When will rich countries take responsibility? Last week, ahead of Cop26 in Glasgow, it was revealed that many of them had lobbied against the UN’s climate recommendations – namely that urgent action is needed. At the same time, some questioned the need to fund poorer countries to adapt to the effects of climate change – despite the failure by developed countries to deliver the $100bn (GBP75bn) they had pledged.
Africa has done little to create the climate crisis. Yet the locust plagues in the Horn of Africa, the first climate change famine in Madagascar and the water crises in southern Africa are all evidence that my continent is already paying the price of others’ emissions. The fund that some would like diminished is not charity, but a cleaning fee that must be paid.
To compound this, wealthy countries are also imposing energy transition on Africa that risks doing great harm. Several governments and multilateral lending institutions are banning funding for fossil-fuel infrastructure – and encouraging others to follow suit. This may sound logical on paper, but it rules out transitioning through natural gas, the cleanest fossil fuel. And in practice, it only applies to poor countries, while richer countries face few bans on developing or importing gas.
Africans have a right to electricity. But renewables cannot yet fully service their needs and aspirations. Storage technologies are not advanced enough to make solar, wind and other intermittent energy sources dependable. Access to electricity – one of the UN’s sustainable development goals – means more than charging a phone through a solar panel. It is about the on-demand, sustained and intensive energy needed to power industrialisation, build infrastructure, create jobs and ultimately lift citizens from poverty.
Africa is the world’s least electrified continent and almost 600 million people lack reliable access. If, excluding South Africa, sub-Saharan electricity consumption tripled overnight powered by natural gas, global emissions would rise by only 0.62%.
In addition to powering manufacturing, gas would also underwrite agricultural development and food security. Energy-intensive irrigation systems will be needed to modernise farms. So too will synthetic fertiliser, the most efficient feedstock of which is natural gas. As droughts and crop failure become more common, both will be in ever greater demand to keep the continent fed.
Dealing with climate change means also dealing with its consequences. Efficient transport infrastructure, food security and reliable energy grids are all needed to mitigate against natural disasters such as droughts and flooding. The more developed a country, the more resilient. And if clean natural gas replaces charcoal and other poisonous biomasses for indoor cooking, hundreds of thousands of lives, mostly those of women and children, will be saved across the continent.
Currently the favoured energy unit across the continent is the diesel-powered generator. Unless a reliable alternative is offered, this dirtier practice will persist – because a choice between no energy or dirty energy is no choice for individuals and businesses in the developing world.
Importantly, tapping gas resources does not preclude renewables in Africa’s energy mix. The continent already draws much from such sources. Malawi, for instance, gets more than 80% of its electricity from hydropower.
A more nuanced approach is needed if climate equity and justice are to be respected. When the concepts were written into the 2015 Paris accord to combat climate change, it meant two things. First, countries that had become rich through hydrocarbons had a duty to cut emissions faster to allow poorer countries to develop. Second, those same countries had a responsibility to help undeveloped countries adapt to the adverse conditions they did not create. The impacts of the climate crisis are inherently unfair. They are spread unevenly across the globe, with Africa the continent most at risk.
To strike a global deal in Paris, these different rights and responsibilities, duties and obligations had to be weighed, debated and then ratified. But blanket gas bans for the developing world show the west has forgotten the first principle. Repeated failure to mobilise the promised billions in climate aid shows that it has ignored the second – not just an act of dishonour, but of betrayal as well.
If countries with the greatest capacity to effect change do not, those with more modest means should not be expected to do so. At Cop26, the west must show that it is now fit for the challenge and will finally fulfil its obligations. Only then will equity and justice become more than a mere slogan.
Lazarus Chakwera is president of Malawi, chair of the 46-member Least Developed Countries and chair of Southern Africa Development Community