Africa’s energy transition: A tragedy of the commons

By Austine Sadiq Okoh, PhD

No country should have to choose between fighting poverty and protecting the planet” – the French President Emmanuel Macron

Africa’s energy situation is bad. There is severe energy scarcity. The energy transition which is expected to close the growing energy access gap is addressing the widening gap, while the degree of climate hazard is increasing all the time. Physical, transitional, and financial risks are growing due to factors that are profoundly entangled and interwoven with the energy transition. Because these risks cross various policy realms, the government’s strategy to enhance energy generation is difficult to implement.

Recent attempts have been launched to recognize the difficulty that African economies are now facing. The African Union Agenda 2063 objective of boosting energy generation through the exploitation of rich huge resources has taken bold towards addressing the trilemma of food, energy and rising debt crisis.

Yet, it is still a tragedy of the commons since it brings to mind concerns of environmental deterioration of global common goods through the exploitation of shared property. According to the tragedy of the commons, prolonged collective exploitation of common land would culminate in a “tragedy of the commons.” This is a reference to certain individuals’ (nations’) proclivity to maximize their personal wealth at the expense of others, to manage and eventually destroy the commons.

Africa has been engulfed in the tragedy of the common in recent decades.
Today, the stark fact is that the drive toward energy sovereignty has negative effects, including ecological deterioration. Economic emancipation via resource depletion, rather than providing Africa with an eco-efficient way to maximize economic benefits and eliminate energy poverty, has, in practice, resulted in climate change and hence energy poverty.

What this means is that the process of reducing energy intensity is also promoting climate change, eco-dumping and externalization of cost where further increases in Africa’s debt crisis have increased climate risk. This edition of CFAN unpacks the energy transition crisis by x-raying its linkages with Tragedy of commons.

Africa’s Energy Transition: Whose Energy Security Is It?

Africa continues to be the core of the global energy poverty. Africa has a population of nearly 1.2 billion people, with 600 million currently living without power. Similarly, the degree of indebtedness is considerable. For example, 49 of the 55 African countries have a collective debt of $696 billion in 2020. Africa’s ‘odious debt’ is a big factor. Illegitimate debt acquired without consent of the people is part of the problem.

South Africa is a striking manifestation of the debt crisis’s vicious loop. This is because the Just Energy Transition Pathway agreement, which South Africa just joined, cannot be executed without putting further strain on the fragile environment. Because of the large number of debt involved, this is yet another race to the bottom for most African states. This will result in an increase in debt, adding to the vulnerable environment’s stress. The primary difficulty here is that the great bulk of the $8.5 billion pledged to the JETP is government debt, which will be funneled through a variety of institutions such as multilateral trust funds and private investors.

There is relatively little support in the form of concessions or grants. Moreover, the $8.5 billion allocated to the country will not be instantly available or totally accessible until the necessary incentives and mechanisms for rapid change are in place. So, the main benefit of such loans is that they have simply succeeded in shifting emissions from the North by offshoring manufacturing of energy-intensive industries to rising economies such as South Africa.

It is alleged that the energy transition is a geo-strategic ploy by the industrial North to weaken OPEC’s control on the global energy system by securitizing climate risk. As a result, we are developing a risk culture in which climate peril is being emphasized as requiring immediate action. This is pushing pessimism to new levels. Without a doubt, low-carbon development benefits people who wield control over the methods of lowering climate risk. It is not simply a matter of its functioning for nature as some may want us to believe.

The purpose of capital in freeing the environment is to attain the Triple Bottom-line. The triple bottom line of capital is to serve its mission, which is to benefit the people and consequently the planet, not simply for profit. According to this logic, once we have healed the market, we have also fixed all of the Earth’s faults, which include both human and non-human nature.

All of these points of view are founded on a desire to break free from the grip of the fossil fuel cartels over the global energy system. In practice, the need to liberate oil-dependent economies from fossil-fuel captivity is the driving force behind low-carbon growth, rather than the global well-being that we are led to think. This supports the notion that economic nationalism inside oil-importing countries plays a crucial role in driving trends toward alternate energy sources, given that certain countries are determined to undermine OPEC’s domination of the global energy market. I argue that this is far from truth as mounting existential threats as well geostrategic machination are intertwined here and are complexly relational hence are inseparable in international political economy.

Transitioning to a Fair and Just Energy System

To reach its decarbonization targets, Africa will need to boost renewable energy by 3% every year until 2030. However, the cost of reallocating resources away from present energy sources and toward new alternatives is more than the cost of the current energy pathway for boosting energy security.

It is critical to emphasize that poor African countries will not stand by while an affluent minority consumes an inordinate amount of the Earth’s finite natural resources. They are also unlikely to dismiss the affluent nation’s historical responsibility for climate change’s origins and repercussions.

So, repaying the global North’s climate debt will continue to dominate climate politics in the near future. This is not just a kind of restorative justice, but it is also the quickest means to address climate injustice.

In order to handle the negative repercussions of climate change, a just transition must include past debt. Given the variety of difficulties that link energy access to environmental, climatic, and sustainability concerns, African policymakers will need to implement an appropriate mix of mitigation, adaptation, energy access, and financing strategies.
Most African countries, however, remain trapped in structural traps connected to chronic borrowing and the need for climate financing to reduce the negative implications of environmental externalities, making adaptation investment a critical component of the energy transition.

Enhanced risk screening will determine whether new energy access initiatives will not create additional energy access demands by reinforcing current vulnerabilities.

Mobilizing private financing is important for the energy transition to take hold, but this necessitates regulatory and fiscal policies that reduce the risks associated with energy investments. Although global finance is essential for increasing energy output, it comes with a cost: increased state debt. Given this, Africa’s extractive industry will be charged with navigating the muddy seas of delivering income to prevent climate dangers while also increasing energy availability without increasing externalities. But, can the extractive industry truly escape its pollution trap, which will inevitably lead to new climatic traps? Will dealing with climate risk exacerbate energy traps as Africa’s energy matrix becomes more expensive to maintain? These pose perplexing problems, making Africa’s energy transformation difficult.

Regardless, Africa’s immense natural riches will continue to play a major role, making the continent not just a victim of climatic threats, but also a source, since it is plagued by the paradox of plenty, also known in some circles as the King Midas dilemma. In this paradoxical condition, a resource is maximized by overproduction and overconsumption; but, such exploitation cannot alter people’s living standards- a tragedy of commons.

Dr. Austine Sadiq Okoh is a researcher at the Centre For Climate Change And Development, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufe-Alike, Ebonyi State.

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