The energy equation – lighting up the Dark Continent

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earth_lights 300x200Africa is on the up, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting growth of 6.1% next year compared to a global average of 4%.

However, chronic energy shortages mean that Africa is still very much the ‘Dark Continent’, with satellite maps showing a land in shadow next to the burning lights of Europe.

According to a report by the World Bank, the lack of reliable electricity represents a key barrier to development:

“School children often cannot read after dusk, businesses cannot grow, clinics cannot refrigerate medicine or vaccines, and industries are idled hampering economic growth, jobs, and livelihoods.”

So it is clear that Africa needs more energy, but the key challenge will be to achieve this increase in a way that does not heighten emissions from a continent acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

This is where the energy equation comes in, with the future of African prosperity dependent on meeting this formula:

Increased energy supply (x) + no rise in emissions (y) = sustainable prosperity (z)

Clearly, the difficulty comes when we consider what is currently seen as the best way to achieve x – increased fossil fuel extraction. Indeed, the resource potential of Africa is widely recognised, with Nigeria set to become the third largest supplier of natural gas in the coming years.

According to the Minister of Petroleum Resources, Alison-Madueke, the country aims to secure a position within the top twenty global economies by 2020. In a keynote speech at the International Conference on Energy and Climate Security in the USA, the minister also revealed an ambitious target to make the country “carbon neutral by 2025 at the very latest”.

This ambition is highly commendable and should send out a clear signal to the USA, which still refuses to formulate climate change legislation on the incorrect premise that developing countries have also failed to do so.

However, whilst praising the Nigerian government for their commitment to tackle global warming it is also vital that we analyse the idea of carbon neutrality to ensure that we are not being misled.

‘Carbon neutral’ represents a situation in which greenhouse gases are still emitted, but the total amount released into the atmosphere is equal to the amount reduced elsewhere by carbon offset schemes. This may consist of renewable energy investment, tree planting, or the purchase of carbon credits – licenses to release one tonne of carbon dioxide from a total determined under a cap and trade scheme.

However, the issue with the concept of carbon neutrality when applied at a national level is that it only takes into account emissions from within the country’s borders, meaning that carbon ‘exported’ in fossil fuels to be burned elsewhere is not included in the judgement.

Therefore, in the case of Nigeria, it is quite possible for the country to reduce internal emissions to the point that it becomes ‘carbon neutral’, but continue to export fossil fuels to be burned elsewhere.

This issue has previously been raised in respect to Norway,  whose 2007 pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 was criticised by Greenpeace for failing to take into account exports of fossil fuels.

Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clarke undertake a thorough discussion of this idea in The Burning Question, in which they argue for a global carbon cap which would prevent countries from decreasing their emissions while simultaneously increasing the export of fossil fuels to be burned elsewhere.

Therefore, the energy equation identified above should not be applied solely to Africa, as any efforts to achieve “z” (sustainable prosperity) will be hampered if “y” (no increase in emissions) is applied to the continent alone.

A holistic approach which considers emissions world-wide is necessary, as any drive towards decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide released within a nation’s borders is ineffective if fossil fuels are merely exported elsewhere.

Access to energy is vital to economic development, and combating electricity shortages is one of the most effective ways to alleviate poverty. However, the initial benefits derived from fossil fuel exploitation will be short lived, and the huge economic cost of adapting to a changing environment will quickly outweigh any gain.

That is why it is vital for policy-makers to consider the energy equation in a world-wide context – sustainable prosperity in Africa will never be achieved by irresponsible fossil fuel extraction.

Photograph: www.visibleearth.nasa.gov

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