The climate crisis is hitting hardest in countries that contribute to it the least — how can the UK move to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?
The UK-Africa Summit, held in January in London, has highlighted a policy conundrum. On the one hand, Boris Johnson’s opening speech stated that the country would refrain from investing in coal projects in Africa, a decision which actually goes back to 2002. On the other hand, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas and The Guardian revealed that 90% of the deals made during the summit will fund fossil fuel projects. A few days ago, Global Witness reported that the Private Infrastructure Development Group, which is funded in large part by the government, has committed over three-quarters of its spending to similar infrastructure. As the UK carbon budget becomes more and more stretched, these two stories point to a systemic issue in a lack of investment in truly transformative energy solutions.
The decision shows an inherent bias in the government's perception of Africa's energy needs, at a time in which mitigation and adaptation strategies against climate change should be the priority. International Energy Agency data clearly shows that coal will be the least in demand form of primary energy in Africa by 2040. However, highly polluting biomass, oil, and gas remain vital in a continent where an estimated 600 million people have no access to electricity. The outcome of the summit implies that there is no political will to strengthen the energy network in Africa for the benefit of people living there. Neither is there a long-term plan to invest in alternative energy sources, in line with carbon neutrality targets established through the UK’s cooperation with global partners.
Even when considering increased demand to justify fossil fuel extraction, dependence on resources whose extraction is detrimental to the social and economic wellbeing of entire populations is inconceivable. Oil spillages and natural gas flaring in the Niger Delta are only one example of the scramble for oil and gas causing ecocide and furthering inequality. Scientific evidence shows that infant mortality has drastically increased in sites affected by spilling, even when accounting for other potential factors. Moreover, 95% of casualties related to climate change events are found in poor and underdeveloped territories such as those in Sub-Saharan Africa. The UK's continued engagement with the root causes of degradation on multiple levels is not simply a misrepresentation, but an active contribution to social and environmental injustice.
Some critics see the exploitation of Africa's fossil fuels as a fast track to economic growth at the cheapest price. Such was the reasoning of an annual meeting in the latest World Economic Forum. However, as 2030 approaches, we can no longer believe that industrialisation in such strict terms is the safest bet for all. The devastating impact of the west's unsustainable economic growth is now visible, and mainly affects the most economically marginalised people. Rather than imposing a paradigm dating back to the earliest stages of technological progress, it would be worth considering the potential of countries most hit by the climate crisis. Togo and Niger are just two of many states investing in hybrid systems to electrificate villages, and many local authorities in Africa are developing solutions adapted to the surrounding ecosystem.
The fact that only 8% of the funding dispensed during the summit last week was dedicated to clean energy is a sign of an out-of-date conception of progress. This is a time when collective solutions that reduce inequality and work within the specific challenges faced by each community should be championed. Community projects across the continent, such as CHOICES in South Africa, are a testament to African citizens' will to reduce their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. These ambitions are embedded in an awareness of the local context, to produce tangible outcomes for involved populations.
If the west does not take the lead in financing a green future, it will fail to be a trailblazer and fail to aid Africa in dealing with the problems on the horizon. Most importantly, it will continue to perpetuate a cycle of impositions and unresponsiveness to the pressures caused by its own choices. Africa could be the centre of a politics of innovation. However, it needs responsible financial effort from those who emit far more than 4% of the world’s emissions, yet are pursuing a design meant to damage everyone in the long term.