HomeLow carbon futureThe UK’s in a powerful position to help drive energy transformation in Africa

The UK’s in a powerful position to help drive energy transformation in Africa

Desertec v4This post is by Alison Doig, Christian Aid’s senior adviser on climate change and author of Low carbon Africa: leapfrogging to a green future.

A number of years ago I visited a rural clinic in Zimbabwe which had been given electricity for the first time from a micro hydro power scheme. I asked the nurse what difference electricity had brought, and she answered that women no longer have to give birth by candle light.

In Kenya, I talked to a farmer about what electricity access would mean to her, she said that currently she has to sell her milk quickly at a low price because she has no means to store or process it; with electricity she could make cheese and refrigerate her products and get a much higher price.

More than 70 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have electricity, and almost 90 per cent cook on open fires, burning wood or charcoal. Last year the World Health organisation upped its estimate of the number of people globally who die from exposure to indoor air pollution, ie cooking fire smoke, to over 4.3 million people; 600,000 of these are in Africa (by comparison, malaria is responsible for just under a million deaths per year). In addition, 50 per cent of all vaccines in Africa are ruined due to lack of refrigeration. This lack of energy is a scandal. It holds people in poverty and denies them basic services and opportunities which we take for granted.

A year ago the High-level Panel on Post-2015 Development, co-chaired by David Cameron, said that:  “Above all, there is one trend – climate change – which will determine whether or not we can deliver on our ambition. ….We must act now to halt the alarming pace of climate change and environmental degradation, which pose unprecedented threats to humanity.” This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has told us of the potential devastation of unchecked climate change, which will set poverty reduction back by decades.

Increasing energy access and tackling climate change are compatible aims
Fortunately, the two aims of energy poverty reduction and halting climate change can go hand in hand. The High-level Panel’s report says: “Low- and middle-income countries have the chance to leapfrog the old model of development and choose more sustainable growth.” As Christian Aid, with Green Alliance, RSPB, Greenpeace and WWF, have shown in The low carbon energy lift: powering faster development in sub-Saharan Africa, African countries have a wealth of opportunity to expand markets for renewable energy, while delivering energy needs.

In recent years, both Kenya and Ethiopia have seen a rapid expansion in wind power, geothermal and solar power, delivering power to both the ever-hungry central grid and directly to communities. Improved, clean-cook stoves and biogas programmes are starting to proliferate across the continent, improving health and reducing deforestation.

Renewable energy can be cheaper
For the 70 per cent of Africans who are not on the main grid, the cheapest and easiest way to access electricity can be from local renewable energy sources: solar lanterns for lighting and mobile phone charging, wind powered water pumps, local biofuels or micro hydro power to run mini-grids and power small enterprise, solar fridges to cool vaccines, and so on. But these technologies need to be supported to move beyond the pilot phase and reach the majority.

Globally there are so many opportunities which could help make this a reality as we enter the UN’s decade of sustainable energy for all (SE4ALL). In 2015 we will have new agreement on the post-2015 development framework which looks likely to have a goal set on sustainable energy, with an aim of universal access to energy; and, importantly, there will be a new global deal agreed at the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, which should see all countries taking commitments to a low carbon future.

Opportunities of green investment shouldn’t be ignored
There is a real risk that sub-Saharan Africa could be left behind in the bid for green development, as the focus for investment in carbon mitigation turns to what are viewed as low risk, large scale investment opportunities in middle income economies, such as India, Brazil or China.

Climate and development finance should work together to help reduce the risk for investors and take advantage of the opportunities of renewable energy development across the African continent, to meet the 2015 development and climate goals. Essentially the objective must be to raise skills and capacity in Africa to deliver local energy needs, through technology transfer and training.

To scale up the renewable sector will need a change of mind-set. Some African governments will need to see beyond fossil fuels and conventional power, towards the opportunities for delivering local power to achieve poverty reduction, and the benefits of having clean power in the mix as their economies develop.

The UK should be taking the lead in the transformation
Finally, the UK can become the leading champion for low carbon development. There is a huge opportunity for the UK government to work across Whitehall on this – DFID, BIS, DECC and the FCO – to support a renewable energy revolution in Africa, meaning that no woman gives birth by candle light, all schools and hospitals have electricity and small enterprises can thrive.

The secretary of state for international development, Justine Greening, is on the Board of the United Nations SE4ALL initiative. This is a key opportunity to shape and deliver action on the ground. UK businesses and investment are in a strong position to support the transformation through the transfer of expertise, knowhow and progressive finance.


Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.