Embracing the Irreplaceable: Why Africa Shouldn't Give Up on Natural Gas (Yet)
With the acceleration of the climate crisis has come a widespread sense of urgency about the need for humans to address it. However, despite that people across the globe seem to be united in their desire to mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change, they differ widely in their opinions of just how to do so. Africa in particular has long been at the center of the climate debate: Although the continent contributes far less to greenhouse gas emissions than do developed countries, individuals in developed countries have increasingly criticized Africa’s continued use of fossil fuels and encouraged African countries to transition to entirely renewable energy. This is hypocrisy at its finest: Wealthy countries, as rampant fossil fuel users themselves, argue that developing countries must drastically change their energy use to do their fair share in contributing to climate action. This proposition is not only currently unfeasible, but it also neglects to consider the millions of Africans who would face heightened food insecurity or electricity loss as a result of a renewable energy transition. Thus, in lieu of being forced to switch entirely to renewables, African countries should be allowed to make their own responsible energy decisions – decisions that emphasize gradually shifting away from coal and oil and towards natural gas, while increasing renewable energy investment in the process. By seeking the middle ground between renewables and fossil fuels in lieu of solely investing in one, Africa shows promise in improving not only the livelihood of its people, but also its environmental impact.
To understand Africa’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, we must first understand which sources of energy the continent relies on most. The International Energy Agency’s data on energy use in Africa makes clear that even though African countries vary widely in their energy use, there are still some generalities that emerge. For example, coal consumption in Africa has remained relatively constant since the 1990s, while consumption of natural gas and renewables has increased (“Africa”). Biofuels and waste form the single largest chunk of African energy consumption, followed by oil, natural gas, coal, and finally hydropower and geothermal energy. And in terms of production, oil production in Africa has declined, coal production has stagnated, and production of natural gas and renewables has increased (“Africa: Balance”). These trends bring to light an important consideration: Africa is already trying to improve the environmental impact of its energy use. In lieu of ramping up its use of coal, which releases a plethora of harmful gases into the atmosphere, Africa is gradually relying more on natural gas and biofuels, both of which have a lower greenhouse gas footprint. In the process, the continent is slowly but surely inching towards net zero emissions – thus generating the progress that developed countries should recognize.
Africa’s use of natural gas is benefitting its people as well. In “Africa Must Oppose COP27 Measures Preventing Full Use of its Fossil Fuels,” NJ Ayuk advocates natural gas in particular because it generates a substantial percentage of overall government revenue, claiming that natural gas serves to “help [Africa] meet current needs and to generate revenue that can help pay for [Africa’s] transition to renewables.” He goes on to claim that an increasing number of Africans lack access to electricity and clean cooking fuels each year, and that providing as many families as possible with both will require, at least for the time being, reliance on affordable natural gas rather than on expensive renewables (Ayuk). Our World in Data corroborates this viewpoint by showing that per capita energy generation and use, total annual energy use, and the percentage of people with access to clean cooking fuels and electricity are all much lower in most of Africa than in any other inhabited continent (“Energy”; “Access to Energy”). These arguments together imply that while the transition to entirely renewable energy could lessen Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions, it could also move the continent backwards by threatening more people’s access to dependable electricity and safe cooking fuels. As Africa currently relies heavily on natural gas for multiple human necessities, sacrificing these benefits would put the continent at a disadvantage when surrounded by countries that are rapidly advancing their own energy agenda.
Similarly important is the value of natural gas as more than just an energy source for transportation, electricity, and industry. In fact, Ayuk claims that natural gas is a component of fertilizers as well, enabling fertilizers to be cheaper and more easily accessible by African farmers. This in turn allows farmers to grow more crops, thereby providing more Africans with affordable, plentiful food (Ayuk). Forgoing natural gas use and focusing strictly on renewables would thus be detrimental for farmers and the food supply alike, ultimately threatening the food security of millions of people. This becomes an issue of human rights: Does the switch to entirely renewable energy really matter more than the widespread hunger that could potentially result?
Ayuk also highlights the hypocrisy displayed by developed countries, which chide Africa’s dependence on oil and natural gas even while continuing to use those resources themselves. In doing so, he makes a valid point: Upwards of 97 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from outside of Africa, yet Africa remains the target of world leaders who claim that the solution to minimizing emissions lies there. Likewise, he emphasizes the surprisingly small contribution of African countries to the climate crisis at large, claiming that “if the one billion people living in sub-Saharan Africa tripled electricity using natural gas, the additional emissions would equal just 0.62% of global carbon dioxide” (Ayuk). If developed countries achieved their current wealth at least partly through use of fossil fuels, why should Africa not be allowed to do the same? Shouldn’t Africans be entitled to the same prosperity as their neighbors across the sea? Once again, developed countries are trying to push Africa in a direction that, though potentially well-intentioned, may compromise the basic human rights of those who live there.
Though Africa certainly has a long way to go before it achieves net zero emissions, the small steps it is taking to get there are commendable. Despite that natural gas may not be as environmentally friendly as renewable energy, it is arguably cleaner than coal and should thus be embraced for its ability to ease the transition away from fossil fuels. And while the continent should certainly continue to increase its use of renewable energy, it should not be forced by developed countries to accelerate this increase at the expense of the well-being of its people. Just as important as protecting the environment is protecting those who live in it, and celebrating the benefits of both renewables and natural gas together might just be the most feasible way to do so.
“Africa.” iea, International Energy Agency, 2020, https://www.iea.org/regions/africa.
“Africa: Balance.” iea, Norrköping Communicative Visual Analytics, 2020, https://www.iea.org/sankey/#?c=Africa&s=Balance.
Ayuk, NJ. “Africa Must Oppose COP27 Measures Preventing Full Use of its Fossil Fuels.” Energy Capital & Power, Energy Capital & Power, 7 Nov. 2022, https://energycapitalpower.com/africa-must-oppose-cop27-measures-preventing-full-use-of-its-fossil-fuels-nj-ayuk/.
Ritchie, Hannah et al. “Energy.” Our World in Data, Global Change Digital Lab, 2022, https://ourworldindata.org/energy#energy-country-profiles.
Ritchie, Hannah and Max Roser. “Access to Energy.” Our World in Data, Global Change Digital Lab, 2022, https://ourworldindata.org/energy-access.