Climate Change, Sub-Saharan Africa and the call for a just transition

The United Nations Conference on Climate Change, the Conference of Parties 26 -COP26, was postponed from 2020 due to COVID-19. However, the event rescheduled for 31 October to 12 November 2021 holds in Glasgow, UK amidst a brewing global energy crisis. This energy crisis brings the Global North closest to the economic and energy challenges confronting the Global South particularly sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), because of rapidly and unjust global energy transitions. From statements and actions, the global energy crisis has revealed that if a fraction of the population in western countries felt any sustained negative impact of the energy transition, the governments and people of these countries may be less rigid in their call to divest from fossil fuels, which will only mean inconsistent or selective climate actions and policies.

There are already fears that price volatility could feed public skepticism about funding for the energy transition and consumers may demand more investment in oil and gas to limit future energy fluctuations, says Henning Gloystein, the director of the energy, climate and resource team at consultancy Eurasia Group.  Also, sometimes it feels like the West’s climate action and the quest for decarbonisation are more influenced by the need for energy independence driving energy transition than on climate change. A statement by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, is reproduced here “It’s very clear that with energy in the long term, it is important to invest in renewables. That gives us stable prices and more independence, because 90% of the gas is imported to the European Union.”

Given the realization above, it will not be out of place for resource-rich African countries to demand for the continuous investment in and sustainable production of hydrocarbon like Natural gas to boost energy security and increase sources of foreign exchange. In the fight against climate change, many coal mines around the world were decommissioned due to its high contribution to the carbon emissions, but countries like Australia and china have remained big on coal production. With this energy crisis, coal production has gone up in China, the US and may resume in some European countries.

While climate change is real, the SSA region which contributes the least to carbon emission faces not only the disproportionate effect of climate change but also rising poverty or in some cases, a return to increasing poverty worsened by the global health pandemic caused by COVID-19. The need to balance the environment with the economy, planet and the people therefore calls for a proper understanding of the impact of the people on the environment, and impact of climate policies like rapid energy transition on the economy too,  and implications for people in  the SSA.  Big polluters like China and dictate the rate and pace at which they transition. Unfortunately, resource rich African countries do not have the clout or even mind to dictate their terms. Given that SSA countries are both economically and energy poor, if they were unable to overcome poverty with fossil powered growth, it will be a more herculean task to do so without it, given an unjust transition.

Renewable or cleaner energies are not cheap for a region with growing but poorer population where bulk of the people spend about 70 per cent or more of their income on food alone. Hence, rapid and unjust energy transitions pose serious economic and developmental challenges for these countries. Rising unemployment, low incomes and inflation imply that more people will have no means of livelihood or inadequate incomes to meet rising costs. Falling government revenues especially for fossil-dependent economies entails less public expenditure, less social amenities, falling government investment and rising public debts.

Since sustainability involves three spheres namely economic, social and environmental spheres; downplaying the economic aspect of sustainability in an economic poor region will have consequences on the social aspect and definitely affect the environment. But denying or ignoring the environmental aspect including the climate emergency is not the solution either. An example of the externality from the former is how rising energy cost of cooking gas in Nigeria is increasing the demand for and price of firewood and charcoal, which only means felling of more trees and deforestation. As middle-income households fall back on charcoal for cooking, poorer households which can no longer afford firewood or charcoal due to almost 100 per cent increase in prices, have resorted to burning nylon and plastics to cook; this development is more devastating to lives and the environment.

A green growth is logically the next phase for the developed economies after attaining dirty or brown growths. However, in SSA where brown growth is still a challenge, climate policies asking for leapfrogging from underdevelopment straight to a green growth are tall orders. There must be deliberate consideration and commitment to find a compromise that allows these economies grow with a systematic fusion of both, i.e. less harmful elements of brown growth combined with less rigid emphasis or less extreme imposition of green growth.  Meaning SSA can walk and work halfway between brown growth and green growth- a unique blended growth. This will be a blend of the traditional or fossil energy with renewable or sustainable energy. Else, if poverty intensifies, given the rising population, the damage on the environment will be massive while already having a dampened economy. The social implication may be upheavals; and at the end, the environment, economy and people will be adversely affected.

While there are environmental and social costs to hydrocarbons, the economic cost of renewables is still too high for SSA economies. This calls for a Pareto optimal tradeoff between the economy and the environment without any getting worse off in the interest of the people of SSA. Therefore, a just and perhaps fair transition is necessary as the world races to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees following the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The people and the planet can both win this.

Wakdok, an economist and sustainable resources specialist writes from Abuja