For the past two centuries, human prosperity has correlated with one factor: energy, released through the burning of fossil fuels. This is a self-evident global truth. Europe and North America, the wealthiest regions on the planet, are also those with the highest per capita CO2 emissions (along with the oil-producing Gulf states); Africa, on the other hand, has the world’s lowest levels of per capita energy use — the average African consumes less electricity than a refrigerator and around 600 million people live without access to to electricity. In this sense, it’s the “greenest” continent on the planet. It’s also the poorest, with almost half a billion Africans living in extreme poverty.
More than any other resource, Africa is starved of the energy it needs for economic development. This isn’t for lack of natural endowment. Africa possesses vast reserves of coal, oil and natural gas. But extracting those resources and using them for domestic development requires money, infrastructure, expertise and institutional capacity — which Africa’s poorest nations, especially in the sub-Sahara, sadly lack. One solution is partnering with foreign energy companies — until recently, mostly European and American firms — but that means that much of the domestically produced gas and oil is then exported rather than used for local development.
Yet beyond practical difficulties, in recent years an ideological force has also come to stymie potential development: the global political creed of Net Zero.
While the phrase is already associated with straitened living standards in the West, in the developing world Net Zero threatens to lock countries into perpetual underdevelopment. So far, it has mainly taken the form of Western countries limiting overseas fossil fuel investments. As early as 2014, one study found that the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the main US development finance institution, had started “to invest principally in solar, wind, and other low-emissions energy projects as part of the [Obama] administration’s effort to promote clean energy technology”.
Then, at the COP26 climate summit in 2021, the US and several European countries pledged to stop funding oil and gas projects in developing countries. The Biden administration has since gone even further, ordering a halt to investments in “carbon-intensive”, fossil fuel-based energy projects globally, and issuing new guidance for multilateral development banks such as the World Bank, “aimed at squeezing off fossil fuel financing except in certain circumstances”. The US also vowed to oppose all new coal- and oil-based projects, and to offer only “narrow support” for natural gas projects. Prior to that, the World Bank had already said it would no longer financially support oil and gas after 2019. Other international funding groups, such as the European Investment Bank, have started linking finance to climate adaptation and mitigation, curtailing or halting their funding of fossil fuel and even nuclear projects.
Meanwhile, across Africa, the Western climate-industrial complex, composed of NGOs and state development agencies, has started pouring vast amounts of money into wind and solar projects. And this combination of carrot and stick was a clear injunction to poor countries in Africa and around the world: if they want to develop, they have to do so in a “green” and “sustainable” manner. Advocates and policymakers started pushing the idea that this was totally feasible — that poor countries can generate all the energy they need from renewable sources, primarily wind and solar power. That, in other words, Africa can achieve Net Zero and industrialisation simultaneously. This claim is a delusional fantasy — and a dangerous one at that.
As Vijaya Ramachandran and Seaver Wang of the Breakthrough Institute recently observed: “No matter what advocates and policymakers say, these cheap, renewables-only scenarios remain theoretical and unproven even for wealthy countries.” And it is obviously absurd to expect some of the world’s poorest countries to achieve in a short time what even the world’s most advanced countries have failed to do in a decade. Despite trillions spent on wind and solar, solar panels and wind turbines still deliver just over 3% of global energy, while fossil fuels still account for over 80% of the global energy mix — the same as three decades ago.
The fact is that fossil fuels remain the quickest and cheapest way to kickstart economic growth, as the Chinese miracle of the past three decades shows. Even though renewables (ideally in combination with nuclear energy, which is fully carbon-free) have a role to play in the development of Africa and other poor regions, many African countries have no choice but to rely on fossil fuels in the coming years (coal, oil and natural gas) if they want to raise living standards. It will, of course, initially mean higher emissions, though not significantly: were sub-Saharan Africa to triple its electricity consumption overnight using natural gas, it would add only 0.6% to global carbon emissions. But it will also mean fewer deaths from poverty, destitution and indoor pollution, which in turn will make African countries more resilient to the effects of climate change. Conversely, demands from rich-world advocates and policymakers for developing countries to abstain from using fossil fuels “are very likely to perpetuate the extreme poverty that many Africans face”, as Ramachandran and Wang write.
Forestalling development in the name of Western middle-class luxury beliefs, themselves a product of affluence built on fossil fuel consumption, is not only immoral. It’s also a form of ideological imperialism, as the continent’s leaders have made clear to those willing to listen. In 2021, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni wrote a scathing article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Solar and Wind Force Poverty on Africa”, arguing that “Africa can’t sacrifice its future prosperity for Western climate goals” and that “Africans have a right to use reliable, cheap energy, and doing so doesn’t prevent the development of the continent’s renewables”.
Last year, the Senegalese President and former President of the African Union, Macky Sall, went further, saying that “Africa must be able to exploit its large gas reserves for another 20 or 30 years to further its development and provide access to electricity to the 600 million people who are still deprived. It would be unfair to stop us.” Yemi Osinbajo, former Vice-President of Nigeria, made the same argument: “Limiting the development of fossil fuel projects and, in particular, natural gas projects would have a profoundly negative impact on Africa.”
This isn’t just rhetoric — the African rebellion against the demands of the West has already taken material form with several new energy projects, established with or without the West’s support. For instance, the East African Crude Oil Pipeline is intended to transport crude oil from Uganda’s oil fields to the Port of Tanga on Tanzania’s eastern coast, where it will then be sold onwards to world markets. The project’s opponents include the US-based Climate Accountability Institute, France’s Friends of the Earth, and the European Parliament, who say that it will breach global emissions targets. And many Western banks — including Standard Chartered Bank, HSBC, Barclays and major French lenders — have publicly said they won’t support it.
But the governments of Uganda and Tanzania say they intend to move forward with the project regardless, arguing that they can’t afford not to exploit their natural resources while the world still runs on fossil fuels. Across the continent, part of the reason for the pushbacks is that they know that, if necessary, they can turn to an alternative superpower for funding: the China National Offshore Oil Corporation is one of the main investors in the Uganda-Tanzania pipeline. Meanwhile, other African countries — Algeria, Nigeria, Mauritania, Senegal and others — are pursuing or considering new energy projects, mostly in the field of natural gas, a relatively clean fossil fuel which could provide “transitional energy”. Several countries are also exploring nuclear energy, despite multilateral development banks’ refusal to support nuclear power plants.
The good news for Africa is that the tide has started to change in the West as well, even if for purely selfish reasons. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Europe’s decision to decouple from Russian gas have sent EU countries scouring the world for alternative supplies of gas — and Africa is the obvious choice. It has 13% of global gas reserves, only slightly less than the Middle East, and 7% of the world’s oil, as well as vast renewable energy potential. “Africa may be the answer to Europe’s immediate gas problem and its longer-term carbon one,” according to The Economist. And this is probably why, in March, the World Bank announced that it would be supporting the development of Mozambique’s massive natural gas resources, signalling an important shift in the institution’s policy.
Ultimately, we should be grateful to Africa for resisting the dangerous and inhuman ideology of Net Zero, arrogantly imposed by the West upon a world that no longer trusts them. The next step, however, is ensuring that Africa’s resources are employed first and foremost to promote the development of Africa itself, rather than to perpetuate their plundering — be it from the West, China or anyone else.