Should Africa Decarbonize Its Electricity Sector?

The rate at which the new Biden administration is reversing the anti-environmental policies of former President Trump is welcoming, re-assuring but not unprecedented. President Biden was Vice-President under former President Obama for 8 years, so he well understands the benefits environmentalism and clean energy play in containing climate change. Therefore, after four disastrous years of Trump overturning Mr. Obama’s environmental policies, it was incumbent for Mr. Biden to return the United States to a path of environmental sanity. Because Mr. Biden is viewed as being a centrist democrat, many people are surprised he has gone as far as he has in his environmental policies. Examples of this include his moratorium on new leasing for oil drilling and fracking on federal lands and the outright cancellation of the XL Keystone pipeline, the latter despite Canada being both an important ally and part owner. By his actions, Mr. Biden is showing that outright decarbonization is one of the fundamental thrusts of his administration. Well, this isn’t a global first.

It is a well-known fact the European Union (EU) has been aggressively implementing renewable energy policies. 19.7% of total electricity consumed by the 27-member states in 2019 came from renewable energy sources. One of the goals of the bloc in 2020 is to consume 20% of its total electricity from renewable energy sources. And renewable energy sources did power 38% of electricity in the largest single market area in the world in 2020 according to the report of Agora Energiewende. Therefore, one should be unfazed by the manner President Biden is going about energy reforms, more so that the US intends to be a part of the Paris Climate Accord once again and take the lead in global carbon dioxide emissions reduction. And of course President Biden’s big promises that include having a clean power sector and 100% clean energy economy by 2035 and 2050 respectively shouldn’t be surprising despite its seeming impossibility and a virtually non-existent roadmap. So the questions arise, Must Africa also climb on board the bandwagon of decarbonized electricity? And if it does, should the continent walk the talk like the EU and some democrats led US states have been doing?

Certainly, decarbonization should be welcomed in Africa because it helps in the mitigation of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has read the riot act on the negative consequences of having a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 and 2 degree Celsius. The concept of decarbonization is unambiguous. It simply means, switch to low-carbon energy sources for the purpose of drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions that causes global warming. Despite the very low contribution of Africa to greenhouse gas emissions, the Africa Development Bank in its report stated that 7 out of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa. As a Matter of fact, Africa’s mitigation and adaptation to climate change spelt out in the overall Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of its nations needs over $3 trillion investment. And due to the continent’s vulnerability, notwithstanding its minute contribution to global warming, 50 African countries have ratified their NDCs as of September 2019 which signifies Africa’s commitment to the global consensus of decarbonization

Egypt has been decarbonizing the right way. It is worthy of note that the proposed construction of 6 Giga Watt Hamrawein coal plant (approved in 2018 and signed at the China-Egypt Business Forum in the Egyptian Embassy in Beijing on September 2, 2018) was postponed indefinitely in February 2020 by Egypt’s Ministry of Electricity. Renewable energy projects are to be launched instead of the suspended coal plant project. Although The Hamrawein facility was described as being a clean coal plant project, what is known for sure is that while so-called “clean” coal plants may emit less carbon and toxic pollutants than conventional coal plants, the most advanced of them still lag behind other fossil fuel power plants sources in terms of emission reduction. Therefore, whenever any coal fired plant (whether operational or intended to be constructed) is jettisoned or shut down and replaced with other energy sources, decarbonization is upheld.

Countries in Africa that need to urgently embrace decarbonization are the ones that heavily depend on coal as their primary means of electricity generation. They are mainly South Africa and Morocco. South Africa is the country in Africa that generates more than 80% of its electricity from coal. In fact, South Africa is home to the biggest coal fired plant in Africa. Not surprisingly, it is also the largest carbon emitting country on the continent and the 14th largest in the world. In its Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), it intends to have its electricity decarbonized by 2050 and the technologies to help realize this include solar PV, wind power, carbon capture and sequestration. South Africa is also the only country on the continent with a commercial nuclear plant, which provides about 5% of its total electricity. The life cycle of the plant was originally supposed to end in 2024, but has since been upgraded and increased by an additional 20 years. With decarbonization, when nuclear power plants are decommissioned they must be replaced by other clean and renewable energy sources. Although it is very unlikely that the country would shut down the plant before the end of its lifecycle, it must notwithstanding never substitute it with other fossil fuel plant generating capacity. To do so is to recarbonize, which would be antithetical to decarbonization.

According to Afrik 21, air pollution from Morocco, which is caused predominantly by its coal fired power plants accounts for 50% of electricity production, and is estimated to cost 0.9% of its Gross Domestic Products. Around 5,100 deaths in 2018 are reported in Morocco from air pollution. The environmental NGO in August 2019 ranked Morocco as the 25th most polluting country in the world with nearly 216,000 tons of sulphur dioxide emitted from its 3 biggest coal fired plants.  Despite having about 35% of its electricity produced from renewable energy sources in 2018, the country expects to reach 52% of installed electricity production from renewable energy sources by 2030 according to its NDC. Due to the ongoing expense of Morocco being a net importer of coal and natural gas, it has taken the issue of renewable energy very seriously. Its renewable energy capacity as at the end of 2019 is 3,685 megawatt and several solar and wind energy projects that have been announced show that its 52% renewable energy goal is a possibility.

A breakthrough publication titled ‘Energy For Human Development’ underscored the correlation of decarbonization rate with socio-economic and geography circumstances. This means that decarbonization will be faster in some climes than the other. Even if Africa rapidly implements carbon-neutral technologies in electricity generation, global surface temperature will exceed the 2 degree Celsius by the end of the century unless global high emitters like China, United States, India, Japan and South Korea rapidly decarbonize. Therefore, Sub-Sahara Africa where power consumption is estimated to be 181kWh per person each year according to the annual development effectiveness review of 2017 can sidestep coal and leverage on its hydro resources and natural gas to scale up electricity generation.

Share this post