A number of countries have made commitments to move to a net-zero emissions economy. This is in response to climate science showing that in order to halt climate change, carbon emissions have to stop – reducing them is not sufficient.
Getting to net zero means we can still produce some emissions, as long as they are offset by processes that reduce greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere.
According to the IEA, the number of countries announcing pledges to achieve net-zero emissions over the coming decades continues to grow.
But the pledges by governments to date – even if fully achieved – fall well short of what is required to bring global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050 and give the world an even chance of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 °C.
Despite many pledges and efforts by governments to tackle the causes of global warming, CO2 emissions from energy and industry have increased by 60 per cent since the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992.
However, if any continent could be absolved of responsibility for the climate change crisis, it’s Africa.
Africa accounts for 16.7 per cent of the global population but only 2.9 per cent of cumulative global carbon emissions. 48 African countries have contributed just 0.55 per cent of these emissions since 1751.
Despite this negligible contribution, Africans are carrying a disproportionate burden as a result of the climate crisis, with pronounced impacts on lives and livelihoods.
From the African perspective, the question is not whether a global net-zero emissions pathway is possible given present and future technological advancements. Rather, it is how the poorest and soon-to-be most populous region in the world will lift its people out of poverty and navigate a net-zero transition simultaneously.
The challenge of the net-zero framework calls for a fresh approach to rethinking the global energy transition; one that places the human development needs of countries in Africa at the heart of the climate debate.
In the words of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, “As with its development plans, Africa’s response to climate change must be Africa-led. For their part, high-income countries (HICs) must support African nations to both deliver their development visions and respond to climate change.
HICs must bear the greatest responsibility for cutting emissions and financing measures globally to adapt to the inevitable consequences of climate change. These countries developed in large part by exploiting their fossil-fuel reserves; as well as bearing the most responsibility, they also have the greatest capacity to act.
Yet global climate action and the approach to net zero in Africa often fail to take into account the urgent need to develop and industrialise across much of the continent.
Rather than accept that trade-offs must be made between carbon mitigation and Africa’s development, many decision-makers and commentators in HICs talk about the continent “leapfrogging” the need for hydrocarbons.
While technological advances such as low-cost solar panels mean that Africa’s industrial revolution could look different to and contribute fewer emissions than seen in HICs, such a pathway will require a step change in the way that HICs work with Africa both on climate change and development.
To be credible partners, HICs must significantly increase levels of climate finance while equally considering how this finance is deployed, using it to support Africa’s vision for development and industrialisation as well as to mitigate carbon emissions.
Africa faces many challenges beyond climate change that are putting its development at risk. The governments and presidents that my Institute supports must deliver against a backdrop of security issues, weak institutions and health crises, among other issues.
To develop, they must compete in a challenging global marketplace against regional economies including Asia, where infrastructure and basic utilities such as electricity are already more reliable and much cheaper – electricity costs in Asia are, on average, half those in Africa.
Expecting African countries to prioritise the reduction of carbon emissions above domestic competitiveness is unrealistic.”
Of course, developing countries must move toward a greener future and net-zero emissions. But the expected pace of change is unrealistic. Without a viable pathway to green energy and sustainable industries, developing countries could fall even further behind.
A better approach would be for wealthier countries to ease the transition by providing emerging economies three resources: time to adapt, financial support, and policy assistance.
African nations are interested in low-carbon growth – but few have received anywhere near enough finance to make it a reality.
“Without the financing, it’s hard to have that incentive,” said Damilola Ogunbiyi, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Sustainable Energy for All.
NJ Ayuk, Executive chairman, African Energy Chamber said, ” We cannot expect African nations, which together emitted seven times less CO2 than China last year and four times less than the US, according to the Global Carbon Atlas, to undermine their best opportunities for economic development by simply aligning with the Western view of how to tackle carbon emissions.
China, meanwhile, appears willing to continue investing in fossil fuel projects in Africa. This means that to keep their nations energized, African governments will have little choice but to partner with China — whose performance is notoriously poor when it comes to environmental protection, despite having signed the Paris climate accord,” he added.
Above all, the important thing to remember is that unless developed countries recognise the challenges confronting developing and emerging economies and take appropriate steps to help them achieve net-zero emissions, we will all be worse off.