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Fossil Fuel Investments in Africa are Necessary for Economic Growth and Climate Resiliency
COMMENTARY | The Ecomodernist

The Biden Administration has made climate change one of its core policy priorities. Understanding the global nature of the problem, as well as U.S. leadership in technology exports and international markets, the reality of the crisis demands that we confront global warming emissions both abroad and at home. But climate action in poorer countries will look different than it does here. 

As the Biden administration and wealthy nations look to the African continent to support development and fight poverty, environmental groups are pushing back against any fossil fuel investments on the continent. This is a blatant misapplication of the principles of justice. Preventing any use of fossil fuels in African countries, while they still meet the vast majority of energy needs in the US and other wealthy nations, will only stifle development and make poor populations even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Special Envoy John Kerry said in recent remarks that the Biden administration wants “to develop a U.S. climate finance plan, as well as a plan for ending international financing of fossil fuel projects with public money.” As I wrote in The Hill and Nature, this should be done thoughtfully to support a transition to a clean and energy abundant future for everyone, not instituting a blanket ban on fossil fuel investment.

Many of the world’s poorest people live in Africa whose governments and countries have prioritized modernization and growth, specifically in agriculture, where huge swaths of the population still work, followed by industry and services. These priorities reflect worries about Africa’s rate of growth, which has been lower than that of Asia. In 1950, Malaysia and Ghana had approximately the same GDP per capita; Malaysia is now five times richer than Ghana.  

Africa’s carbon emissions are very low. Responsible for less than 4% of global climate emissions and home to 17% of the world’s people, the focus should be on developing infrastructure, providing more access to education, and building housing, industries, and services. Population centers need reliable and cheap access to energy. It is essential to creating modern, productive, and scalable agriculture systems to feed the increasing populations. As I wrote in Nature, “it is not fair for rich countries to fight climate change at the cost of low-income countries’ development and climate resilience. Instead, rich countries should help African governments to pursue a broad portfolio of energy sources for rapid, sustainable development.”

Africa needs to grow more food. In order to raise yields, farmers need synthetic fertilizer.  Natural gas is the most efficient energy source for fertilizer production and manufacturing. Farmers also need better access to irrigation. While successful for small farms, small-scale solar powered irrigation systems are nowhere near sufficient to meet the needs of the entire continent. Large scale, energy-intensive water control projects, prevalent in wealthy countries that already rely on fossil fuels, are an essential component to the continent’s future success.

Beyond food and agriculture, factory production relies on continuous access to energy and will be unable to expand without access to cheap and reliable sources of electricity. Countries will not wait for the approval of the United States to pursue their interests. With ambitions to become a manufacturing powerhouse, Ethiopia is looking to China for investment, who is all too happy to oblige. China is increasingly stepping in to support the construction and operation of large-scale power projects to provide reliable electricity across Africa. And, these are not trivial amounts. Enormous quantities of energy will be required for industrial factories and business sectors to create millions of jobs and drive economic diversification. There is simply no world in which Africa can meet its energy needs with low-carbon technologies exclusively.

Offering the best way to modernize production and transportation, natural gas remains an essential, practical, and economic solution to Africa’s energy needs. It is cleaner than coal and available in abundance in several African countries.  It is essential to the production of synthetic fertilizer and can be used for several purposes, including transportation fuel, in the agricultural supply chain.

It’s unfair and ahistorical for wealthy countries to ask African countries to grow their economies and lift their people’s incomes relying solely on renewable sources of energy. The United States, European Union, and other western nations should consider both economic growth and climate impact as they develop funding criteria for investment projects. African nations that have access to reliable sources of energy will be able to grow faster, thereby withstanding the growing impacts of climate change and becoming more resilient to its increasing effects. 

A blanket ban on fossil fuel investments will only serve to worsen the plight of the world’s most vulnerable.


Vijaya Ramachandran is director for energy and development at The Breakthrough Institute. You can follow her on Twitter @vijramachandran

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