Some came from Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa. Others traveled from Uganda and Mozambique. Believing this year would finally be the first “African COP,” activists from all across the Mother Continent trekked to Egypt this month to witness the historic event and represent their communities at the United Nations’ keystone global climate summit.
Many had hoped a deal would be struck on a global “loss and damage” fund through which rich nations would compensate poorer ones for the harms they face from climate change. They also hoped to see increased funding go toward new solar development across the sunshine-rich continent, which hosts 60 percent of the world’s best solar resources, according to the International Energy Agency.
What Africans encountered instead was Europe “wanting to turn Africa into its gas station,” Mohamed Adow, founding director of Power Shift Africa, a clean energy think tank based in Kenya, said while speaking on a COP27 panel last week. “We don’t have to follow the footsteps of the rich world that actually caused climate change in the first place.”
This year’s climate conference has been “African in name only,” Adow added during a separate U.N. event the following day.
Still reeling from the global energy crunch, caused in large part by the repercussions of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many European countries are turning to Africa in their search for alternative sources of oil and gas. Dozens of fossil fuel companies are eyeing potential new reserves in 45 African countries, including areas in Egypt’s Red Sea region, where the U.N. climate talks are wrapping up Friday. In fact, three deals that would deliver oil and gas produced in Egypt, Nigeria and Tanzania to European markets were announced during the last two weeks alone, all while COP27 was taking place.
Those announcements—combined with the fact that the summit’s delegates have yet to resolve major elements of the potential loss and damage agreement—has outraged African climate activists, including Adow, who say their countries are being left out of the global clean energy transition and worry they’ll soon be stuck with stranded assets as rich Western nations wean themselves off fossil fuels in the coming decades.
On Tuesday, more than a dozen African climate activists held a demonstration in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort town where the summit is being hosted, loudly chanting “don’t gas Africa!” and “climate justice now!” through a megaphone. It was one of the few protests that managed to crop up at all inside the city amid Egypt’s heightened COP27 security measures—which many human rights groups have characterized as an authoritarian crackdown on political dissent.
But the role African nations should play in the global energy transition, and whether they should be allowed to build their economies around fossil fuels the way wealthy Western nations did before them, remains a complicated and hotly debated topic. Some 600 million Africans lack access to electricity today, with almost a billion relying on the burning of wood, kerosene or coal to cook, according to the International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook.
In that sense, building out their energy systems quickly, rather than addressing climate change, remains a top priority for many African nations. And many African energy ministers have argued that switching to renewable energy isn’t a viable option for them without far more help from the West.
“We are going to develop all of our energy resources for the benefit of our people because our issue is energy poverty,” Maggy Shino, Namibia’s petroleum commissioner, said last week at COP27. “If you are going to tell us to leave our resources in the ground, then you must be prepared to offer sufficient compensation, but I don’t think anyone has yet come out to make such an offer.”
African energy ministers have also argued that it’s unfair that they would be expected to transition to clean energy before they can build their own wealth using fossil fuels, considering how little their nations have contributed to global warming.
Rich Western nations, especially the United States and countries in Europe, are responsible for a whopping 80 percent of the world’s human-caused greenhouse gas emissions since the Industrial Revolution. By comparison, the entire African continent contributed just 3 percent during that same time period.
Western countries also owe much of their historic wealth to fossil fuels and continue to generate billions in annual revenue by exporting them. And the leaders of many African countries argue that they, too, should be allowed to build wealth by tapping and selling their own reserves. In fact, some African nations, such as Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria, are highly dependent on revenues from oil and gas production and could face real financial trouble if their ability to sell those products is constrained.
The European Union has also argued that fossil fuels should play a “transitional role” for African countries on their way to clean economies. But many African climate activists have called those arguments disingenuous, saying it’s Europe, not the African people, who will benefit most from efforts to boost oil and gas production across the continent.
“All projects coming to the continent are for exploitation. It’s very colonial,” Omar Elmawi, the executive director of the Kenya-based Muslims for Human Rights, told Insider. “Despite Africa’s renewable-energy potential, we’re not seeing investors or banks look at it as an opportunity. Africa is becoming a petrol station that feeds the interests of the Global North.”
Tapping new oil and gas reserves could ultimately trigger what economists have long called the “resource curse.” That’s when a country discovers a valuable resource like gold or oil, which should benefit its residents. But ultimately the discovery ends up harming the public by leading to increased conflict, corruption, poverty and poor health outcomes. Experts have even pointed to the poverty and corruption in Nigeria as a prime example of this trend.
Recent reports released by the African Climate Foundation also suggest that new fossil fuel development in Mozambique, Tanzania and other African nations will likely become a drain on public finances in the long term. Nations that invest too heavily in liquified natural gas extraction, for example, may find short term profit in today’s market, but could soon be left with few buyers and a glut of unsold gas as the cost of renewables continues to fall and Western countries accelerate their transition to those technologies.
African nations are also top candidates for solar development, IEA’s Africa Energy Outlook noted, suggesting that money currently being invested in new oil and gas operations might better be spent on solar projects. The report found that Africa has around “60 percent of the world’s best solar-energy resources, but only 1 percent of installed photovoltaic capacity.”
EIA’s outlook also estimated that every African nation could provide its residents access to affordable energy with an annual investment of about $25 billion through 2030, so long as most of that money goes toward renewable projects. That’s the same amount of money needed to build just one liquified natural gas export terminal, the report noted.
For Adow, the choice couldn’t be simpler. He just hopes African leaders at the COP come to the same conclusion. “We must embrace renewables,” he said. “Let’s never ever accept the notion that in order to transition, we need to expand fossil fuels. I don’t want Africa left with the infrastructure of 100 years ago.”
That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday—but before you go:
Activists and disinformation experts are chastising the United Nations for giving a platform to Njock Ayuk Eyong, the chairman of the African Energy Chamber, a pro-oil and gas trade group. Not only was Ayuk convicted of fraudulently obtaining U.S. visas and accused of laundering $2.5 million in Ghana, they said, but he was actively spreading climate misinformation online ahead of COP27 as part of his “drill baby drill” communications campaign at the global climate summit.
Plus, former U.S. President Donald Trump officially announced this week that he was running for president for the third time, taking the time on the campaign trail to ridicule efforts to tackle global warming and drastically mischaracterize climate science.
“The Green New Deal and the environment, which they say may affect us in 300 years, is all that is talked about,” Trump said, grossly exaggerating the well-known timeline scientists have laid out in their climate impact studies. “They say the ocean will rise one-eighth of an inch over the next 200 to 300 years, but don’t worry about nuclear weapons that can take out entire countries.”
That’s how many times more likely global warming made the floods that killed more than 800 people in Nigeria, Niger and Chad this summer and fall, according to a new attribution study.