By Habiba Ahut Daggash, Ph.D.
In the last decade, there has been increasing agreement on the reality of climate change and its threats to our natural environment and the established socioeconomic systems that we depend on. Africa’s geography and the low adaptive capacity of its population—due to fiscal stress, poverty, and poor governance, amongst other factors—make the continent uniquely vulnerable to climate change impacts. In recognition of this vulnerability, all African nations (except for Libya and Eritrea) ratified the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and committed to supporting international efforts to limit global warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” by the end of the century.
The core of climate action is a shift away from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) that contribute most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since the Paris Agreement, advanced economies have ratcheted up the rhetoric, policy, and financial support to promote progressive climate action. Towards Africa, this has included a mix of incentives such as concessional financing for renewable energy projects and deterrents, including a coalition of mostly rich countries banning public funding for fossil fuel projects abroad. African leaders, led by the Nigerian Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, have baulked at the hypocrisy of rich countries that are limiting Africa’s choices for energy and infrastructure development despite their reliance on fossil fuels to achieve the same. The response of the European Union to the energy crisis created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only buttressed evidence of double standards.
Russia is a leading producer and exporter of fossil fuels and critical metals. The nation contributes 13% of oil exports, 24% of natural exports and 18% of coal exports globally; thus, many economies and industries rely on the availability of Russian energy resources. The European Union (EU) is particularly dependent on cheap Russian gas, which contributes 40% of its consumption. Despite this, the EU, along with the United States, has backed Ukraine in the war through military support and sanctions against Russian leaders and institutions in a bid to cripple Russia’s ability to finance its war effort. In retaliation, Russia has weaponised its energy exports by making it difficult for EU countries to pay for exports and shutting down the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that the EU relies upon for gas supply.
These events have propelled energy security to the fore of geopolitics and somewhat relegated climate change as the priority concern for EU energy policy. The EU has instead scrambled to secure alternative gas supplies and even increased coal consumption which had previously been shunned to promote climate action. The bloc has increased imports from Norway, Azerbaijan, and global LNG markets. However, limited LNG supply and import infrastructure mean they can’t entirely replace the Russian supply. Africa, with leading gas producers (Algeria, Nigeria, and Angola) and recent gas finds (Senegal, Mozambique, Equatorial Guinea), has attracted the interest of EU leaders as a future source of imports. The bloc’s leaders have pledged to support gas field development in Mozambique and Senegal, amongst other countries. Alongside their scramble for gas, the EU has also pledged to ramp up investment in clean energy sources through their REPowerEU plan, which includes ambitious targets for renewable energy deployment backed by a €210 billion investment package. However, it will take years for the EU to realise these targets, so it still needs fossil fuels in the interim.
The resurgence of oil and gas exports underpinning trade and foreign relations has begged the question of what this means for climate action, which requires a move away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. Commentators have suggested that the Russia-Ukraine war will slow decarbonisation efforts as new gas projects are supported to guarantee European energy security. For Africa, this would seemingly suggest abandoning climate action commitments that felt forced and expanding fossil fuel production and export. However, a deeper dive into the opportunities and risks that the new energy paradigm presents for Africa is needed to determine the path the continent should follow.
The main opportunity that the war presents for Africa is increased investment in oil and gas infrastructure. The EU needs to replace 155 billion cubic metres of gas imports. African producers have up to 65bcm of unutilised gas export capacity (mainly in Algeria, Nigeria, and Libya) that could reduce that deficit. However, this is challenging because the largest spare export capacity exists in Algeria, where domestic demand restricts exports. Nigeria already exports most of its LNG to Europe and is locked into long-term supply contracts, so redirecting other exports to the EU isn’t feasible. Additionally, maturing gas fields, a lack of investment in new supply and poor maintenance in Algeria and Nigeria make increasing exports challenging. Projects in construction (such as Nigeria’s LNG Train 7) could add up to 30bcm of African gas exports. However, longer-term investments such as the Trans-Saharan and Nigeria-Morocco pipelines would take decades to build. Thus, Africa cannot immediately replace Russian imports anytime soon. It would also need to address the challenges of attracting investment and creating an enabling environment for these projects to be executed successfully and in time to take advantage of the demand from the EU.
Another often overlooked opportunity the Ukraine conflict presents is the increased demand for critical minerals to develop low-carbon technologies. Russia is a significant critical minerals producer, so diversifying supply chains away from Russia offers an opportunity to expand African mining and establish new industries to support the clean energy transition. In addition, Africa can leverage its resource base to move away from extractive development models by pursuing value-addition activities (refining and active material production) in-country and localising the supply chain for some of these critical minerals and technologies. Southern and Central Africa stand to gain the most from such an approach, with the DRC, South Africa, and Zimbabwe contributing high shares of cobalt, lithium, manganese and platinum production and reserves globally.
Finally, the current energy crisis has highlighted inconsistency in the EU and US’s rhetoric and policy regarding fossil fuel use and revealed their willingness to temporarily deprioritise climate change to guarantee societal welfare. It has also shown how Africa, unable to finance its infrastructural development and determine its energy transition pathways, is beholden to policies enacted outside its borders. Africa has a trade-off between immediate climate action and tackling urgent social or developmental challenges through increased fossil fuel use. So, African leaders should capitalise on this moment to expose the hypocrisy in climate action narratives coming from the West and advocate against restrictive policies on financing fossil fuel projects that may be necessary on the continent. A fairer approach to the ‘just transition’ is needed, considering Africa’s developmental context and negligible contribution to climate change.
The situation in Europe also poses risks. First, the current appetite for the West to finance new oil and gas projects in Africa depends on the geopolitical situation, which could change rapidly. Oil and gas prices are already retreating from their peaks earlier in the year. Clean energy transitions are also accelerating, so there could be significantly lower demand for oil and gas in the future. African countries need to assess the viability of their proposed projects in the low-price and low-demand environments that could materialise and not fall prey to what may be hype following the war in Europe. Secondly, Russia is a significant investor in infrastructure projects in Africa. The sanctions imposed could inhibit the realisation of some projects, to the detriment of African economies. Finally, investors are increasingly concerned about environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) and are sceptical about investing in countries that cannot uphold standards. Many African countries are underperforming in ESG because of poor regulatory environments and complex socio-political dynamics. Investors will opt for projects with low emissions footprints (such as in the Middle East, where methane leakage and flaring occur less). So, a failure to limit the risks and emissions associated with upstream projects will hinder investment and lead to the continent failing to capitalise on its resources.
As energy trade relations are reconfigured in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is significant uncertainty about the future trajectory of the global energy system. Therefore, African countries must build robust energy strategies for the different futures that may emerge—futures that may mean near-term increases in fossil fuel use or faster decarbonisation action. These strategies should consider what changes in technology availability and costs, supply chains, and international policy environment will mean for the continent’s optimal energy transition. Furthermore, if countries choose to expand fossil fuel production, they should develop infrastructure for domestic consumption, making them less vulnerable to demand shocks and price volatility in international markets.
Critical minerals are fast-emerging as the next frontier of energy competition. Therefore, African nations should strengthen their geological surveys to identify commercial opportunities for mining and local value creation in the sector. Extractive sectors thrive when robust regulatory and governance frameworks are in place, supporting power and transport infrastructure exists, and an adequately skilled workforce is available. Unfortunately, achieving these conditions have remained elusive in many African countries, thus hindering investment. Capitalising on emerging opportunities in the energy sector will be predicated on how African governments can achieve these factors.
This article is a summary of a policy brief that examined the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Africa’s energy transition by the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development, a copy can be downloaded here.