Next week in Paris, a critical diplomatic meeting on how to enable low-income and climate-vulnerable countries to grow their economies by reducing their dependence on fossil fuels will begin.
It reminds me of my recent conversation with Wanjira Mathai, managing director for Africa and global partnerships at the World Resources Institute, and Rebekah Shirley, deputy director for Africa.
Can Africa jump the breaststroke? I asked them.
What they said edified my thinking on a difficult and unresolved topic that animates much of the global discussion about whether the countries of the global south can thrive without using and burning the same polluting resources that the countries of the industrialized world have for 150 years: i.e. coal, oil and gas.
We talked for two hours over lunch on the terrace of a restaurant in Nairobi as marabou storks cawed and flew through the sky. Our conversation made me think in new ways, which is what I hope Climate Forward occasionally does for you. So I want to share with you what I learned from that conversation.
Africa has more renewable energy potential than the entire world needs, not just Africa itself, Shirley said. The theoretical potential for leapfrogging is there. The challenge is that that’s not how things work in reality at all.
Kenya embodies that potential and also some of that reality.
Kenya is blessed with geothermal energy, hydroelectricity and a large area in the north where a large wind farm is under construction.
The country currently has the capacity to generate more energy than it consumes. Why? Because that power is still too expensive for many Kenyans to actually use.
Even more puzzling, as more renewable energy has come online, electricity prices have increased. That’s because someone has to pay for all that next-generation capacity, Shirley explained.
It’s more expensive to borrow money if you’re building a renewable energy project on the continent than, say, in the US or Europe. The cost of capital is 14 percent in Nigeria, for example, compared to 1 percent in the United States and 15 percent in Pakistan, according to a WRI analysis A small fraction of private climate investment goes to the 54 countries of the continent.
Furthermore, the electricity grid is weak, in Kenya and in much of the continent. So even where there is power, it’s not always reliable. If we put as much renewable on them as possible, would we need them? Shirley said. The answer is actually no.
(I have since learned from reports by my colleagues Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich that the US is in an equally dire situation.)
In Kenya, it can be cheaper for a local factory to operate with just a diesel generator.
We’re in this constant chicken-and-egg situation, Shirley said.
Lots of power generation capabilities. Not enough paying customers.
How to expand renewable energy and make it accessible to African consumers?
Therein lies the opportunity for European, North American and Chinese industries, Shirley and Mathai say. If they can set up shop on the continent, use the renewable energy that powers African grids, they could clean up their supply chains and lower the price of electricity, including for African consumers.
If you brought your factories here, it would be green, because our network is green, and actually the more you bring, the cheaper it will be for our people and the more we can expand access, Shirley said. So there is a real win-win opportunity.
You, the global north, need to decarbonise your supply chains, Mathai added. You cannot address the climate issue, achieve your net zero goals, without decarbonising production. It’s not out of the kindness of your heart.
We talked about electricity. But energy is more than electricity.
Fuel for cooking, for example. All over the continent, people use charcoal and firewood. Before switching to an electric stove, they may need to switch to a gas stove.
There’s more to jumping than electricity, Shirley said.
And anyway, Mathai said, it has been very difficult for people to change the way they cook. It’s one of the hardest problems to solve. Go to the country, buy your grandmother a gas stove. The moment you walk out the gate, they set it aside, call it a Wanjira stove, and go back to cooking the way they always cooked.
So do African countries necessarily need to burn more coal, oil and gas to thrive?
Not if you do all these things, Shirley said.
Much of it requires the actions of politicians, lenders and businesses outside Africa. It requires reducing the cost of obtaining capital to build renewable energy. It requires investment in the network. It requires acquiring new customers who are able to pay the high prices.
It requires a radical reformulation of the question.
It’s such a well-intentioned but overly reductive and perhaps condescending narrative for Africa, Shirley said. We are an entire continent; we deserve at least as much complexity as other single countries, right?
It turns out I was asking the wrong question.
The better question would be: How can Africa help the world decarbonise itself?
This new way of framing the issue, Shirley and Mathai said, requires not only a new mindset but also a new, fairer set of rules governing global finance and trade.
This is at the heart of the agenda of next week’s meeting in Paris, chaired by French President Emmanuel Macron and Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley.
They are calling for a renewal of lending rules for multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank, and for addressing the debt cycle in which many counties in the global south find themselves.
The African Development Bank recently estimated that the continent’s 54 countries need $2.7 trillion to meet their climate goals. Only a small fraction of it arrived.
Mathai said there’s another way to think about the jumping analogy: frog jumping. They have strong muscles. We have no muscles, he said. All we were talking about is the muscle you need the money, the grill, you know, all the pieces.
Related: Our colleagues at the Australian Newsletter spoke to the country’s former chief scientist about the transition to renewable energy.
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A Times Event: The Beauty of Bird Watching
Birds can be a powerful source of comfort and community. You can learn how in a discussion next Thursday, June 22, with Christian Cooper and Amy Tan, who both recently wrote books about birding. The conversation will be mediated by Dodai Stewart, birdwatcher and writer for The Times. You can sign up for the free live stream event here.
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Manuela Andreoni, Claire ONeill, Chris Plourde and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.