Gas is a dangerous distraction for Africa

Arguments for gas exploration and gas-fired power infrastructure in Africa are robbing us of vital time to switch to clean energy.

Associated natural gas burns at a flaring site behind a security fence
Associated natural gas burns at a flaring site behind a security fence near Port Harcourt, Nigeria [Jacob Silberberg/Getty Images]

At the start of this century, when much of the developed world woke up to the dangers of smoking, Big Tobacco turned to Africa to seek out new profits.

To this day, in my country, Uganda, and many others, foreign tobacco companies work to undermine regulations designed to protect people against the industry – they even market cigarettes to schoolchildren in some African countries.

Now, the same is happening in the context of the global fight against climate change.

As the world finally begins to wake up to the climate emergency, major oil and gas companies from Europe and North America are increasingly losing their licence to operate there, so they are turning to Africa to try and secure at least a few more years of extraction and profit.

Despite United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently warning that investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is “moral and economic madness”, leaders in Africa are being persuaded that extracting more gas is a prerequisite for the continent’s development.

It is true, at least in the short term, that encouraging people to use gas rather than wood fuel to cook is crucial to prevent indoor air pollution. We need to invest in local storage and bottling plants for cooking gas. However, such measures do not require new gas-fired power infrastructure and exploration. These are two completely separate issues.

Arguments for gas exploration and gas-fired power infrastructure in Africa are robbing us of vital time to switch to clean energy.

Decades of fossil fuel development in Africa have failed to bring prosperity and reduce energy poverty. African countries whose economies rely on the production and export of fossil fuels suffer slower rates of economic growth – sometimes up to three times slower – than those with more diverse economies. In Mozambique, where foreign companies have built a $20bn offshore natural gas field and onshore liquefied natural gas facility, 70 percent of the country still lives without access to electricity. The gas is not for local people.

Fossil fuel development has often had terrible consequences for the communities exposed to it. In Cabo Delgado, the area around the gas fields of Mozambique, for example, the industry destroyed the lives and livelihoods of the locals but delivered few of the promised jobs and compensation. In Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the arrival of oil brought poverty, human rights abuses, and the loss of traditional lands and cultures.

Investments in fossil fuels are not investments for the people. Gas prices are inherently volatile, as the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are currently demonstrating.

When the poorest communities become reliant on gas-fired power stations for electricity, they end up suffering from the fluctuations in global markets. In Côte d’Ivoire, where most power stations burn gas, for example, hikes in electricity prices led to protests in 2016 during which police killed and injured many protesters.

Investments in fossil fuels are also not investments for the long term. As demand for clean energy accelerates, the International Energy Agency predicts that oil and gas assets worth $1.3 trillion will be abandoned by 2050.

Investments in fossil fuels will elicit some short-term profits for some elites, but in the long term will likely lead to huge losses that will have to be shouldered by the taxpayers.

In many African countries, where costly fossil fuel projects already demonstrated they can do little to alleviate debt burdens, new fossil fuel investments will only serve to pile more debt on existing debt.

Renewable energy presents an unequivocally better alternative to all this. Electricity from solar and wind is now largely cheaper than electricity from gas – and prices don’t experience dangerous fluctuations. Furthermore, renewable power sources located near the point of use in rural Africa have been found to be more economically viable than building out transmission lines for gas-based power.

Despite all this, while Africa possesses 39 percent of the world’s potential for renewable energy, it receives just 2 percent of global investment in renewables.

African countries need private and public investment from the Global North to embark on a much-needed renewable energy transition and to stop burying money in short-sighted fossil fuel investments.

The rich economies that exploited Africa’s fossil fuel reserves for years and inflicted much damage to the continent in the process have a responsibility to finance this transition.

According to Damilola Ogunbiyi, the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, an investment of roughly $30bn a year can give all Africans access to clean, affordable and reliable energy by 2030. To put this in context, the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, recently agreed to pay $44bn just to take control of a single social media company, Twitter.

New research shows that investing in renewables now could give the whole continent access to electricity in a decade and by 2050, Africa could completely phase out fossil fuels. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, with the right infrastructure, Africa can become a net exporter of renewable power and green hydrogen manufactured using renewables.

African countries need to create policy environments where private investors would be encouraged to make long-term investments in renewables. When African leaders take the steps to create the optimum conditions, foreign investors will find it more profitable to stop assisting the oil and gas industry in extracting their final profits from the continent and focus on renewables.

Cyclones linked to climate change have devastated Mozambique in recent years. Drought has left millions of people hungry in the Horn of Africa. Flash flooding in Uganda disrupts our lives more and more frequently now. This is what we are experiencing already at 1.2C of warming above pre-industrial levels. Going beyond 1.5C of warming will be a death sentence for many in Africa.

The International Energy Agency says that in order to stand a chance of meeting our 1.5C target, we need to stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure – including gas infrastructure – immediately.

Africa is responsible for less than four percent of historic global emissions – we are not the ones who caused this crisis. We want climate justice. But climate justice for Africa does not mean repeating the past mistakes of developed countries – mistakes that devastated our planet. Climate justice means protecting communities from worsening climate impacts. It means helping young Africans to have a chance of a clean, prosperous and liveable future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.