Africa Energy Week: Where climate science makes way for the gods of gas and coal
Over the course of the week, the organisers of Africa Energy Week 2023 gave a key platform to alleged fraudsters, sanctioned Russian energy companies, oil giants and people who deny climate science.
In the weeks leading up to COP28 in Dubai, the world’s largest climate change conference, Cape Town hosted a very different kind of event – Africa Energy Week (AEW) 2023.
Billed as the “biggest energy event in Africa”, AEW was a four-day gathering of oil and gas executives, policy-makers, government officials and investors from around the world.
The conference’s theme, “The African Energy Renaissance: Prioritising Energy Poverty, People, the Planet, Industrialisation and Free Markets”, was a thinly veiled attempt to greenwash what was in practice a fossil fuel jamboree.
Organised by the Africa Energy Chamber, the conference and its speakers ferociously pushed back against global calls for an immediate transition from fossil fuels, with support received from some African government representatives and even presidents.
Namibian President Hage Geingob showcased Namibia as a champion in renewable and non-renewable energy, emphasising that Africa should be permitted to explore and exploit its natural endowments for the prosperity of the continent.
“Namibia is currently a hotbed for hydrocarbon prospecting, with a share of 13% of all offshore rigs operating in Africa… For the African energy renaissance to be meaningful, Africa should be permitted to explore and exploit its natural endowments for the good of the continent.
“It should not be for export to other countries, but for the benefit of African people.”
Despite claiming to champion an energy mix, AEW was found to be severely lacking in its renewable energy-focused speakers, panel discussions and exhibitions – with only one renewable energy exhibitor in a hall filled with oil and gas companies.
The event was organised by people with alleged criminal backgrounds and gave an important platform to those who deny climate science. It allowed a sanctioned Russian energy company to seek out new business opportunities and companies who hide the realities of global warming to present themselves as the solution.
Writ large, the event was a rebuke of the broad climate science consensus which holds that human activity is the primary driver of climate change and that fossil fuels are the main source of greenhouse gas emissions.
A moral case for fossil fuels
American fossil fuel advocate Alex Epstein was one of the advertised speakers at the conference, having authored The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and Fossil Future.
He urged African countries to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and reject the net-zero movement as he believes Africa needs rapid growth in fossil fuel use – the opposite of net zero – to develop and prosper.
“I don’t think you can say we need to just transition to net zero… I think we need a just energy expansion and that the whole focus should be for as much freedom, as much energy as quickly as possible, as much development and prosperity as quickly as possible,” he said.
According to Epstein, Africans need fossil fuels to prosper because every prosperous country has developed using fossil fuels – even prosperous countries can’t replace it with solar and wind energy, he argued.
“Fossil-fueled development isn’t causing a climate crisis; it’s making humanity much safer from climate change.
“The obvious path for African development and prosperity is to use fossil fuel whenever it is the most cost-effective option, which is most of the time, and certainly to responsibly produce the significant fossil fuel resources that exist in Africa.
“It is deadly for Africa to forego fossil fuels.”
Epstein said: “Africans can and should challenge the energy transition agenda.”
While Epstein’s speech was welcomed by AEW delegates, his claims are widely disputed by scientists and economists.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Fake supporters welcome climate change denialist to Africa Energy Week in Cape Town
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading authority on climate science, has concluded that climate change is real, human-caused and already having a devastating impact on Africa.
Epstein spouted what amounted to “a classic case of climate change denialism”, according to Prof Francois Engelbrecht, a climatologist at Wits University’s Global Change Institute and an IPCC report contributor, as well as Dr Christopher Trisos, an author on the IPCC’s sixth assessment report.
Engelbrecht said that giving a climate change denier like Epstein such a prominent platform at AEW was an insult to the African countries that strongly advocated for global warming to be restricted to below 1.5°C, particularly as Africa already suffers disproportionately from climate change.
“The group of countries that negotiate together as Africa has, in fact, been the most prominent voice in the commissioning of the IPCC’s special report on global warming of 1.5°C. It was Africa and the small island states that realised their countries are the most vulnerable to the future impact of climate change,” Engelbrecht said.
Trisos added: “It’s unfortunate that the African Energy Chamber has given a platform for misinformation that endangers the lives and livelihoods of millions and millions of Africans. If this misinformation and narrative are followed, it only stands to benefit some African elites in the fossil fuels business, but at the cost of millions of people vulnerable to climate change.”
The case for ‘clean coal’
Another panel with an eye-catching name was, “King coal is back: Africa’s future clean coal industry”. It was moderated by Dr Lars Schernikau, an energy economist and adviser to German commodity trading company HMS Bergbau AG.
In his keynote speech ahead of the panel, Dr Zwanani Titus Mathe, CEO of the South African National Energy Development Institute, was adamant that the energy mix in Africa would always comprise coal, oil and gas.
“The energy mix of the future will always have coal (albeit reduced)… we must therefore continue to invest in coal, continue researching around coal – it will always be there and it’s not about to disappear… Therefore clean coal technologies should be pursued.
“The integration of renewable energy into coal mining and coal utilisation will improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gases, contributing to climate change targets, while low carbon technologies – including clean coal, oil and gas – are set to play a key role during energy transition in Africa.”
In this transition, Mathe said Africa should carefully consider defining the role of coal and its byproducts in producing critical and rare-earth minerals for the future green economy.
“In the short to medium term, it is very clear that baseload power will come from coal-fired power plants and nuclear power plants. We must invest and protect existing infrastructure for this and avoid its collapse, (and stop) hoping that something new is going to save the day, because it’s not.”
In the same panel, Lemogang Pitsoe, CEO of African Exploration Mining and Finance Corporation, said there was a growing need in Africa for advancements in “clean coal technology and the exploration of innovative solutions for producing cleaner energy”.
Mathe added that while this takes place, “we must not be denialist… global warming is real and is having a severe negative impact. We must use coal in a clean manner and utilise it with renewables.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: The (empty) promises of ‘clean coal’ power generation technologies for South Africa
The Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), a civil society organisation, argues that there is no such thing as clean coal.
They explain that the processes associated with either method of mining coal are inherently dirty, with serious environmental and health implications.
From the loss of arable land and acid mine drainage to particulate emissions and greenhouse gases, “There are no methods that can avoid all or even most of the detrimental impacts of the mining and processing of coal.”
In general, three technologies are the main focus of “clean coal” proponents: Supercritical and ultra-supercritical (USC) boiler technology; circulating fluidised bed (CFB) combustion systems, and CO2 disposal using carbon capture and storage (CCS).
Plants that make use of USC, or high-efficiency, low-emissions, require a substantial increase in capital and operating costs, in a situation where coal power is already more expensive than renewable energy – and they still generate greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the CER, CFB systems can use lower-quality coal, including discard coal, if lime is injected directly into the furnace to control CO2 emissions.
“The use of discard coal in this way will also result in air pollution; the increase in the amount of water used to wash the discard coal, and an increase in the amount of ash and sorbent to be dumped because of the higher ash content.”
CCS is perhaps the most mainstream clean coal concept, although its effectiveness in the South African context remains unproven at scale, and the cost-effectiveness of coupling the technology with coal power generation infrastructure as opposed to renewable energy generation infrastructure is unclear.
Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Drill, baby, drill; gas, baby, gas’: African energy ministers solidify pro-fossil fuel position ahead of COP27
Among the more prominent speakers at AEW was NJ Ayuk, executive chair of the African Energy Chamber and one of the key organisers of the event.
An article in Climate Home News explains that court documents show “Ayuk was convicted of fraud in the US for impersonating a congressman. In connection with his law firm, Centurion Law Group, which brokers oil and gas deals across the continent, he was investigated for money laundering by Ghana’s central bank.”
According to Climate Home News, in 2007, Ayuk pleaded guilty to illegally using Congressman Donald Payne’s stationery and signature stamp to obtain visas to the United States for 11 people from Cameroon while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland. He was sentenced to 18 months’ probation and expelled from the country.
However, when questioned about media reports that Ayuk may have been involved in fraud, he denied there was any truth to the allegations.
“People are always going to throw that smear, and it’s always going to be there,” he said.
Greenwashing in the energy transition
When questioned about the imbalance of speakers and panels focused on fossil-fuelled energy and renewable energy at the conference, the Cameroonian businessman said, “We as the Africa Energy Chamber and myself have evolved; we came from a very fossil fuel-driven organisation…
“Three years ago, and even five years ago, we would not be at this place where today, we can see that it’s not only going to be about fossil fuels for Africa – it’s going to be about everything.
“We’re going to have to fast-track and welcome renewables into our energy systems, and I think this conference might not have reflected the majority of that, given the speakers and everything that we wanted, but there is a little bit of a shift to saying that this is not just oil and gas, this is all energy.”
Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate change is already enveloping southern Africa — here’s how we know
Africa as a last frontier
In the face of mounting public pressure and government regulation, the global fossil fuel industry is increasingly turning to Africa as a last frontier for oil and gas development.
But Africa is not a blank slate. The continent is already experiencing some of the worst impacts of human-induced climate change, from droughts to storms and flooding, with many reeling from the impacts of these events.
The International Energy Agency, the world’s foremost authority on matters of energy, has also had its say. In its World Energy Outlook report, it said that “in the updated net-zero scenario, a huge policy-driven ramping up of clean energy capacity drives fossil fuel demand 25% lower by 2030, reducing emissions by 35% compared with the all-time high recorded in 2022. By 2050, fossil fuel demand falls by 80%.
“As a result, no new long-lead-time upstream oil and gas projects are needed. Neither are new coal mines, mine extensions or new unabated coal plants.”
This was all but ignored at AEW.
Increasingly, African leaders are recognising that they need to transition to a clean energy future if they want to protect their economies and their people.
Despite the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to downplay the threat of climate change, the world is waking up to the reality of the crisis.
COP28, which will be held in Dubai in December, will be a critical opportunity for world leaders to come together and agree on ambitious climate action.
At a time when the world needs to be moving away from fossil fuels, AEW was a step backwards. But it was also a reminder of the powerful forces that are trying to block climate action.
While COP is a global effort to address climate change, AEW 2023 – the anti-COP – was a celebration and full-throated defence of its main causes. DM