The wealthy nations’ green agenda does not consider how much Africa needs natural gas to bring electricity to the growing number of Africans living without it.
By NJ Ayuk*
I am going to COP27 because I believe if Africa is not on the table it will be on the menu. Let me be clear, those of us who are advocating for African countries to continue using their oil and gas resources are not “ignoring” the world’s green agenda – we’re simply not willing to embrace the world’s timetable for transitioning to renewable fuels at the expense of our own energy security and economic well-being.The way we see it, the world’s wealthy nations’ green agenda ignores Africa – or at least, it dismisses our unique needs, priorities and challenges. The green agenda of developed nations further ignores the tremendous role that Africa’s oil and gas industry plays in generating African countries’ revenue. Oil revenues represent at least 20% of GDP in Libya, Algeria, Gabon, Chad, Angola, and The Republic of Congo. In Nigeria, one Africa’s main oil producers, oil represents a more modest percentage of real GDP – about 6% – however, oil and gas account for 95% of foreign exchange income and 80% of government revenues. The green agenda of wealthy nations ignores those of us who point out that natural gas has the potential to bring life-changing prosperity to the continent in the form of jobs, business opportunities, capacity building and monetization. It ignores the sustainable, logical path we’re proposing, which is using our resources, natural gas in particular, to help us meet current needs and to generate revenue that can help pay for our transition to renewables. The wealthy nations’ green agenda does not consider how much Africa needs natural gas to bring electricity to the growing number of Africans living without it. They do not understand that we, as Africans, are focused on growing Africa’s energy mix to include fossil fuels and renewables, instead of insisting on an all or nothing approach to our energy transition. Around 600 million Africans lacked access to electricity before the pandemic; and it appears that this figure is growing. According to the International Energy Agency, during 2020 some gains in access were reversed, with as many as 30 million people who previously had access to electricity no longer able to afford it. Considering that universal access to affordable, reliable electricity is one of the UN’s sustainable development goals – meaning it’s a basic human right – the huge and growing number of Africans without electricity is morally wrong, and it cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, climate panic and fear mongering are alive and well, and for some reason, Africa is public enemy number one. A continent that emits a negligible amount of carbon dioxide, at most, 3% of the world’s total, is being disproportionately pegged as a threat to the planet by developed nations. In particular, the West is vilifying Africa’s energy industry because it is based on fossil fuels, even though the proportion of renewables is growing. There’s no question that much of this anti-African oil and gas sentiment is based in fear of climate change, which is Interwoven with the sheer terror that a fossil fuel boom in Africa could be devastating to the world at large. Africa is vulnerable to climate change. There’s no denying that climate change is affecting Africa. One has only to look at the extended drought in the south to see how devastating things can be when customary weather patterns are disrupted. The thing is, Africa is being affected by a crisis NOT OF ITS OWN MAKING. If contributing just 3% of global emissions could cause issues like what we’re seeing in Somalia, for example, the world’s nations that produce far more greenhouse gases should be dried up, under water, blown away, or burned to a crisp by now. Consider this: Prominent American climate activist Bill McKibben said that the world can’t fight climate change if Total Energies and Uganda goes through with building the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. Yes, according to McKibben, that one action will derail the entire carbon reduction scheme and offset anything any of the world’s other countries are doing to reach net zero. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? What’s even more perplexing—or perhaps outlandish—is that McKibben has taken aim at a pipeline that will transport just 210,000 barrels of oil per day. That’s roughly equivalent to 1.8% of the total output of the U.S., but he claims it must be stopped, or everything falls apart. What’s the point of any climate effort anywhere if it can be undone by a relatively small pipeline that might actually be a lifeline in one of the world’s most impoverished nations? But let’s define what truly constitutes a boom in Africa. Energy use on the continent is still very low. So low, in fact, that researchers writing in Foreign Policy magazine estimate that if the one billion people living in sub-Saharan Africa tripled electricity using natural gas, the additional emissions would equal just 0.62% of global carbon dioxide. Energy use on the continent is so low that the average African consumes less electricity per year than an entire American family’s refrigerator. At the same time, authors Todd Moss and Vijaya Ramachandran, from the Energy for Growth Hub, say the world is greatly overestimating how much natural gas Africa will generate between now and 2030. They cite a study in Nature Energy that claims the forecast for new gas generation in West Africa is five times the region’s new gas potential. Obviously, there’s some mathematical mismatch in the study. We have to ask ourselves: Will fossil fuel development in Africa signal an end to all of the world’s good intentions and net zero ambitions? Or is this an example of ‘green colonialism?’ I find it interesting that a Financial Times’ public poll, on the day it announced I was going to have an Oxford style debate on this issue, suggested that people are not at all convinced that African countries should abandon oil and gas – 70% of the 619 respondents took my position that Africa should make full use of its fossil fuels. How can we build a successful African energy movement? I believe the ultimate responsibility for getting there is ours and no one else’s. Yes, we need partners to walk alongside us, but the success of our energy movement rests on African shoulders. To begin with, I am happy to see African energy stakeholders speaking with a unified voice about African energy industry goals thanks to African Energy Week. Africa Oil Week did everything to divide our voices and we stood firm and brought the Africa upstream, midstream and downstream together and we signed deals at African Energy Week. This will be particularly important as we go into COP27 in Egypt. It is imperative that African leaders present a unified voice and strategy for African energy transitions. We must make Africa’s unique needs and circumstances clear and explain the critical role that oil and gas will play in helping Africa achieve net-zero emissions in coming decades. Western Support to Africa But, I would love to see Western governments, businesses, financial institutions, and organizations support our efforts. How? They can avoid demonizing the oil and gas industry. We see it constantly, in the media, in policy and investment decisions, and in calls for Africa to leave our fossil fuels in the ground. We see it with lawsuits to stop financing of Mozambique LNG or lawsuits to prevent Shell from even carrying out a seismic survey. Actions like these, even as Western leaders have pushed OPEC to produce oil, are not fair, and they’re not helpful. Even as western countries are pushing to increase their own production and escalating coal use. I also would respectfully ask financial institutions to resume financing for African oil and gas projects and stop attempting to block projects like the East African Crude Oil pipeline or Mozambique’s LNG projects. Africa is already suffering. The 600 million-plus Africans without electricity are suffering. The 890 million Africans without a means of clean cooking are suffering. I would argue that if we want to protect Africans from harm and misery, we must embrace our natural gas resources. Natural gas has a lower environmental impact than other fossil fuels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), switching thermal power plants from coal to gas was the main reason why the U.S. power-generating sector saw carbon dioxide emissions sink by 32% between 2005 and 2019. What’s more, natural gas is indispensable in multiple ways. It is part of modern development, used for clean cooking, process heat, transportation, and as a feedstock for fertilizers. We can’t overlook how important fertilizers are, considering the millions and millions of people who are food insecure across the globe or “teetering on the edge of famine,” as the UN World Food Program puts it. The rise in food insecurity is often attributed to conflict, and the battles between Russia and Ukraine prove that point. Since the conflict began between the two large producers of wheat and grain, global food prices have skyrocketed. Considering how Russia has shut down natural gas exports, it’s no surprise that fuel and fertilizer prices have also shot up. In fact, the increase in fertilizer costs is having as much of an effect on food prices as the conflict in Ukraine. When farmers can’t afford fertilizer (which is more often the case in poor countries than rich ones), crop yield diminishes, food prices skyrocket, and more people are left hungry. Right now, the U.N. Global Crisis Response Group says, more than 60 countries are now struggling to afford food imports. It should come as no surprise that many of them are in Africa. Using African natural gas to fill the fertilizer feedstock gap will go a long way in mitigating those problems and putting food on the table worldwide. If Africa is allowed to develop its resources, there will be plenty of natural gas to go around. Natural gas helps the world meet its climate targets faster and can help solve the world’s hunger crisis. And they’re not alone. Think about Europe, which is scrambling to line up enough oil, gas, and coal for the winter— and are looking to Africa for supplies – or consider the results of a 2022 Pew Research Survey of 10,237 U.S. adults about America’s energy transition. Only 31% believed that the U.S. should phase out oil, gas, and coal completely, while 67% called for cultivating a mix of fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. So my question is, why should we in Africa give up our fossil fuels – fuels that represent solutions to some of our most pressing needs – when so many others question the wisdom of doing the same? We shouldn’t. And we shouldn’t be forced to.
*NJ Ayuk is Executive Chairman of the African Energy Chamber