onerous to others and which developed countries cannot seem to achieve themselves.
It is true that Africa’s energy needs are not being met. In Malawi, 11 percent of citizens have access to electricity. That number is 15 percent in Sierra Leone. A quarter of Kenyans do not have access to electricity. Extraction of oil and gas on the African continent has not led to more widespread access to electricity, and continuing the same policies risks prolonging poverty and widening global inequality.
Now Is the Time to Leapfrog
It can be expensive to fix what is broken, and it is counterproductive to spur an electrified future by investing in technologies that are soon to become historic relics. When countries around the world are undertaking costly programs to modernize their grids, and when China is investing in next-generation ultrahigh-voltage direct-current (UHVDC) transmission links to carry heavy loads of renewable electricity very far distances, it does not make sense for countries to invest in new fossil fuel projects.
As the recent energy crunches in both China and the European Union demonstrate, prolonged reliance on fossil fuels can come at a steep cost to countries and consumers when this reliance is not met with an adequate push for renewables and sustainable electrification. In Africa, why take a risk that developed countries are already seeking to move beyond? Now is the time for countries to leapfrog over carbon-intensive energy sources to avoid locking their economies into a soon-to-be outdated system built around carbon and extraction.
Africa has demonstrated its ability to leapfrog in other areas. The deployment of cellular networks in Africa bypassed having to build expensive landline infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. In 2010, cellular subscriptions numbered just over 44 per 100 people. That number had climbed to nearly 94 in 2020. The proliferation of mobile devices and fintech apps has allowed households to better weather shocks, such as a crop failure or health events, demonstrating how new technology can help insulate the world’s most vulnerable.
The proliferation of mobile technology on the continent has been celebrated as a success in leapfrogging, and it appears that renewable technology is on a similar trajectory. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that by 2030, 67 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s energy needs can be met through renewables. Between 2010 and 2019 in Africa, the cost of utility-scale solar photovoltaics decreased 82 percent, while the cost of wind fell 50–60 percent. With the cessation of fossil fuel extraction, jobs and social benefits can disappear, but renewable energy offers sustainable employment since wind and solar provide installation and maintenance jobs.
Initiatives like the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP), launched at COP26 by a group including the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bezos Earth Fund, are already seeking to deploy renewables at scale in Africa. GEAPP will provide billions in capital to expand renewable energy, reduce emissions, and create jobs, including through distributed renewable energy, which scales mini-grids and rooftop solutions to off-grid communities. Like the cellular network revolution, mobilizing additional capital and deploying renewables can provide increased access to electricity, create jobs, and build sustainable infrastructure.
Climate Change Disproportionately Affects the Most Vulnerable
Pro-extraction advocates take issue with the efforts of environmental activists like Bill McKibben to halt the development of a new oil pipeline in Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries, arguing that stopping it will harm people on the ground. However, this line of thinking errs in assuming that growth cannot occur on the African continent absent an uptick in the use of fossil fuels. In the process, they lose touch with the fact that sustainable development seeks long-term “sustainable” growth in both senses—the coexistence of economic growth and a livable planet.
The deployment of fossil fuels can also be a Trojan horse that offloads negative health consequences from poor air quality, such as higher incidences of asthma, destabilizing political factors that have historically engendered corruption, and long-lasting environmental degradation that accelerates climate change.
Many oil and gas projects in Africa have already had or are estimated to have steep environmental consequences, such as endangering the Cuvette Centrale peatlands in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the world’s most important carbon sinks, or imperiling local water supplies. Countries across the continent are well positioned to house wind and solar, either through mini-grid projects or more centralized grids. Existing initiatives like the Africa Clean Energy Corridor (ACEC) seek to accelerate the cross-border trade of renewable power in eastern and southern Africa.
What environmentalists and other activist groups emphasize is that climate change disproportionately affects the world’s most vulnerable. Save the Children, using data compiled by the United Nations, found that 262,500 children may have died in East Africa between January and November 2021 due to malnourishment from climate-change-induced drought. The drought persists, and an estimated 10 million people currently need aid, while an estimated 3.4 million need emergency aid. The solution is not to increase use of fossil fuels, even marginally, when the effects of climate change are already so profound.
Divestment Does Not Mean Degrowth
Developed countries attempting to decarbonize do harbor concerns that new consumers throughout the developing world will drive up emissions and reduce or eliminate decarbonization gains made by wealthier countries. However, economic development and next-generation consumers need not conflict with decarbonization goals. That is only a valid concern if new consumption is fueled by hydrocarbons and ecologically deleterious development. If growth and consumption occur simultaneously with the deployment of renewable energy and ongoing reductions in emissions, decarbonization and development can grow concurrently. In other words, divestment does not mean degrowth.
Proponents of “degrowth,” an economic belief that heralds steep reductions in consumerism and ushering in a period of economic contraction or degrowth, believe such contraction would better enable major economies to meet their climate goals. Degrowth advocates believe that degrowth, decentralization, and localism should replace international productivism, extraction, and technology. However, “austerity ecology,” as Leigh Phillips has termed it, would likely mean contraction throughout the economy, slowing the deployment of renewable electricity, reducing research and development (R&D) spending on new and existing climate technology (such as funding for EV charging stations), while stifling innovation at the moment when we literally depend on it to survive as a species. Overall, divestment does not need to mean degrowth; to the contrary, it could lead to a more regenerative economy.
Today, the world is confronted with many options when it comes to combating climate change. Countries can pursue a “big yawn” approach, in which they remain complacent while the effects of climate change intensify, hurting the world’s most vulnerable. Another approach involves ongoing mutual recrimination, in which countries engage in a race to the bottom to extract what they can, relying on dwindling energy sources that have long been proven deleterious to the climate. The third path involves a radical rethinking that leverages leapfrogging with existing know-how.
The solution to reconciling growth and climate objectives is not to accelerate fossil fuel projects that endanger ecosystems and create temporary jobs but rather to invest in renewable energy on the continent. Simply because the West has made climate-poor decisions for 200 years—at the expense of everyone living on this planet—does not mean any country should continue to make those same bad decisions. One underlying moral feature ought to be central to policymakers around the world: two wrongs do not make a right. The problem is not constraints on fossil fuel projects in Africa but the lack of such constraints in the developed world. If the hallmark of our species is intelligence, then we should learn from history that an accumulation of bad policies does not usually lead to good outcomes.
Emily Benson is an associate fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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