A year ago, we welcomed 2021 with a sense of cautious optimism when the newly developed vaccines promised a shift in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The focus turned towards building back better and doing things differently as many countries started to rethink and rebuild their shattered economies.
For African countries, however, the pandemic exposed the stark realities of global inequality. These countries scrambled to buttress their shattered food systems; they lacked industries to shift production to life-saving personal protection equipment even as young Africans were left out of schools because of lack of access to electricity and the internet, which made the shift to virtual learning almost impossible.
The pandemic revealed how Africa, despite its best efforts, was unprepared for some of the pressing emergencies of our times, be it the pandemic or the looming threat of climate change.
The UN Office of the Special Adviser for Africa is advocating for Africa to transition into 2022 with a sense of utmost urgency in building the continent’s resilience. We firmly believe that the foundational building blocks to this resilience lie in Africans’ access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy.
For over a decade, the United Nations has touted energy as “The golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability” to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Energy is the key to unlocking Africa’s future envisioned in the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
Whether it is for economic transformation, ensuring food security, digitalizing education, revolutionizing health systems, building manufacturing and industrialization capacities, or sustaining peace by creating quality jobs and delivering services, no country in the world has achieved these ambitions without abundant and affordable access to energy.
Access to energy will make or break the continent’s effort to tackle climate change effects, including adverse weather events, water scarcity and significant threats to livelihoods.
However, Africans are getting the short end of the stick in the global race to combat climate change when it comes to energy.
First, the promised financing to invest in reliable energy systems and adaptation is trickling very slowly to where it is needed most.
Second, Africa could be handicapped if the global-level policies designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions and the proposed timelines toward net-zero emissions do not take the continent’s unique and nuanced circumstances into account.
Looking ahead at what 2022 holds for Africa’s quest for equitable energy access, it would be remiss not to reflect on three major events that took place in 2021 namely, the High-Level Dialogue on Energy (HLDE), the Food Systems Summit and the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26).
Among other factors, energy remains vital to the full implementation of promises made at these events. In the roadmap that ensued after the HLDE, UN Secretary-General António Guterres set a target date of 2025 to ensure 500 million more people gain access to electricity and 1 billion more people gain access to clean cooking solutions.
The Food Systems Summit called for a transformation in global food systems “in ways that contribute to people’s nutrition, health and well-being, restore and protect nature, are climate neutral, adapted to local circumstances, and provide decent jobs and inclusive economies.”
The COP 26 outcome document calls for bold and strengthened goals by countries to reduce emissions through more ambitious Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for COP 27.
What do these mean for African countries? These ambitious proposals require massive investments in capacity building, infrastructure development and regulations. Indeed, the amounts needed are much more than anything currently on the table.
While significant financial pledges have been made at these summits, African countries are wary of them being fulfilled, and rightfully so. Developed countries are still “progressing” towards delivering the $100 billion by 2020 climate finance goal (a broken promise) and now hope to reach it by 2023.
Added to previous failed promises, trust has further been eroded with a significantly varied and unequal pace of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic evidenced, for example, in the mismatch between promised COVID-19 vaccine distribution pledges versus what has been delivered for African countries.
There are increasing calls for the private sector to fill these financing gaps. However, the private sector inherently operates on a profit-making model that differs from the public good model expected of the public sector. It requires tailored incentives, foolproof technologies that can guarantee certain profit margins, and risk minimization models for the sector to come in at a large enough scale.
In addition, the nuanced approach and extended timelines needed for Africa to achieve a balanced energy mix are getting lost in the shuffle. African countries should not be confined to limited options or cornered into untenable paths to energy access, especially with the call for public finance institutions to stop international support for the unabated fossil fuel energy sector in 2022.
The stakes are high for Africa to get it right, hence this urgent call to action towards building the continent’s energy systems. Energy presents a compelling multiplier effect for Africa’s renaissance. It is the cornerstone to ensuring food security by improving efficiency in food production, storage, transportation, and job creation through value addition.
Reductions in post-harvest losses, combined with improved cooking solutions, would have an added benefit of minimizing deforestation. Africa’s industrial revolution and achieving the African Continental Free Trade Area’s potential hinge on access to reliable, affordable, and adequate energy.
Finally, energy access is among the major building blocks to deliver services, adapt to climate risks and provide sustainable livelihoods, ensuring the continent’s peace, security and development for the next generation.
As we prepare for COP 27, we cannot be complacent. We must jointly advocate for Africa’s equitable future through a balanced energy mix and realistic timelines. We owe it to all Africans—past, present and future—to move beyond negotiating for the bare minimum.