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Transition from fossil fuels to green energy must be handled differently in Africa to prevent an increase in poverty


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the seventh Rector of the United Nations (UN) University and UN Under Secretary-General.

Africa has been hardest hit by the effects of climate change even though it contributes less than 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions compared with 25% for the US, 22% for the EU and 13% for China. We are feeling the aftershocks of the rest of the world’s excesses.

On Tuesday night as I read the developments that had emerged from COP26, I found myself, like many other South Africans, engulfed by the darkness. It seemed almost sinister that the more I read about a shift to renewable energy sources and delved into the negotiations around coal, the more bouts of load shedding I faced in a day.

The last few weeks have been difficult. We have oscillated between stage 2 and stage 4 almost daily. Aside from the frustration of another dinner in the dark, it is difficult to ignore the economic impact of rolling blackouts.

It is estimated that load shedding costs the South African economy R500-million per stage, per day. This is an incredible impact on an already unstable and weak economy. In fact, according to a PwC report, the ongoing power cuts “are expected to result in the shedding of at least 350,000 jobs, despite projections of 3.9% economic growth for 2021”.

Prominent economist Mike Schussler has argued that it is apparent that the country has already “lost millions of jobs and trillions of rands over these 14 years of load shedding”. We cannot go on like this.

Last week, it was encouraging to read that South Africa had secured around R131-billion to transition from coal to green energy. The US, Germany, France, the UK, and the European Union have agreed to fund South Africa’s transition to a green economy. This multilateral effort will be the framework to help other developing nations to move away from fossil fuels, which have high emissions and reduce reliance on coal.

The news came in the wake of the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (Crea) report, which found that Eskom is the “world’s most polluting power company”. According to the report, Eskom has become the largest emitter of sulphur dioxide globally and that these emissions contribute to pollution-related deaths. Despite this, the broader context of our continent is difficult to ignore.

The reality is that Africa has been hardest hit by the effects of climate change even though it contributes less than 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions compared with 25% for the US, 22% for the EU and 13% for China. We are feeling the aftershocks of the rest of the world’s insufficient activity concerning sustainable development and climate change. Climate change damages the agricultural sector, which many economies on the continent still depend on. Increases in temperatures, precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events disrupt entire industries, reduce food availability, and impact food quality.

As the African Development Bank (AfDB) asserts, this is because of the continent’s “low adaptive capacity, as a result of financial and technological limitations, and an over-reliance on rain-fed agriculture”.

This is a difficult pill to swallow when you consider that Africa also has a significant lag in access to electricity. Compounding the impact on Africa is the immense population growth. According to data from the UN, one in four people on this planet will be African by 2050, growing to one in three by 2100. With this rapid growth in population and the resulting urbanisation, it is apparent that the continent needs to be made a priority. The goals of combating climate change while growing the economy almost seem at odds with each other.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) observed that sub-Saharan Africa has annually lost more than $520-million in direct economic damages due to climate change from the beginning of this century. Our avenues for economic growth add to the impact of climate change, which is also stunting our economic growth. Our over-reliance on fossil fuels and the economy’s growth have had a profound effect on the negative consequences of climate change. That is not to say the continent is not doing its part.

According to the 2021 CDC Emerging Economies Climate Report, “by 2019, African countries were already spending about 5% of their annual GDP to support adaptation and mitigation initiatives, exceeding their contributions to climate change.” According to a recent study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Cameroon devotes close to 9% of its GDP to climate adaptation, Ethiopia 8%, Zimbabwe 9%, while Sierra Leone, Senegal and Ghana are all more than 7%.

Even with these high shares of domestic funding, the study found a gap of about 80% between need and expenditure. As Olivia Rumble, Director of the South Africa-based Climate Legal, asserted, “most of the climate financing in adaptation is happening from national budgets and that jeopardises the already dwindling resources that African countries have to deal with adaptation because very little financing goes to addressing the issue.” In fact, most African states have explored some form of renewable energy.

It is expected that African countries will soon have to spend about 15% of GDP to respond to climate crises. South Africa’s partnership, for instance, is indicative of Africa’s willingness to adopt adaptation and mitigation approaches. Mitigation is a human intervention required to reduce emissions and curb the impact of climate change. This would entail shifting away from fossil fuels that place an increased burden on the planet, towards solar or wind power, for example. Adaptation entails making changes in order to live with the impact of climate change. This includes initiatives such as planting more trees and finding ways to live with threats such as wildfires or floods, for instance.

Arguably, however, these are not mutually exclusive endeavours, and the sweet spot likely exists in a combination of mitigation and adaptation. Yet, as was correctly pointed out by Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale, the chair of the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change, the transition from fossil fuel to green energy should be handled differently in Africa to prevent the increase in poverty.

At the centre of Africa’s demands has been a call for more significant funding. As the former head of Greenpeace, Kumi Naidoo, puts it, “let’s just be clear, rich countries’ governments make announcements of financial support, as it did for the $100-million a year for the Green Climate Fund by 2020, which they’ve not delivered. So, let’s see whether that money actually flows. And we need to be vigilant to make sure that those nations actually follow through with that commitment.”

The call is for a mega-financing deal that would channel $700-billion every year from 2025 to assist developing nations adapt to the climate crisis. This is undoubtedly a critical call, but we also have to explore where we head to from here.

This is not only a conversation to be had at a state level. For instance, at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), we ensure that addressing the climate crisis is part of our institution’s curriculum and efforts. Though we are playing individually, we must remember that we still have to play our part. We cannot talk about climate change in a rhetorical fashion, but we must actively continue to explore how we include this in our core functions of teaching and learning. At UJ, one of our central commitments is supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through research, teaching and learning, community outreach and engagement, stewardship, and knowledge transfer.

Already, there is a constant exploration of other sources of energy such as solar power and currently UJ consumes 15% of electricity from solar energy. As Ugandan climate change activist Vanessa Nakate wrote about the impact of climate change, “in some way, therefore, we are all Africa.” DM

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, a member of the Namibia 4IR task Force and author of the book Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in International Relations. He is on Twitter at @txm1971.

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  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Useful and readable, thank you. Refreshing to have an academic being practical about an institutional response to the climate challenges. The fear of many, and mine, is that we are going nowhere near fast enough. Read together with Mark Heywood’s piece today with Valli Moosa we have a very long way to go and we don’t have the luxury of time.

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