As climate pledges pile up, a worrying theme is emerging that bold efforts by rich nations to decarbonize the global economy will be ruined by hordes of new consumers in the developing world buying cars, installing air conditioning, and taking planes. China’s and India’s rapid development and steep emissions trajectories have been central to these fears, but Western governments and climate activists have found little traction there.
Instead, the focus of attention has now shifted to Africa, where energy use is still very low—and where rich countries see an opportunity to apply pressure by leveraging development aid and cutting off finance. This is already leading to harmful policies that will hurt millions of poor Africans by slowing down their continent’s economic development while doing little, if anything, to help fight climate change.
Fears of a fossil fuel boom in low-income but fast-growing regions such as Africa are cited as the rationale for imposing new bans on financing for such investments. At this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, the United States, Britain, and other countries pledged to end international financing of fossil fuel projects. The key word here is “international.” While barring public finance for oil and gas projects in other countries, Britain continues to subsidize its own fossil industry, while the United States—already the world’s biggest oil producer—plans to increase its own domestic production. But even if we ignore Western hypocrisy and take their promises of rapid carbon reduction at face value, is there any rational reason to worry about African nations blowing up the world’s carbon budget? A closer look suggests no.
Scaremongering about Africa points to a disturbing undertone in rich-world debates. On climate change, as on so many other issues, many in the West seem to see Africans as a mass of passive victims lacking agency and requiring charity—the quintessential “white man’s burden”—or a looming threat to civilization. To save the planet, this thinking goes, Africans can’t enjoy a high-energy future that people in rich countries take for granted. The climate just can’t afford Africans to be prosperous.
The second form of activist fearmongering about Africa is to brandish frightful but improbable scenarios. In a recent report from the Wilson Center with the headline “The Battle for Earth’s Climate Will Be Fought in Africa,” the author rightly wrote that Africa’s energy needs must be considered in future energy planning. But then he speculates wildly: If, in 2060, every African were to emit at the same level as Indians or Egyptians today, it would wipe out many of the gains from reductions elsewhere. But is such a scenario even plausible? Almost certainly, no. Africa is starting from such a low-energy base that even rapid increases in oil and gas use could not possibly have much global impact. We calculate that if the 1 billion people living in sub-Saharan Africa tripled electricity consumption using natural gas—the most widely available fossil fuel in Africa—the additional emissions would equal just 0.62 percent of global carbon dioxide today. And of course, no country is remotely planning an all-fossil-fuel future. As in most emissions projections, the scenario makes worst-case assumptions and ignores future changes in technology.
A third factor has been alarm over planned and potential projects to extract fossil fuels and generate electricity in Africa. A widely cited recent study in Nature Energy predicts more than 30 gigawatts of new power capacity from coal and 85 gigawatts from natural gas in Africa by 2030. But the authors’ suggestion of a gargantuan, continentwide buildout of coal and gas does not stand up to a simple smell test. Rather than 30 GW of new coal, our analysis of every potential coal project on the continent suggests only one 0.3 GW project will likely reach completion. If Africa’s pipeline of coal projects was already all but dead, China’s recent pledge to halt support for overseas coal projects is the final nail in the coffin. Similarly, the gas predictions are wildly high. For instance, the study authors’ forecast for new gas generation in West Africa by 2030 is five times the region’s total gas potential as identified by the U.S. government’s Power Africa team.
A final source of unjustified fear is when experts cherry-pick a single example to create the false appearance of a coal-heavy future: South Africa. The country skews all views on African emissions because it accounts for nearly half of Africa’s total power capacity and nearly all the continent’s coal use. A model from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, for example, predicts steep increases in African coal and gas use. The problem: The study assumes the continent is an integrated power market (it’s not) and thus greatly overstates fossil fuel growth based on the far-fetched theory that South Africa will be Africa’s main electricity provider via coal-fired power exports. In reality, South Africa’s coal is already on its way to being phased out, and any power exports will likely come from renewables. South Africa’s past is not the continent’s future.
Naturally, all these apocalyptic narratives promoted by experts and activists are irresistible to the media. The Nature Energy study generated dramatic headlines, including “Africa Could Be Locked Into Fossil Fuel Future” (Forbes), “Renewables Need ‘Shock’ to Push Ahead of Fossil Fuels in Africa” (Bloomberg), and “Climate change: Africa’s green energy transition ‘unlikely’ this decade” (BBC).
More importantly, rich countries’ concerns about a carbon-intensive future for Africa have encouraged drastic policy decisions. Britain, Canada, France, Italy, the United States, and others signed a pledge at COP26 to end public support for overseas fossil fuel projects, including natural gas. The U.S. Development Finance Corp. (DFC), a new $60 billion agency created to support infrastructure in low-income countries, will soon halt all investment in natural gas projects. The World Bank, a leading financier of infrastructure in low- and middle-income countries, has stopped all investment in coal, oil, and gas exploration and production, leaving only narrow space for some downstream uses of existing gas supplies. European shareholders are already pressing the World Bank to end even this limited exception.
The principal justification for banning finance for all fossil fuels—including gas for cooking, heating, fertilizer, and electricity—is the potential for future emissions and the desire to encourage a “climate-friendly” future. The DFC justifies its exit from gas on the grounds of avoiding future emissions. The agency’s alternative is to invest only in renewables, a position already taken by the European Investment Bank and nearly every institution financing African infrastructure.
However, this hypocrisy also comes with risks. With every decision to cut off financing and condition development aid, Africans increasingly view climate policy as green colonialism. American, French, British, and Italian firms don’t need development aid and are investing in African gas for export to Europe or Asia. But if Senegal and Mozambique want to build pipelines and power plants to use their gas at home in order to raise living standards, Western governments refuse to help. This is rightly seen in many African capitals as just the latest round of extractive exploitation.
Worse, this policy is climate redlining. Bans on financing for gas only apply to poor countries that rely on development finance for infrastructure. Rich countries face no such constraints. The very definition of environmental racism is when a policy has a disproportionate impact on communities of color. What else to call a rule that almost exclusively affects Africans?
The reality is that the global carbon problem is still very much caused by the rich countries plus China. Africa’s economic and energy ambitions are not going to ruin the West’s climate plans. Cutting off financing for gas to the world’s poorest nations is unfair and inhumane. Justifying such policies based on irrational and factually incorrect fears of Africa’s carbon future is wrong. Western climate policy must stop blaming the victims.
Correction, Dec. 6, 2021: An earlier version of this article misstated the comparison between the capacity of Uganda’s planned oil pipeline and U.S. oil production.