Climate crisis can’t be solved without Africa, by Mark Buchanan

*Developed countries must do their part to end the African continent’s dependence on fossil fuels and support renewable-energy projects

Mark Buchanan

The Joe Biden administration’s plan to pursue a 50% reduction in the United States’ (US) greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is hugely encouraging.

It’s already spurred other nations, including Canada and Japan, to adopt more aggressive plans of their own.

But global progress in the coming decades will hinge on what happens in developing nations, especially India and China, now the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. There’s another looming problem, too.

In a few years, the most populous continent on Earth will be Africa, which looks set by 2040 to contribute new fossil-fuel demand fully equivalent to China’s.

As such, lasting progress on the climate-change problem may depend on whether Africa can quickly find a pathway to a clean-energy future.

Some experts think it’s plausible. Even so, a look at the recent history of African renewable-energy projects suggests it’s far from likely.

That’s the sobering conclusion of an effort by researchers at Oxford University to use data on new African energy projects to build an evidence-based view of the prospects for a rapid shift to renewable energy.

As it turns out, renewable-energy projects have had poor success in making it through the many stages of development and entering into operation.

By 2030, the research suggests, Africa will likely still get only about 10% of its electricity from renewables other than hydroelectric generation — unless there’s some truly radical break with recent patterns, aided in part by significant foreign investment.

African nations together currently get around 80% of their electricity from fossil fuels, and their carbon emissions are rising as fast as they are anywhere else. Where things will be in a decade is far from certain.

Many analysts project that Africa could bypass the traditional phase of carbon-intensive development and leap straight into cleaner technologies, but that assumes a lot about future trends in energy supply, as well as policy.

As a reality check, Galina Alova and other researchers at the University of Oxford School of Geography and Environment recently undertook an independent assessment to see if such optimistic projections track with the recent history of energy projects.

They considered data on nearly 3,000 power-plant projects in more than 50 African countries, using machine-learning algorithms to identify the factors that determine a project’s success or failure.

One surprising finding of the study is that general country-level factors — things like economic indicators and the quality of governing institutions — aren’t as influential as many previous studies have supposed.

More decisive were specific details of the projects themselves, such as fuel type, plant size and source of funding. These factors in combination predicted fully 75% of successes and failures.

More important is what comes out of the analysis about the near-term future of renewable energy in Africa.

Based on current trends, the algorithms predicted that roughly three-quarters of the power projects currently under development will actually be producing by 2030, doubling Africa’s generation capacity over the next decade.

Yet, most of this will remain fossil-fuel-intensive, with non-hydroelectric renewable energy providing only 10% of the continent’s power, less than one-third of the share predicted by the more optimistic estimates.

Nearly two-thirds of the total generation will still come from fossil fuels.

The emergence of a second China’s worth of fossil-fuel emissions over the next two decades would be disastrous for the planet.

But avoiding that outcome, it seems, is going to take much bolder action than policies currently foresee.

The analysis by Alova and her colleagues implies the urgent need to cancel many of the fossil-fuel-based plants currently planned and replace them with renewable projects.

The study also identifies some other factors likely to boost the uptake of renewable energy.

It turns out, for example, that smaller, lower-cost projects have been more successful, probably because this approach diminishes financial risks and avoids the inherent complexities of large projects.

The involvement of government-owned development finance institutions also reduces project risk, as governments can better absorb economic losses and delays during project development than private institutions can.

Equally important, of course, could be financial help from the international community. Chinese investors are behind roughly 50% of the currently contracted hydroelectric projects in Africa.

Similar investment from the US and other developed nations for renewable-energy projects could help African nations avoid getting “locked in” to fossil-fuel infrastructure that would add a massive new source of emissions.

President Biden’s administration has committed to doubling its climate funding to developing nations by 2024, but in comparison with other nations, experts suggest, this move actually lacks ambition, especially coming after four years of inaction under the Donald Trump administration.

Reducing emissions in developed nations is, of course, a necessary first step. But expanding financial aid for renewable projects in African nations may be one of the most efficient uses of our resources, especially given the projected economic future of the region in the next two decades. (Bloomberg)

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book, ‘Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics’.

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