As wealthy countries go green and decarbonize their energy systems, African nations are locking in increasing greenhouse gas emissions as they strive to double energy production, with potential implications for global climate action, a new study has warned.
Despite large parts of Africa being rich in renewable energy resources, fossil fuels such as coal and gas will continue to account for up to two thirds of the continent’s electricity generation beyond 2030, with non-hydro renewable energy making up less than 10% of the mix, say the authors of a report from the University of Oxford, published today in the journal Nature Energy.
The researchers used machine learning to analyze some 2,500 power plants being planned across Africa to determine the likelihood of the projects’ success or failure.
They found that by 2030, the continent’s energy generation capacity could rise from 236 gigawatts to 472 gigawatts, with just 9.6% generated from renewable energy sources not including hydropower. Fossil fuels, the authors found, would account for 62% of total capacity.
By comparison, Europe has called for at least 32% of the energy mix to come from renewables by 2030—a target the bloc is almost certain to surpass. In the first half of 2020, renewables generated 40% of electricity across the EU, while fossil fuels generated 34%.
Locally, the relatively weak state of renewable energy project planning could mean African nations missing out on the economic and environmental benefits of decarbonization, the study’s authors said. More widely, the findings highlight the global challenge of climate change, whereby cuts in carbon emissions in one part of the planet can be cancelled out by increased emissions elsewhere.
“Africa’s growing energy demand presents it with a unique opportunity to power its industrialization and economic development through renewables,” said Galina Alova, the report’s lead author and a researcher at the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. “Our study therefore makes an important point about the urgency to shift the pipeline of currently planned projects away from predominant fossil fuel technologies towards renewables.”
Speaking to Forbes.com, Alova noted another danger of investment in fossil fuel power plants in the form of “asset stranding,” whereby future high prices on carbon could cause the price of electricity from fossil fuels to rise, rendering such investments obsolete.
“This is a really crucial point to bear in mind when talking about the synergies between Africa’s economic development and low-carbon transition,” she said. “Ensuring that the electricity sector makes a shift to renewables as soon as possible will avoid future costs associated with climate change as well as capital stranding.”
The report recommends that, in order to avoid locking in carbon emissions and further climate risks, African nations should move towards non-hydroelectric renewable energy generation, “coupled with a large-scale cancellation of planned and the early retirement of the existing fossil fuel capacity.” This, the authors said, would require the efforts of the public and private sectors, “as well as from the development finance community.”
Philipp Trotter, a report author and a researcher at the Smith School, noted that the study took into account an important aspect of energy planning that most other studies did not. “Just because a project is in the pipeline doesn’t necessarily make it automatically successful,” he said. “Therefore, it is really important to quantify project realisation chances and understand the factors that contribute to them.”
“Our data-driven analysis shows that Africa’s potential to leapfrog to renewables is unlikely to be realized, unless the implementation chances of renewable energy projects are improved and more renewable energy capacity is planned, instead of fossil fuels,” he added.
Numerous observers have suggested that, with Africa’s plentiful sun and other natural resources, renewables could be a key to the continent’s future economic and social development, delivering energy independence and giving communities access to low-cost, climate-friendly electricity.
Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa have made large investments in renewables, in particular in solar power. Some smaller nations have set ambitious decarbonization targets, such as Rwanda’s target of achieving 60% renewable energy generation by 2030.
But as the Smith School report highlights, the huge demand for new generation capacity is causing many governments to opt for short-term, carbon-intensive solutions to the energy problem. Without a long-term vision for sustainable energy provision, such countries may find themselves paying a high price for their electricity in the near future, in more ways than one.
Such an outcome would be a textbook example of climate injustice. In the words of Mohamed Adow, director of Nairobi think tank Power Shift Africa, “No continent suffers more from global heating than Africa, yet nowhere has done less to cause it.”