Why Africa is central to the climate change conundrum

In the matter of climate change, as in so much else, Africa is an afterthought. To the extent that anyone considers it at all, it is characterised as victim. A continent that has historically emitted so little carbon has missed out on the wealth that burning fossil fuels has bestowed on other regions. The resulting poverty has left many countries more vulnerable to droughts, floods, hurricanes and seesawing rain patterns.

Next month, an African country will host the world’s latest carbon gabfest when thousands of delegates descend by jet plane on Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh for the UN climate summit. Yet even then, Africa will be considered a rounding error.

In truth, Africa is more central to the issue of climate change than almost anyone recognises. True, today, its roughly 1.4bn people — 17 per cent of the global population — account for just 2 to 3 per cent of global emissions from energy and industry, according to the UN. Subtract Egypt, Algeria and coal-intense South Africa, and that drops closer to 1 per cent.

Yet this is misleading. First, it undercounts the emissions from agriculture and what the UN calls “land use change”, which in much of Africa means rapid deforestation, often for firewood and charcoal. McKinsey has calculated that Africa’s contribution to global carbon emissions is closer to 6 per cent and to fully 10 per cent of gases including methane and nitrogen dioxide. In the Congo Basin rainforest, Africa has the biggest carbon sink on the planet after the Amazon. Put another way, it is sitting on a carbon bomb. According to Gabon’s calculations, the small section of the forest in that country alone contains an estimated 26.5 gigatonnes of carbon, about five year’s worth of US emissions.

Second, unless the plan is to keep Africa poor forever, the continent’s carbon emissions will rise dramatically under any business-as-usual scenario. Today Africans on average emit 0.7 tonnes of carbon a year per capita, according to the World Bank, against a global average of 4.5 tonnes and 14.7 tonnes in the US. But per capita consumption, low as it is, has been rising rapidly. Africa has the fastest growing and fastest urbanising population in the world. By 2060, the World Bank expects Africa’s population to have more than doubled to 2.8bn people. If by then per capita CO₂ emissions were to rise merely to 1.8 tonnes (India’s current level), then total African emissions would reach US proportions.

What is to be done? The most important step is to acknowledge the right of African countries to expand, rather than cut, their energy consumption. Some 600mn Africans live without electricity. The question then is what kind of energy African nations will add. In recent years, countries from Mozambique and Tanzania to Senegal and Mauritania have made huge gas discoveries. Most probably they will use it.

If the world does not like this, it must help nudge the continent in a different direction. One way is to invest massively in green hydrogen, conditions for which are excellent in a number of African countries including Namibia, South Africa, Algeria and Morocco. It is not a fantasy to think these countries could leapfrog into a new energy age.

Nor can African economies continue to export unprocessed raw materials, including the cobalt, lithium and coltan that are fundamental to the world’s battery revolution. Shipping these materials across the world is a huge contributor to carbon emissions. Africa needs to smelt its own metals and produce more of its own manufactured goods.

Private investors are making a start. An industrial zone in Benin operated by Arise will turn that country’s cashews into processed nuts and its cotton into clothes. Far more of this is needed. Blended finance — the use of development dollars to attract private capital — should be used more aggressively to help catalyse this.

Finally, Africa needs the world to set a robust carbon price. Mo Ibrahim, a British-Sudanese businessman turned governance advocate, has called for what amounts to a carbon tax. Those countries that consume above a certain per capita carbon budget would pay into a fund to be redistributed to those that emit beneath their budget. Whatever the mechanism, carbon pricing can be both a tool to foster rational energy use and to help preserve the carbon-absorbing rainforests that will otherwise disappear.

If Africans are presented with the choice between staying poor forever or helping to push the world over the climate precipice, they will choose the latter. And no one will be able to blame them.

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