Our Burning Planet

JUST TRANSITION OP-ED

Green ‘development’ for Africa must be based on equal partnerships and not just another debt trap

From left: Unsplash | Wind turbines at the Gouda wind power facility in Gouda, South Africa. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images) | Unsplash | Wind turbines at the Umoya Energy wind farm in Hopefield, South Africa. (Photo: Dwayne Senior / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A transition from fossil fuels to green energy in Africa should not be an opportunity to revisit/relaunch structural adjustment programme-styled ‘development partnerships’. Rather, the actual development — economic and human alike — should be the focal point and with this comes agency, not power relations.

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) has reawakened the discussion and recommitment to managing the effects of climate change. Many stakeholders — countries, multinational corporations, civil society, experts and scientific communities, and others — have been called upon to prioritise sustainable and inclusive green growth, with a sharp emphasis on carbon neutrality/decarbonisation.

As the world moves into a post-pandemic era, terms like “green growth”, “green energy transition”, “net-zero emissions” and “decarbonisation” have regained traction in international development discourse. While these terminologies allude to the need to adopt a sustainable pathway to economic recovery and overall (human) development, it should not be an opportunity to revisit/relaunch structural adjustment programme-styled “development partnerships”. Rather, the actual development — economic and human alike — should be the focal point and with this comes agency, not power relations.

While partnerships are crucial to development in practice, the nature, goal, and interests of the partners are key determinants of the outcome. In North-South relations, development partnerships are perceived as fundamental to addressing the development challenges in the global South. For Africa, North-South development partnerships are often met with criticisms of conditionalities, tied aid and imposition as under the Washington and post-Washington Consensus.

Scholars argue that the term “partnership” signifies some level of equal footing in the relationship. Given the history and context of Africa’s attempt at development partnerships with the global North, the term has come to be ascribed with some negative connotations. Partnerships involve some level of transnationality, public policy objectives and a network structure. The disadvantages of traditional interstate partnership centred on the issue of power relations or hegemony (beggar thy neighbour) thus the emergence of multi-stakeholder, public-private partnerships for accountability and legitimacy.

Since partnerships are central to development, especially in the developing world, it is important to learn from previous mistakes to achieve better development outcomes.

A Western agenda turned ‘global’ agenda

Since taking the reins as the 46th president of the US, Joe Biden has made climate change the focus of his domestic and foreign policy. However, it is important to note that the driving force/motive behind such a decision is not solely development at home and abroad. Rather, it is about “restoring” America’s leadership on the world stage. This he perceived to have dwindled under former president Donald Trump’s term in office.

In his essay titled Why America Must Lead Again, Biden notes that his foreign policy agenda is to place the US at the “head of the table” to help mobilise collective action on global threats — (counter) terrorism, diplomacy, nuclear non-proliferation, technology, and climate change. Of importance to this article is the latter.

Since taking the reins, the Biden administration has made “climate change” a buzzword in international development discourse, at least for global North countries and a few wannabes in the global South, like South Africa. At home, he created the Special Envoy for Climate Change, headed by John Kerry and the National Climate advisor positions headed by Gina McCarthy to keep tabs on the matter both home and abroad.

He has rejoined the Paris Agreement and increased the US’s National Determined Contribution (NDC) to which he pledged to slash US emissions by at least half below the 2005 level by 2030 (52%), and increase climate finance to vulnerable countries, among others. While these efforts are laudable, there are fundamental issues to be considered especially in relation to Africa and the rest of the developing world.

Arguably, Biden and his Western counterparts, in the fight against climate change and increased carbon emissions, have put their horses before the carts. As noted above, the problem — climate change and zero emissions – are considered priority issues to the US and most developed countries. These challenges emerge against the backdrop of industrialisation and development — that is, their economies are considered [partly] ripe for a transition.

The key things to note are that these countries: 1) had attained a certain level of development; 2) independently decided to prioritise climate-related problems as a means to the end of job creation (hence investments in R&D), carbon emissions etc; 3) created institutions that would further research, explore, and innovate public policy response to these problems; and 4) increased government spending to support tech development.

But green techs are not public goods, and the private sector needs time, resources, and capital to produce techs that would adequately resolve such problems and aid effective transition. Even at home, there are pushbacks on Biden’s elaborate climate promises… how much more so for sub-Saharan Africa?

One could argue that the agenda as pushed by Biden and his counterparts encourages mitigation through transitioning. Considering the effects of climate change are in full force in Africa, it requires adaptation and subsequently, a transition to more efficient energy systems. Successfully navigating these spectra requires time, resources, and political will.

Green Partnerships and unequal power relations: Governmentality at play?

At Biden’s climate summit on 21 April 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa announced that there were plans in motion to increase the share of renewable energy production [and consumption] by 2030 thus, leading to a reduction in the country’s emissions from 2025 (as opposed to the initial 2035 timeline). In September of 2021, a group of officials from the US, the United Kingdom, France and Germany converged in South Africa to discuss and reach [possibly sign] an agreement that would initiate the closing down of the country’s coal-fired plants, as a catalyst for transitioning to green energy systems.

Such decisions would have grave implications for South Africa’s economy without a “shock absorber”. Eskom — South Africa’s power utility — depends extensively on coal to generate and supply electricity to the constituents. South Africa has one of the foremost economies in Africa thus electricity is crucial to its productivity and capital generation. The utility has grappled with power supply, owing to poor maintenance of its plants and corruption, leading to rolling blackouts in 2020 and 2021.

To lighten the burden, Ramaphosa amended the Electricity Regulation Act to authorise the participation of Independent Power Producers (IPPs) to participate in the electricity market. Despite this, electricity remains a public good supplied by the state. The implications of a shutdown of coal-fired plants and the importation of green techs from these countries to boost renewable energy in the consumption mix would be costly and the end-user would bear the brunt.

As it stands, South Africa is struggling with job creation as unemployment skyrocketed to 34.4% this year. There are unresolved structural issues that could hinder the prospects of effective use of loans for successful transition (as depicted by the PPE scandal during the Covid-19 pandemic). These include but are not limited to slow economic recovery and job creation, gender-based violence, weakening institutional capacity, party politics, and the growing but not threatening call for secession by the Western Cape, among others.

While green technologies would generate jobs, it is important to ask the question — for whom? The ratio of skilled to unskilled workers is imbued with factors such as race and gender. Also, the closing down of plants would result in a surplus of workers in the job market with little to no skills in operating/managing green energy technologies.

Thus, the government, whose coffers are stretched in meeting the domestic development demands of the country, would have to increase spending on reskilling these workers in addition to the numerous development challenge it is faced with. Capital will have to be borrowed, reinforcing the vicious cycle of dependence (and debt-trap) on core countries producing the technology needed for Africa’s transition.

At COP26, rich nations — the US, UK, France, Germany and the EU — pledged to furnish South Africa with R131-billion in loans to finance its transition to a low-carbon economy and climate-resilient society.

While a transition is imminent in Africa, it should be at a suitable pace for the region. African governments have the responsibility to evade the ills/similar outcomes of the structural adjustment programmes in this epoch of green development partnerships. This would include building the necessary capacity at home for adaptation and effective use of resources provided through said partnerships while ensuring that “global powers” do not impose their will (informed by their respective realities at home and their pursuit of national interests) thereby undermining the benefits of green growth and development for Africa.

The goal for Africa, in this epoch of green partnerships, is sustainable and inclusive growth and development. OBP/DM

Ekeminiabasi Eyita-Okon is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS) and Dr David Monyae is the Director of the Centre.

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Absa OBP

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