The president of the African Development Bank, Akinwumi Adesina, said in the run-up to the climate negotiations in Egypt: "COP27 is Africa’s COP. It must address Africa’s climate challenges."
Myriad newsletters and reports will opine about whether the dialogue in Sharm el-Sheikh delivers on that agenda. For now, I’d like to offer insight from a highly qualified group of academics and policymakers from around the world about what’s needed to shape Africa’s clean energy future.
In a recent paper for the Nature Energy journal, these researchers highlighted how each African nation’s distinct set of clean energy pathway options and uncertainties around using renewables or fossil fuels will affect how nations across the continent can meet development objectives.
Rather than point you to the research piece, I checked in with the lead authors to explore parts of the paper’s findings that stuck out to me most.
The author and independent experts that you’ll hear from below are:
- Jacques Morris, head of policy at the U.K. Centre for Greening Finance, responsible for setting up the COP26 finance strategy and specialized as the lead on private finance.
- Brian O’Callaghan, researcher and project manager at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford.
- Philipp Trotter, Honorary Research Associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.
Grant Harrison: Africa’s clean energy future is tied to blended finance. But, like the annual $100 billion promised to the poorest nations from richer ones that has been underdelivered, blended finance for climate is declining. How do you hope to or expect to see COP27 address this?
Jacques Morris: We need to see the urgent upscaling of finance for mitigation and adaptation, including rapid mobilization of private finance. Private financing in emerging markets and developing economies is increasing, but fossil fuel investment remains high.
At COP27 we need to see proof of implementation, e.g. of the COP26 South Africa Just Energy Transition Partnership, alongside further cooperation between public finance, private finance and the [multilateral development banks] and a breakthrough on the [Just Energy Transition Partnership] model, which could be promising if it shows it can mobilize sufficient volumes of public and private capital.
Brian O'Callaghan, head of policy at the U.K. Centre for Greening Finance
Brian O’Callaghan: The climate debts of advanced economies to developing ones are enormous, and are measured in hundreds of billions of tons of excess emissions. The promised transfer of $100 billion by 2020 was not met, and even this commitment is minor compared to what is required. Blended finance presents an opportunity to make public funds go significantly further, crowding in private investment to put a dent in what is required for climate action. COP27 will bring attention to new hopes in blended finance, including Egypt’s [Nexus on Water, Food and Energy program] and options for JETPs in South Africa and Indonesia. COP26 was heralded as an inflection point for private finance in climate — I would love to see this manifest now in actual changes in investment patterns.
Harrison: The Nature Energy piece says the debate on Africa’s energy future has "failed to acknowledge that the energy-enabled development objectives of African countries are highly context-specific." In what ways do you hope to see this lack of nuance addressed? And, what role does the clean energy industry and its financiers play?
Philipp Trotter: I hope that the main stakeholders involved, namely African governments, the international donor community, the private sector and financiers, work together under a common goal of fostering African countries’ development in the short term and the long term. The pathways to do so are relatively clear in some countries, while in others, particularly energy-poor and natural gas-rich countries, they are not.
Currently, there is a real risk that decade-long, multi-billion-dollar investment decisions into energy infrastructure in natural gas-rich African countries are taken in the dark, without sufficient knowledge about the degree of potential short-term development benefits or medium- to long-term development risks of such investments. It is key that we produce better, deeper and more context-specific research on energy-enabled development pathways and assess different pathways by the impact they have on reaching Africa’s Vision 2063.
There is a real risk that decade-long, multi-billion-dollar investment decisions into energy infrastructure in natural gas-rich African countries are taken in the dark, without sufficient knowledge about potential benefits or risk ...
The clean energy industry and finance plays a critical role. Given countries’ long-term aspirations towards clean energy systems, the clean energy industry and financiers are key to enable those energy pathways that maximize development outcomes for African countries. Renewables will play an instrumental role in African energy systems, and finding ways to provide enough cheap cash for African countries to meet domestic needs and benefit from export opportunities will be amongst the most important challenges for realizing widespread energy-enabled development on the continent.
Harrison: The piece also shared that "two different types of thought pieces exist that claim poverty will be entrenched if fossil fuels are either continued or stopped in African contexts." What unhelpful, incorrect or counterproductive assumptions are embedded in the "just transition" narrative as it pertains to the African context?
Philipp Trotter, Honorary Research Associate at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford
Trotter: The "just transition" narrative is critical for framing energy system development in Africa and globally. High-income countries have been the main drivers behind the climate crises, while low-income countries suffer the most severe consequences. This issue directly implies that the West has a strong obligation to help fund sustainable and resilient energy systems in low and lower-middle income countries.
The "just transition" narrative implies this and also points out that different rules for transitioning energy systems need to apply depending on the context.
Given how low emissions in sub-Saharan Africa have been, it would be morally highly questionable to categorically deny African countries to use fossil fuels to power their development, similarly to what the West has done. It is key to note, however, that this view, often equated with demanding a "just transition," largely misses the point: The question should not be whether African countries are allowed to rely on fossil fuels (they need to be), but to which degree this is indeed optimal for African development outcomes.
The limited research that exists seems to suggest that in terms of overall cost, future economic growth potential and economic risks, it seems highly questionable that the fossil fuel-heavy development pathway Western countries took to develop in the 20th century is still the best way to develop for African countries in the 21st century. For me personally, a "just transition" means an obligation to recognize the many historic climate and development injustices and imbalances, and the obligation high-income countries have to help finance optimal energy pathways for low-income countries as fast and decisively as possible.
Harrison: Africa’s diverse energy pathways require both more and more tailor-made finance. Can you share more about how the growing global sustainable finance market is uniquely equipped to meet this need?
O’Callaghan: The most profound limit on finance in Africa is perceptions of region- and country-specific risk; this manifests in raised costs of capital and higher return thresholds to justify investment. To some degree, sustainable finance on its own does little to address region- and country-specific risk.
However, pairing sustainable finance with blended and risk-sharing mechanisms can significantly boost finance for critical climate assets. Once the risk component is taken care of, African climate investments are attractive because they deliver far higher climate impacts per dollar invested.
It seems highly questionable that the fossil fuel-heavy development pathway Western countries took to develop in the 20th century is still the best way to develop for African countries in the 21st century.
Harrison: Seventeen of the 20 nations most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa, while nearly half the world’s private financial assets are in the United States. Are there any highlights, or lowlights, as to how American financial institutions have facilitated the more and more tailor-made financing needed?
Trotter: One interesting aspect of this is that the U.S. has shifted parts of its approach to how it uses development aid. While it used development aid mainly to support government budgets in low-income countries at the end of the 20th century, the U.S. today is using some of its aid money for its own companies, providing investments and de-risking measures to motivate U.S. companies to build infrastructure in Africa.
The U.S.-led Power Africa initiative is a prime example of this approach. After reading some of their annual reports, it is not immediately clear whether the initiative is primarily benefiting African people or the U.S. private sector. For example, on page II of Power Africa’s 2017 annual report, four of the five mentioned impact highlights of the initiative pertain to the U.S. economy and not the impact in Africa.
Jacques Morris, head of policy at the U.K. Centre for Greening Finance,
Harrison: COP26 hosted more fossil fuel-firm lobbyists than any single country represented, and many times more than the most vulnerable countries’ representation. Given this backdrop, how can COP27 help to ensure that current and future climate finance commitments are kept?
Morris: From a private-sector perspective, attention is rightly shifting from firms simply setting net-zero targets to publishing transition plans. COP26 saw hundreds of financial firms making net-zero commitments. We now need these to be matched with high-quality transition plans to prove implementation and explain how firms will support the economy-wide transition.
The U.K. Transition Plan Taskforce is publishing at COP27 a framework for the disclosure of gold standard plans from the private sector. This will drive transparency and smarter capital allocation to support net zero, and inform future regulation. Without a robust plan, a net-zero target is just a promise.
O’Callaghan: Corporate fossil fuel interests do not have a place in multilateral negotiations. We must be cognizant that major fossil fuel interests spill from side events into the negotiations themselves. We must be quick to publicly call out and shame deception. Climate action is about team Earth; we cannot stand by brazen efforts to enrich the most wealthy at the expense of the most vulnerable.