Renewable energy: Africa can lead the way

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 • Thomas Ekelund


Carolyn Auma Okeyo helps her daughter Mercy to study using a light powered by a solar panel, in Kenya. "Now I can study or do my homework up to 10 at night," says Mercy. "I don’t inhale smoke any more and it is a good thing"
Photo: ACT/Christian Aid/Antoinette Powell

Africa has the power to ensure its people have greater access to energy by using renewable sources. If this colossal power is tapped across the continent, it would allow many African countries not only to head for a sustainable future but also to develop economically and meet many of its targets for reducing poverty.

ACT Alliance member Christian Aid shows, in a newly released report, that African countries have huge potential to start generating new energy sources. Taking examples from six sub-Saharan countries, the report highlights the new energy sources at hand that can enable Africa to develop and take the lead in developing a greener and more sustainable society.

Dr Alison Doig, one of the lead authors and senior adviser on climate change and sustainable development at Christian Aid, says there was an urgent need for plausible evidence of the potentials on the African continent. The report, Low-carbon Africa: Leapfrogging to a Green Future was published to bring an optimistic vision for Africa to the United Nations climate summit in the South African city of Durban - the COP17.

“Africa is not only a climate hell-to-be, as often perceived”, says Dr Doig. "This report is trying to make a strong case by gathering lots of information from lots of places. There is a huge potential for developing forms of renewable energy across the continent, which is largely untapped. All forms offer significant potential, both for delivering basic needs and unlocking economic growth.’ ”

Energy poverty and potentials

Dr Alison Doig says the most important findings in the report are that Africa both experiences appalling energy poverty and offers a huge variety of possible sources of energy. With only 31 per cent of the population of the continent having access to electricity, 719 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa practically go without. Lack of energy has hindered Africa’s efforts to meet the ambitious United Nations targets - the Millennium Development Goals – designed to reduce poverty and its consequences drastically by 2015. Smoke fumes from cooking on open fires cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children under five every year through respiratory illnesses. Yet there are options: the energy produced by waterfalls, underground heat, wind power, direct heat from the sun and modern biofuel technologies are rich green resources. But they are used to less then one per cent of capacity.

Ironically, Africa currently registers the highest intensity of energy consumption in the world because of its imports, which are environmentally expensive and unsustainable, and dependent on coal, oil, wood fuels and natural gas.

But is Africa really interested in lowering emissions? Dr Doig says it’s all about looking into the future. The political focus of the mitigation lobby – those who want countries to reduce the effects of global warming - has so far concentrated on India and China, as the two countries represent around a third of the world’s population. India and China are rapidly building up their coal-burning potential and creating ‘high carbon’ societies. But Africa’s economic development - from the perspective of those countries wanting to develop while also absolutely needing to reduce poverty - has been neglected.

“You can project a really poor future or you can say “Lets invest in Africa, lets make it work.” You can either lock them into a high carbon future now or predict a future of low carbon and green energy. Looking ten years down the road to an Africa with coal power stations, you are too late.”

Giving Africa its fair share of funds

Modernisation in the rich northern parts of the globe has, until now, required massive increases in carbon emissions through the use of fossil fuels. Dr Doig says that South Africa, for example, is on the road to a high carbon future. But many countries on the African continent are not.

The sense of little or no progress in economic or political terms in many countries has made the continent a risky investment. But, Dr Doig says, the solution to catalysing green development is for Africa to get its fair share of investment - and mitigation funds. Overcoming the initial and relatively high costs of investing in renewable sources of energy in Africa could ultimately pave the way for thriving markets in green technology. Funding would enable Africa to carry the initial costs of developing a ‘green pathway’, allowing it to develop markets and technology, and eventually sell that technology back to Europe, China or India.

‘The funding must be substantial. It is estimated that about US $20bn a year is needed to deliver basic energy to all by 2030, and US $30-35bn a year to deliver a higher level of low carbon development. Funding to help Africa achieve low carbon development should be met from the Green Climate Fund, which is expected to be set up at the UN Climate negotiations in Durban."

ACT can make the difference

Dr Alison Doig says that, with members coming together with a shared mission to promote low carbon development at the COP17, ACT Alliance can make a difference. With its international outreach and southern voices, ACT has a potential to make a strong and persuasive case.

“We focused on Africa in our report because of the absolute need. But look at India. Hundreds of millions don’t have access to energy. They have potential. And so have many other countries in the global south”.

The report Low-carbon Africa: Leapfrogging to a Green Future is available at