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This must be the decade when Africa scales up renewable energy and phases out fossil fuels


Debra Roberts is head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit in eThekwini Municipality, Durban. She is a former UNFCCC negotiator for South Africa and was one of the six co-chairs of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in the sixth assessment cycle.

We need Africa to be a new, clean, energy superpower, using the power of our wind and sun for a more sustainable development path. That would help protect us from the worst impacts of climate change because we need a plan for how we’ll cope in a world that gets even hotter.

In a break from the norm, something good happened last week. African leaders committed to scaling up clean, affordable energy in the next six years to deliver reliable, affordable, pollution-free energy to millions of people. 

Good news like this is a much-needed respite from the reports of floods, droughts, heat waves and storms around the world.

We all know why these disasters are happening. The facts have been clear for years: for the past decade, I’ve been one of the scientists contributing to the work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assessing the latest science on climate change.

Rising temperatures and increasingly extreme weather are the result of climate change caused by humans and their unsustainable use of fossil fuels.

But Africans don’t need to look at our screens or a scientific paper to see the impact of the world’s addiction to fossil fuels. It’s happening in front of our eyes. 

All of us notice days getting hotter and storms getting stronger. The multi-year drought in the Horn of Africa has affected one of the world’s most impoverished regions and resulted in acute food insecurity for more than four million people.

This weather increases demand for already scarce electricity for air conditioning and refrigeration. In South Africa, we already deal with hours of rolling blackouts and deadly air pollution because of our continued reliance on ageing coal-fired power stations.

The impact is devastating: the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and an undermining of the health of the poorest and most vulnerable.

Globally, millions of us are harmed by fossil fuels. It’s why I’ve negotiated, on behalf of South Africa at UN climate summits, for help so that we can adapt to the impacts of climate change. And it’s why I’ve worked for almost two decades to help make Durban more resilient. I know that the surest form of adaptation is stopping the use of fossil fuels.

This week, African leaders reached agreement on the Nairobi Declaration at the inaugural African Climate Summit. They set a trajectory to increase Africa’s renewable energy capacity by a factor of five by the end of the decade. That sets a precedent for countries everywhere, and may well help put the world on the path to secure, clean energy.

Those leaders know renewables are already working for Africa. In Kenya, renewable energy sources now generate more than 80% of its electricity. Wind and solar is the cheapest way to produce electricity in four out of five countries. Across Africa, solar energy is helping more women into business.

Clean energy can give us reliable, continuous electricity and help signal the end of load shedding.

This has to be the decade when we scale up renewable energy and phase out fossil fuels. It’s time to be impatient.

South Africa should join Kenya and others to use its global influence to demand a global renewables target and global finance changes that will help Africa reach its continental goal.

We need Africa to be a new, clean, energy superpower, phasing out unreliable, dangerous and expensive fossil fuels and using the power of our wind and sun to open up a more sustainable development path. This must be a just transition that is inclusive and increases the well-being of all.

Doing that would help protect us from the worst impacts of climate change and helps us address inequity and injustice in our society. We need a plan for how we’ll cope in a world that gets even hotter and more unequal. 

In this version of the future, we’ll need more energy to cope with a hotter world: energy to cool buildings, pump more water for irrigation and for hospitals to deal with increased disease burden. Renewables will keep us safer in an increasingly dangerous world.

Africans cannot do this alone. We need the rest of the world to step up. The Nairobi Declaration should act as a stepping stone between now and this year’s make-or-break UN climate conference in December.

At COP28, we need all countries to match Africa’s ambition for secure, clean, safe energy. They should follow in our footsteps and pledge to triple renewable energy. 

And we need finance. 

We have huge renewable energy potential, but debt, financial rules and lack of investment hold our continent back. Africa is home to 60% of the best solar resources globally, yet only 1% of installed solar capacity. That means that sub-Saharan Africa generates less solar-powered electricity than the Netherlands. 

This is also about pragmatism – because clean energy means jobs. A new generation of secure energy could triple global renewables jobs to 38 million. Analysis from the IPCC found that solar and wind power are the top two cheapest and most effective options to deal with climate change. 

Shifting to clean energy won’t be an easy task for governments. But Africa has so many of the ingredients we need to make a success of this: a driven, youthful, growing population. Unlimited supplies of sunshine, geothermal heat, reliable wind and strong tides. Clean energy technology that’s already powering countries across our continent. 

This year, the world has a chance to welcome an era of clean, safe, secure energy by agreeing to triple renewable power. 

African leaders have taken the first step. Who will be next? DM


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