The challenge of defining African energy futures gains complexity as local politics interact with geopolitical powers and global climate change concerns. The AU-EU strategy focuses on ‘innovation for green transitions’, while European companies continue to dominate African fossil fuel markets. The Chinese strategy to decarbonise their domestic markets encouraged Chinese coal industries to build abroad. How can African societies define their own energy futures without turning into ‘living sustainability labs’ or stepping into debt traps set out by foreign actors? African agency, open dialogue, transparency, evidencebased decision making and inclusive innovation can enable beneficial change that avoids foreign exploitation.
Many countries on the African continent currently stand at the crossroads of defining their energy futures. Only a third of Africa’s people currently have access to electricity, which creates backlogs in education, health, well-being and income opportunities.1Solutions to achieving universal access to clean and affordable energy by 2030 (Sustainable Development Goal 7) 2are heavily contested in many countries.
Choices about infrastructure for universal energy supply have implications for climate change, which affects African nations disproportionally. As a result, the African climate agenda mainly focuses on the questions of how to adapt to the impacts of climate change and how to build more climate-resilient economies and societies.3 These are important concerns for societies which predominantly rely on income from agricultural activities. Over 70% of adult workers in sub-Saharan Africa relied on agricultural activities and family farming to sustain their livelihoods in 2016.4
The politics of the international negotiations on climate change led African negotiators to shy away from addressing the central questions of future energy supply and associated emissions effectively. Concerns about finance for adaptation and loss and damage direct the African agendas instead.5
At the same time, contestations about energy futures, access and security in supply increasingly polarise African societies. While renewable energy technologies have become more accessible and affordable, plans to build new coal plants loom in many countries on the continent.6
Decisions on energy futures in Africa reach beyond the scope of national governments and regional integration. Geopolitical relations with the suppliers of energy technology in China and Europe increasingly stand at the crux of these choices. The Chinese government launched the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), which strategically focuses on economic cooperation in energy and mineral resources in Africa and Asia.7The promotion of coal-fired plants is a central element of BRI infrastructure projects. Chinese domestic policies support phasing out coal in favour of renewable energy, so the Chinese government encourages local coal industries to explore foreign markets, which has resulted in coal-fired plant investments in 34 projects across 11 African countries.8The EU’s Comprehensive Strategy with Africa focuses on the promotion of renewable energy and the diffusion of climate compatible technology towards inclusive sustainable development.9The strategy follows a similar rationale to promote decarbonisation in and outside the EU. The EU strategy to enable ‘green transitions’, however, conflicts with the operations of many powerful European multinational companies that continue to dominate the exploration of fossil fuel resources in Africa.10
This raises the question of how African societies can make the choices that are best for them, without stepping into debt traps or turning into ‘living labs’11where energy policy outcomes are determined by external players.
This policy brief presents findings from hotspots in sub-Sahara African countries where plans for coal-fired power plants may clash with renewable energy policy discourses. The brief proposes recommendations for African agency and scholarship to strengthen the science-policy interface for successful management of the looming energy transitions to maximise the socio-economic benefit for African societies.
Most of Africa’s coal power plants are currently operating in Morocco, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa.12South Africa accounts for 75% of coal power energy generating capacity on the continent. The African continent currently only accounts for 8% of global emissions while South Africa alone contributes about 1%.13
The number of coal-fired power plants may significantly change the landscape of African energy futures in the next 50 years. Currently, governments have proposed 21 new plants in 17 African countries.14If these projects go ahead, they will contribute significantly to the emissions burden for 40 years and the global temperature goal will move further out of reach.
These dynamics raise the question of why governments pursue the development of fossil fuel-based power plants, and particularly coal-fired plants, while opportunities to build sustainable, more innovative technological pathways are becoming more affordable and accessible.15
Evidence from a few hotspots of new coal developments may provide some insights. South Africa dominates the regional Southern African energy pool with its coal-based energy sector, which generates about 90% of its electricity. Africa’s only commercial nuclear plant adds another 5% to the generation capacity. Renewable energy generated mainly from wind and solar photovoltaic technologies add another 5%, despite a much higher potential.16The share of renewable energy is relatively low because of the political and cultural legacy in coal mining, which created a persistent anti-renewable energy discourse that closely associates renewable energy technology with privatisation and liberal economic ideology.17
The updated plan for the electricity sector in South Africa foresees an expansion of renewable energy and the construction of two new build coal plants over the next 10 years.18Other polluting sectors, like the coal-to-liquids industries, energy intensive smelting industries, as well as oil refineries, go largely unregulated without following a similar plan. If the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) can be implemented successfully, a clean energy transition for South Africa may be possible. Most of South Africa’s aging coal plants need to be replaced by 2040, except for the two plants that are still under construction. The proposed new plants in the IRP 2019 will be built as part of the Coal Programme for Independent Power Producers.19South Africa’s electricity sector is closely intertwined with its neighbouring countries Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Namibia. All four neighbours have new coal plants on their political agendas. In Zambia, Malawi, Ethiopia and Egypt, permissions for new coal plants have been granted and the majority of these proposed new plants will be financed by Chinese investments.20
In East Africa, the Tanzanian government has pursued an increasing roll out of coal power plants over the past decade with significant Chinese involvement. Similarly, Tanzania’s East African neighbour Kenya also has ambitions to build two new coal plants, which may set the East African energy pool onto a fossil fuel-intensive pathway.
In Kenya, the government proposed building the nation’s first coal fired plant on a UNESCO heritage side, the island of Lamu. The plant is part of a larger Chinese financed infrastructure programme that includes a contested high-speed rail network between Nairobi and Mombasa, potentially reaching into Kampala, Uganda. The proposed construction of the power plant in Lamu ignited significant resistance from residents, heritage organisations and environmental organisations, which organised themselves to dispute the authorisation processes. The process was subsequently halted, which may have implications for the construction of other Chinese financed power plants in Africa.21Kenya’s second proposed plant, situated in the Kaloleni province, is currently in the pre-permission stage and has also attracted social resistance.22
The Kenyan case demonstrates the significant role that civil society can play in energy decision-making processes. Research on the coalitions and political networks in these decision-making processes, however, is relatively scarce. A few exceptions have shown how political coalitions evolve in support or opposition of specific energy technology decision-making processes in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.23An analysis of Tanzania’s energy policy found competing discourses between African states ‘as leaders in the climate change agenda have been greatly overshadowed by recent developments related to coal investments that have triggered a clash between the energy security and sustainability narratives.’24Further analysis of South African climate and energy policy showed that the balance of power between coalitions in the decision-making processes matters for the policy outcome.25
The decisions of individual governments depend on a number of factors:
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has been designed to expand Chinese business opportunities beyond national markets with the aim of addressing infrastructural backlogs in developing countries. Initially, the programme had targeted four nations in Africa, but recently China reported that 43 of the 54 nations in Africa have signed agreements to collaborate on infrastructure development with the Chinese government, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.26
Loan agreements are often linked to guarantees that are linked to access to natural resources, mines, infrastructure or fiscal revenue. Bilateral agreements for large infrastructural investments can create risks for political capture, corruption and negative environmental impacts, if procurement processes go unscrutinised in societies with little public accountability and weak civil society.27
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative creates competition for European investors and exposes the EU’s conflicting promotion of sustainable development and fossil fuel exploitation on the African continent. The Chinese competition is real for European actors. The Chinese diplomatic strategies focus on the negotiation of bilateral agreements, which differ from less coordinated European approaches towards a comprehensive transition through innovation. The Chinese government can speak with one voice, while the EU pursues a strategy which builds on the diverse approaches of its 27 member states and powerful multinational companies.
There are opportunities for Europe to position itself strategically if it organises its political instruments towards the core of its strategy with Africa: enabling innovation for ‘green transitions’.28Europe has long-standing bilateral and multilateral relationships with the AU and most African governments and regional organisations. Effective coordination of the substantial resources spent on economic, environmental, scientific and technological and development cooperation can enable innovation towards green transitions as proposed in the EU’s Comprehensive Strategy with Africa.
Translating innovation into political and societal processes beyond the transfer of technology will be essential to enable innovative green transitions. Innovation includes novel approaches to business, governance and broader socio-economic processes at national, local and even household levels. Renewable energy technologies are flexible and can be used in large and small-scale applications in domestic, residential, and industrial and commercial ways. Decision-making around renewable energy can be organised in more democratic or autocratic ways. Unleashing the potential of renewable energy technologies can work successfully if its users are part of the process early on and can develop ownership in the ways in which these technologies can be used and work for them. The social shaping of technology requires transparency, inclusion and dialogue, which should underpin AU-EU cooperation.
Climate policy pits highly vulnerable African countries against the policies and responsibilities of many European countries. Energy decision-making tends to happen secretly for the benefit of political elites, often in the absence of evidence on cost and benefit analyses of the various options. Inclusive energy research, university programmes, critical journalism and support of civil society organisations can help to increase public scrutiny of government expenditure in the energy sector. European and African actors can coordinate the various instruments for environmental, scientific and technological cooperation, as well as development cooperation in support of local innovators who would be left behind in liberal market conditions. Societies on both continents have not fully unlocked the potential for mutual learning.
This policy briefing has been published as part of a series under the project Partnership for a Green Transition and Energy Access: Strategic priorities for Africa and Europe. The project is a partnership between SAIIA and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s Regional Programme on Energy Security and Climate Change in Sub-Saharan Africa. This article is also available on the SAIIA website here.