By Philippe Benoit and David Sandalow
Africa is caught in the crosshairs of climate change. Despite contributing just three to five percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions, the continent will endure climate change’s destructive impact, including more severe storms, rising temperatures, and erratic rainfall in the years ahead that threaten the well-being of hundreds of millions of people.
Renewable energy is an important part of the solution, and Africa enjoys an enormous potential in this regard. With some of the world’s highest levels of solar irradiance, vast expanses of land with favourable wind conditions and powerful rivers with immense hydroelectric potential, Africa is teeming with renewable energy resources. However, the continent’s progress in tapping into this potential lags, leaving a huge energy access challenge as well as a power generation deficit that is stunting business and other drivers of inclusive economic growth.
As the world gears up for the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) to be held in the United Arab Emirates, the need to sustainably address Africa’s energy demands is all too apparent. Doing so will require rethinking the approach and reshaping policies to dramatically grow Africa’s energy system.
This will require big and bold actions, including massive investments in large-scale infrastructure. It will also require investment in information and other soft assets. And, significantly, it will also necessitate small and micro-scale grassroots initiatives which are particularly important to ensure that local populations remain active participants in the process.
The shortage of energy in Africa is a pressing problem. Over half the people in Africa still don’t have electricity access – a major contributor to persistent poverty. This gap drives households to rely on inefficient and polluting energy sources like charcoal, wood, and kerosene. This pervasive energy deficit, highlighted in the ‘Tracking SDG7: The energy progress report for 2022’, has profound implications for health, education, and sustainable development across the continent.
An even larger portion of the population lacks access to clean cooking technologies, a crisis disproportionately affecting women and girls, and exposing them to harmful household air pollution that was responsible in 2019 for approximately 700,000 deaths across Africa. Rather than diminishing, the number of people without access is projected to potentially rise from 923 milion in 2020 to 1.1 billion in 2030.
But Africa’s energy problem extends beyond the lack of access to electricity and clean cooking targeted by SDG#7. In too many places across the continent, there is a lack of sufficient and reliable electricity to power businesses that are the backbone of Africa’s growth drive. The result is a combination of inadequate supply or expensive generators acquired to compensate for the inefficiencies. Fundamentally, Africa’s ability to stimulate local entrepreneurs or attract international developers and capital is too often being undermined by a weak electricity network.
The shift in focus to renewables provides an opportunity to change the narrative and realities of Africa’s power system. The large amounts of financing being discussed for climate (including in the lead-up to and at COP28) – amounts which tend to exceed the levels of funding traditionally mobilised for poverty alleviation – provide an important opportunity for the continent.
Mobilising funding to harness Africa’s bountiful renewable energy would not only help to meet its current and increasingly large future energy needs, but also contribute to global efforts to avoid prospective greenhouse gas emissions.
Moreover, Africa’s renewables are large enough to both meet domestic needs, and also help to power green development abroad, including through the export of green electricity to Europe or even, eventually, hydrogen generated from its massive hydropower resources.
Unlocking Africa's renewable potential will require supportive policies, robust regulations, technological innovation, and substantial investment. Strong, sound and predictable regulatory frameworks and institutions are key.
Better information is also vital. For example, the African Energy Commission has established the Strategic Framework on the African Bioenergy Data Management that seeks to raise awareness of the potential of the bioenergy sector, reflecting the specificities of the reality on the ground in the region.
Given Africa’s limited financial resource base, any solution requires reaching beyond Africa’s borders. Wealthy nations can bring capital, expertise, and adapted technologies to the continent. South-South cooperation can encourage peer learning, the dissemination of technological solutions adapted to local climatic conditions and the developing country economic context, and support the deployment of the increasing financial capacities of emerging economies to support Africa’s renewables. Multilateral development banks, development finance institutions, export credit agencies and private capital should also all do more.
The hosting of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provides an opportunity to mobilise funding for Africa from a broader set of actors and countries, moving beyond the traditional North/South divide. In fact, climate finance has been identified by the COP28 host as one of the key goals of this COP.
As COP28 President Sultan Al-Jaber said in Paris recently, “For countries that have done the least to cause climate change, climate finance remains unaccessible, unavailable and unaffordable….” Can COP28, with UAE leadership, deliver for Africa on this potential?
One UAE initiative – the Zayed Sustainability Prize – has already helped promote local action in addressing these challenges. (One of the authors is a member of the Selection Committee for the Prize.)
Over the years, the Zayed Sustainability Prize has supported sustainable change around the world by recognising and rewarding innovative and impactful organisations working to overcome development barriers, including limited access to reliable power, clean water, quality healthcare, and healthy food.
For example, M-KOPA, which won in the Energy category in 2015, uses digital technology to help its customers make micropayments towards essential products and services, such as smartphones, refrigerators, solar panels, even bank loans and health insurance. Last month, it closed $250 million in new funding to expand its fintech services to underbanked consumers in Kenya, Nigeria, and more recently, Ghana.
Another winner was the Starehe Girls Centre, which empowers disadvantaged girls by granting them access to quality education. The school won the Prize in 2017 in the Global High Schools category in recognition of its efforts to reduce utility bills through the installation of solar panels and more efficient lighting. These financial savings have allowed it to admit more girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Generating local action is a critical input to ensure that massive investment programmes translate into a just transition for households. To this end, large-scale infrastructure must be accompanied by people-centric programmes.
Africa's renewable energy potential could help drive enormous economic growth in the region while also helping the world address the challenge of climate change. The potential is there, and it will require action … in ways big and small.
About the authors
Philippe Benoit is the Research Director for Global Infrastructure Analytics and Sustainability 2050. He previously held management positions at the World Bank and the International Energy Agency and has over 20 years of experience working on Africa.
David Sandalow is Inaugural Fellow at the Centre on Global Energy Policy, Columbia University, and a member of the Selection Committee of the Zayed Sustainability Prize.