Africa's Just Energy Transition: 2024 Insights
When the world gathered at the United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) in Dubai this month, one theme was top of mind for African negotiators. That was the continent’s energy transition away from fossil fuels to more sustainable, low or no-emission alternatives, and how to make sure this is done in a “just” – or inclusive – way. The so-called “just transition” is a particularly urgent topic in Africa because the continent is both one the most vulnerable regions in the world to the effects of climate change and one of the most “energy poor” places on earth, with 43 percent of Africans lacking electricity access.
Because energy access is tied to economic growth and higher standards of living, African leaders see it as crucial for the 590 million people on the continent without electricity to be connected as quickly as possible. At the same time, halting the progression of climate change demands that the global community rapidly reduce its reliance on heavily polluting energy sources like coal and oil. “The transition to a climate resilient economy… has the potential to increase inequality, and in that context Africa will have the net disbenefit,” says Dhesigen Naidoo, World Bank senior adviser and climate adaptation lead to the South African Presidential Climate Commission. “The people who are responsible for these high emissions historically should compensate for that to help this region of the world, which is plagued with de-development and low financial access, to plot a trajectory that is renewable-energy based. If they do this, the net result will be a global dividend.”
As Africa pushes urgently for the world’s support, here are three countries to watch in the continent’s just transition in 2024:
The continent’s second-largest economy, South Africa is also by far Africa’s largest emitter. A startling 85 percent of its electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, the third highest percentage on earth. Communities in the country’s “coal belt” are also deeply reliant on the industry for survival. However, in recent years, the country’s ageing, poorly-maintained grid has veered towards collapse, causing the state-run power utility to resort to scheduled blackouts that can last up to 12 hours per day. The urgency of finding new sources of energy to combat this crisis has had a complex effect on its transition to renewable energy. On the one hand, some leaders have argued the only tenable solution immediately is to repair the existing infrastructure so that the lights can come back on as quickly as possible. On the other hand, others have pointed out that this is an excellent opportunity for a just transition, allowing the country to power down its coal dependence and expand sources of renewable energy. That makes it a country to watch. Since 2021, the country has secured $8.5 billion in promised funding from the US and Europe for its Just Transition Partnership Program. Most of the money, which will be dispersed in the next five years, is loans, however, and South Africa says it still needs more than 10 times this amount to kickstart its transition.
In June 2023, Senegal announced a plan to reach 40 percent renewable electricity in its supply mix by 2030, supported by an international development partnership similar to South Africa’s. The Senegalese Just Energy Transition Partnership, supported by several European countries and Canada, will provide 2.5 billion Euros over the next three to five years to help the country reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. The project runs parallel to an ambitious national development agenda that aims to achieve universal electricity access by 2025. Supporters say the just transition plan was successfully negotiated in part because it aligned itself with this goal, making sure the climate agenda it promoted was in line with Senegal’s development goals. “Instead of being treated merely as beneficiaries where climate targets are dictated to us, an inclusive process gives us the agency to decide, based on scientific data and the realities of our country, what can be realistically achieved without compromising on other national development goals,” wrote Secou Sarr, the director of ENDA Energie, the Senegalese energy think-tank that was heavily involved in developing the just transition plan.
When it comes to the just transition, Mozambique finds itself in a situation mirrored in many other African countries. The country understands the urgency of scaling down fossil fuel use globally. Indeed, in the past few years, it has been hit by some of the most powerful cyclones in its history, fuelled by climate change. At the same time, it has vast unexploited reserves of fossil fuels – off-shore natural gas – that it argues are a crucial tool for its development, helping it both improve domestic electricity access and fill government coffers. “The West continues to use fossil fuels [including those] exported from Africa,” says Gyude Moore, the former Liberian Minister of Public Works and a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD). Therefore, “a significant portion of the continent…believe there has to be some kind of role for fossil fuels” in its own future development as well. Mozambique is forging ahead with both natural gas exploitation and an ambitious expansion of its renewable energy capacity. At COP28, the country’s government announced an $80 billion project to expand hydroelectric, wind, and solar power, as well as further tap into its natural gas deposits. “The strategy's mission is to leverage Mozambique's abundant renewable and natural resources to accelerate the trajectory of low-carbon socio-economic development,” explained President Filipe Nyusi at COP28.
As Dhesigen Naidoo of the South African Presidential Climate Commission notes, it is in the world’s interest to support Africa’s just transition, because the stakes are global. “If the world doesn’t assist with this just transition, then the world as a whole will inherit” the consequences of Africa’s polluting economies, he says. “The equation is pretty clear – we need a global solidarity effort. We need a climate ubuntu to prevail so we can all get out of these doldrums, and the mechanism is a just transition.”