By Everjoice J. Win*
This week, climate action activists, faith leaders, scientists, governments, civil society groups and journalists are gathered in Libreville, Gabon, for the official Africa Climate Week. The weeklong gathering was conceived at COP26, in Glasgow as “a platform for governments and stakeholders to strengthen credible and durable response to climate change.” This week is therefore, a strategic opportunity for these key stakeholders to shape what should effectively be the African continent’s COP27 agenda. The overarching themes for the Africa Climate Week are; building resilience against climate risk; transitioning to a low-emission economy, and building partnerships to solve pressing challenges.
While some civil society groups are present in Libreville, it is important to note that the majority of poor and excluded peoples, indigenous movements, people of colour, young people and feminist movements who live on the frontlines of the climate crisis, under-development and energy poverty have limited space and scope to make their voices heard.
Take, for example, the African Common Position on Energy Access and Transition which already frames what is likely to be the continent’s main position at COP27. Caught up in the global energy crisis, fueled by the war on Ukraine, the dominant narrative in the text is unapologetic with regards to continued extraction of coal, oil and gas in Africa. Loosely and cynically translated, African governments have collectively taken the position that it is their time to also pollute and damage the environment. That because they still need to fast-track industrialization and address unmet development needs, they must be left to extract gas and other fossil-fuels to power this ‘development’. There is no denying that African countries have huge development deficits, and are struggling to achieve all the Sustainable Development Goals. It is also no longer debatable that Africa, and much of the global south are less responsible for the current and ever-growing climate-crisis. The global North is responsible and must continue to be held accountable for their massive contribution to the problem.
The critical question is how is Africa’s development, industrialization to be achieved without doing more harm to the environment thereby exacerbating the climate crisis? How can Africa industrialize, without increasing gender and other inequities? More importantly, how can governments address last mile communities’ needs for energy, any form of energy, but particularly sustainable forms of energy, as defined in Sustainable Goal 7?
The Africa Common position glaringly glosses over renewable energy, and decentralized energy access, neither does it make concrete proposals on how this can be scaled as a critical indicator of Africa’s energy transition. It is deeply disconcerting that the ‘common’ position explicitly mentions that gas, coal and oil will continue to be in the mix of solutions for the continent’s energy needs. Governments’ position is not exactly in sync with the common interests and aspirations of women, and communities at the margins, or the organisations and movements that work with them. While indeed last-mile communities, particularly women and young people would like to see the continent develop, they however would not want this at the expense of a healthy, sustainable planet. At the same time the Africa common position appears to be at variance with the continental governments’ own push for increased financing for climate adaptation. Increasing investments in distributed, renewable energy could be a way for African countries to transition away from harmful fossil fuels, and away from following the same path that industrialized countries took and landed the whole planet into its current perilous state.
As the war on Ukraine persists – with the attendant fallout on Europe’s energy access – Africa is increasingly called upon to meet supply shortfalls. This will further undo efforts some have made so far, towards energy transition. A major cause for concern is the reframing of fossil gas as ‘clean energy’, despite known harm on the climate, air quality and health. Hence, as key African governments, among them Egypt and South Africa, pivot to meet this European demand, we must not lose sight of how big an impact this will have on millions of people in Africa, most of whom currently have no access to neither electricity nor clean fuels for daily activities such as cooking.
As a colleague and I have written elsewhere, it is a profound indictment of the status quo that as recent as 2019, some 759 million people, globally, lived without access to electricity and 2.6 billion without access to clean fuels and technology for cooking. These figures have likely increased due to COVID-19. The reality of energy poverty is starker when viewed through a gender lens. Many women and girls spend a disproportionate amount of their day, for example, looking for firewood, cooking over smoky woodfires, and performing day-to-day activities such as threshing grain, grinding peanut butter or pounding yams using their hands.
It is imperative that during this Africa Climate week, ahead of COP27, climate action activists, faith based institutions, scientists, governments, civil society groups and movements, philanthropists and private investors must not lose sight of the needs and aspirations of those who currently pay the heaviest price caused by climate-change- women, poor, excluded and minoritized groups, most of them at the last-mile. Clean, renewable, decentralized energy is the solution that will meet the needs of those currently without even the most basic levels of energy access.
*Everjoice J. Win is Executive Director for The Shine Campaign