Natural Gas Can Deliver Energy Justice and Climate Progress in Africa

The COP28 Global Stocktake in Dubai showed that even with all existing emissions reduction pledges, the world is still not on pace to meet the stated goal to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. A group of policymakers from developed countries has advocated for a phaseout of unabated fossil fuels to meet this goal. While this can expedite the transition for high-income countries, it can profoundly undermine the energy security of African countries who have received negligible amounts of renewable energy investment over the last decade. For these countries, natural gas is a critical energy source that offers a low emissions route to universal energy access.

Africa is already facing an energy crisis. It is home to 600 million people who lack access to energy—a figure that’s equivalent to 1.8 times and 1.5 times the size of the U.S. and EU populations, respectively. Over three-fourths of the world’s population that do not have access to energy live on the continent. A growing population, supply chain disruptions, and the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic have reversed much of the progress made in the past five years toward electrification. In 2021, there were 4 percent more people without access to electricity compared to 2019.

Energy poverty undermines efforts to advance socioeconomic development. Research shows that it negatively impacts economic growth, educational enrollment, health outcomes, life expectancy, and access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services. The hundreds of millions of Africans who live without access to energy have a reduced chance of escaping poverty.

To exacerbate existing constraints, Africa’s rapidly growing population is putting additional pressure on the system. Energy demand is far outpacing the electrification rate—and this challenge is going to exponentially increase in coming years without significant intervention. The continent’s 1.4 billion population is forecasted to reach nearly 2.5 billion by 2050. By then, five of the eight most populous countries in the world will be in Africa and Nigeria will surpass the United States to be the third largest country in the world. Nigeria already has the highest amount of energy poverty in the world, in absolute terms.

Modelling by the International Energy Agency shows that it is impossible to reach universal energy access in Africa without a mix of both renewable energy and natural gas. Renewable energy investment on the continent has been inadequate. Although global investment in renewable energy exceeded $3 trillion between 2010 and 2019, Africa only garnered 2.4 percent of it between 2010 and 2020. 

Thus, natural gas has a critical role to play in reducing the shortfall. The Kigali Communique was developed by a group of 10 African countries to articulate what a just and equitable energy transition in Africa looks like. One of the seven principles outlined in the communiqué is supporting Africa in the deployment of gas as a transition fuel, until it can be displaced by renewable energy.

While the European Union's 27 member countries agreed to call for a phase-out of unabated fossil fuels, cutting off future natural gas investment would be crippling for Africa’s economic, energy, and human development. It would leave Africa—which contributes just 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions—without another viable path to universal energy access. At COP28, World Bank president Ajay Banga noted that the distrust between advanced and developing countries is significant, when it comes to managing climate change—and forcing low and middle-income countries to eliminate the energy sources that enabled advanced economies to thrive, without providing the capital for cleaner energy sources, will only accelerate this distrust.

Finding the lowest emissions route to universal energy access in Africa is critical. Natural gas emits half the amount of carbon dioxide of coal when combusted. Between 2010 and 2019, coal-to-gas switching avoided roughly 500 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions globally. Additionally, Africa could leverage its rich natural gas reserves. The continent is home to 40 percent of global discoveries between 2010 and 2020. This includes discoveries in Mozambique, Tanzania, Egypt, Senegal, Mauritania, and most recently, South Africa. It is now home to 13 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves.

Upwards of 5,000 billion cubic meters of natural gas have been identified but not yet approved for development. The International Energy Agency estimates that this could produce an additional 90 billion cubic meters per year until 2030 and two-thirds could be used for domestic consumption with the rest used for exports. Importantly, cumulative carbon emissions form the use of these gas resources over the next 30 years would amount to roughly 10 gigatons. If added to the continent’s cumulative emissions today, this would bring Africa’s share of global emissions to just 3.5 percent. This is disproportionately low given that Africa will be home to upwards of 25 percent of the world’s population by 2050.

Some have argued that investing in natural gas is not economically prudent given that the investment will commit countries to long-term fossil fuel infrastructure that would have to be repaid over a prolonged period, while prices for renewable energy technologies, such as solar panels and wind turbines, will precipitously decline. But this does not take into account significant transmission and battery storage requirements for renewable energy—which remains scarce in African countries—and which will come at a significant cost, keeping the levelized cost of electricity high. Thus, natural gas has a critical role to play in reaching universal energy access in the medium to long term, until necessary renewable energy generation, transmission and storage infrastructure is developed.

Natural gas is central in delivering both energy justice and climate progress in African countries. Without it, there is a risk that the disparity in energy consumption will continue to grow. On a per capita basis, when excluding South Africa, consumption of energy in Sub-Saharan Africa is just 180 kilowatt-hour (kWh), compared to the United States’ 13,000 kWh and Europe’s 6,500 kWh. Expanding the supply of energy by leveraging natural gas ensures that demand that decarbonization does not come at the expense of inclusive economic development.

Gracelin Baskaran is research director and senior fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Quill Robinson is a senior program manager and associate fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at CSIS.

Director, Project on Critical Minerals Security and Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program
Quill Robinson
Senior Program Manager and Associate Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program