Africa’s just energy transition a priority as the world moves toward decarbonization

TICAD 8 side event

October 12, 2022
Photo: UNDP Africa

As the world moves toward greater decarbonization, it is also imperative that Africa’s ongoing challenges with access to energy be addressed for the continent to achieve a fair and just transition to clean energy, according to experts at a side-event held ahead of the recent 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD8), in Tunisia from 27 to 28 August.

Co-organised by the Tunisia Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy and the National Agency for Energy Conservation (ANME), in partnership with UNDP, the session highlighted Africa’s potential for renewable energy development as well as the need to mobilise public and private partnerships to support an inclusive transition across the continent.

“This event taking place in Tunisia is a privilege since what Tunisia is currently thinking about in terms of its own future is emblematic of what the entire world is currently confronted with: a disrupted global energy economy, an imperative to charter a pathway towards decarbonisation and, at the same time many countries still confront the challenge that hundreds of millions of people still don’t have access to energy let alone being able to think about an energy transition,” said UNDP Administrator Mr. Achim Steiner.

According to UNDP, of the 2.6 billion people globally that still do not have access to safe, clean fuels and technologies for cooking or heating their homes over 75 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, to compound the already fragile situation, African countries are having to contend with rising energy and food prices precipitated by the protracted recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

To confront these multifaceted threats, UNDP has urged an acceleration towards a just energy transition for the continent to counter the negative impact of climate change on livelihoods and open up new opportunities to create jobs.

Stressing the significance of decarbonization and the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, urged Africa and the global community to focus on the short-term solution to clean energy accessibility as well as long-term solutions that will lead to sustainability.

“What we at UNDP believe must be our guide to this, is to not allow the short term to blind ourselves to the long term. There is, in my mind, no question that decarbonisation is the future driving force of any energy system. I believe that five years from now that transition towards clean energy will be even faster and exponential than it might have been from 2015 to 2020,” said Mr. Steiner.

In line with the new UN-Energy Plan of Action Towards 2025 to catalyse large-scale action and support for the transition to clean, affordable energy for all, he said UNDP is working with partners to support an additional 500 million people around the world to gain access to clean energy over the next four years.

Through its Africa Mini-Grids Programme (its largest-ever energy access programme) UNDP is working with UN agencies in the Sahel to expand access to clean, affordable energy to drive socio-economic development and improve the financial viability of renewable energy mini-grids in 18 countries, including in Tunisia, where UNDP and the Government are developing a programme to transform the waste treatment sector into a source of biogas.

World Bank analysis shows that Africa leads other regions across the world with excellent conditions for solar power and yet large portions of the continent’s energy supplies are imported from abroad, and many of them are based on fossil fuels.

“Africa must not only depend on external actors to achieve a clean and just energy transition but must also work together to facilitate a fair and fair energy transition for all of its citizens,” said Ms. Neila Nouira Gongi, Tunisia Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy.

Amid increased global momentum towards decarbonization, all eyes are on Africa, not only because of the continent’s rapidly growing population and immense energy potential, but also because demand across the continent is projected to increase by 60 percent by 2040, far more than any other continent, according to Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP Regional Director for Africa.

“How African countries and businesses respond to this growing demand will determine the extent to which commitments towards net-zero emissions by 2050 made at COP 26 in Glasgow last year will materialize,” said Ms. Eziakonwa.

Highlighting the financial aspect of Africa’s green energy transition, she pointed out that estimates of what Africa will require between now and 2030 range from $1.2 to $2.0 trillion, less than two percent of the $130 trillion announced by the ‘Financial Alliance for Net Zero’ on the margins of COP 26 in 2021.

Considering that 75 percent of those without access to electricity live in sub-Saharan Africa and that 600,000 Africans (mostly women and children) die every year because wood and charcoal get used for cooking, Ms. Eziakonwa, stressed that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy would not only have environmental benefits but would also significantly enhance health outcomes and development prospects in the region.

“Africa’s just energy transition is not an option. It is a necessity and a global imperative. To accomplish this, we must double investments in clean energy and our efforts to de-risk and catalyze financial investments and expand programmes that increase agency and improve civic education at all levels,” she said.

Focussing on the importance of collaborations and partnerships to facilitate the energy transition for all countries, Mr. Fathi Hanchi Director-General of the National Agency for Energy Management (ANME) acknowledged support from bilateral and multilateral development partners such as the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and UNDP in assisting Tunisia to develop and implement energy strategies.

He said ANME plans to reduce national energy consumption by 30 percent by 2030 and increase by 35 percent the rate of production of electricity from renewable energies. He also showed that various stakeholders are currently studying the possibility of producing 80 percent of Tunisia's electricity needs from renewable energy by 2050.

Emphasising the role that development organizations like UNDP and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) play in supporting and facilitating a just energy transition across Africa, Head of the Africa Division of UNIDO, Mr. Victor Djemba, said that in UNIDO view, a justice energy transition, which simultaneously supports economic diversification and environmental sustainability in Africa, requires stronger emphasis on the SDG-9 dimension, particularly “sustainable energy for industrial activity” and “industry for sustainable energy”. In this context, he emphasised the need for African countries to diversify their economies, industrialize and move towards more technology-intensive higher added value manufacturing and servicing. There is need to modernize traditional sectors and leapfrog to new emerging ones of the ‘green and blue economy’.

However, this structural transformation requires access to different quality and quantity of urban energy infrastructure, as well as digitalized and intelligent low carbon energy solutions. There is massive need to increase support for decentralized and distributed renewable energy approaches, including mini-grids, for productive uses in rural key sectors, including agriculture, food processing and fishery. These sectors particularly engage women and young people.

Therefore, UNIDO encourages Governments and the international community to strengthen public-private partnership approaches and concessional finance schemes targeting industrial energy efficiency and industrial renewable energy approaches. Due to the limited capacities and various risks, it remains difficult for African companies to access expertise and finance for sustainable energy investment and technology transfer. In this context, he referred to UNIDO programs, such as the Sustainable Energy Industry Accelerator and the Industrial Deep Decarbonization Initiative.

The income and employment opportunities are promising. Opportunities for local clean energy and resource efficient manufacturing and servicing could generate additional USD 200 million to USD 2 billion revenues annually. This could lead to net additional 3,8 million jobs by 2050 in areas such as electric mobility, bioenergy, off-grid solar and mini-grids, wind power, etc.

Dr. Daniel Schroth Director of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency for the African Development Bank highlighted that Africa’s vast untapped energy resources, coupled with the urgent need to provide electricity access to hundreds of millions of Africans, constitute an investment market worth billions of dollars.

“There is huge potential in Africa’s energy sector and the return on investment is equally high, which should encourage the private sector to intensify their investment in renewable energy in Africa,” he said.

Dr. Schroth stressed that a more engagement with the private sector is required to crowd- in investment at scale, and this requires a favourable business environment. Critical elements of this include clear and consistent policies, well-defined government planning frameworks, robust institutions and sequencing of public and private interventions that integrate all solutions across the power value chain and project cycle.

Summarising the session, Dr. Raymond Gilpin, Chief Economist and Head of Strategy, Analysis and Research at UNDP Africa, reminded the panel that the discussion should be about just ‘transitions’, not transition, because Africa is diverse and energy contexts differ from country-to-country.

He stressed that a just energy transition has implications beyond the energy sector; it has implications for addressing inequalities, creating employment, boosting industrialisation, among other benefits. According to Dr. Gilpin, it is therefore important for there to be institutional and regulatory frameworks in place that allow just transitions to deliver these benefits to society.

“Just energy transitions across the African continent are a possibility, and financing is within reach. Events like this help us think through smart and sustainable ways to get this done,” concluded Dr. Gilpin.

Panelists agreed that there is an urgent need to elevate collective ambitions and pledged to move much faster to address Africa’s energy insecurities in order for it to achieve a fair and just transition to clean energy and improve the quality of life for citizens across the continent.