Low Carbon Development and Energy Access for Africa


The transition towards a low carbon development pathway is not a matter of choice.  The reality of climate change demands economy-wide decarbonisation as part of the effort to rehabilitate the climate system and to leave it in a sufficiently resilient state for future generations.  Equally important, it is imperative for African countries to move along a development pathway that emphasizes poverty reduction, economic growth and the enhancement of human wellbeing, while increasing resilience to the physical impacts of climate change.  While there are clear benefits in pursuing low carbon development policies, there is a need for considerable creativity in mobilizing financial and human resources, and building the institutions that can support local and national innovation.  In this regard, Africa needs to play an important role in transforming climate challenges into development opportunities by engaging actively with existing mechanisms and taking a lead in the framing of new instruments for funding and action. 

To this end, pursuing a low-carbon development pathway offers a practical organizing framework for future development planning in Africa.  The low-carbon development pathway creates an opportunity for African countries to modernize and upgrade their water, energy, urbanization plans, agricultural systems, transport, and other critical infrastructure assets.  The African continent does not yet have as much of a sunk cost in carbon-intensive infrastructure as other regions, and is in a comparatively better position to avoid unsustainable technology ‘lock-ins’. Indeed, African governments and their Regional Economic Communities (RECs) across the continent can today proactively shape the development of their national infrastructures and services.

Furthermore, the co-benefits of low-carbon development patterns are potentially significant across Africa, allowing for the necessary interventions to create multiple benefits for local communities, national governments and RECs.  For example, the co-benefits of reduced reliance on fossil fuels include reduced air pollution (indoor and outdoor), enhanced energy security, and lower foreign exchange payments.  These co-benefits can facilitate wider development outcomes such as improved public health, better urban quality of life, and potentially improved balance of payments due to the reduced demand for energy imports.  

Achieving the twin goals of moving away from carbon-intensive infrastructure and maximizing co-benefits will require informing policymakers and influencing decision-making at many levels of society. The success of such an undertaking is predicated on how well existing knowledge is mapped out and new knowledge is generated for these purposes. The process of re-framing the policy agenda to respond to needs and priorities must involve supporting institutions at regional, sub-regional and national levels so as to engage actively with existing mechanisms and to encourage existing institutions to play key roles in the framing of new instruments for funding and action.  Hence, the importance of putting in place coordination structures to draw together knowledge generation, policy and practice cannot be overstated.

In short, African governments and private sector entities must capitalize on existing and emerging climate finance and technology transfer mechanisms to service key development sectors, especially the energy sector.  Clearly, the pathway to a low-carbon future will be complex.  It will need to be cross-sectoral in character, and assimilate the priorities of the range of stakeholders and organisations with a view to widen participation, create collective ownership, capacity and consensus around the low-carbon development issues.  In practice, this will require well-coordinated activities in many sectors and at multiple levels in order to initiate viable policy measures that place development at the core of climate action.  The principle of working across sectors and disciplines does not come naturally as it challenges entrenched institutional and sectoral behaviours. Achieving these outcomes will necessitate meeting a range of new institutional challenges for which existing African entities may be ill-prepared.  It is essential to hold cross-sectoral conversations on these institutional challenges in order to advance the low-carbon agenda and to make that agenda compatible with each country’s national development priorities.

Sustainable and clean energy is a central component to the realization of the low carbon development vision, and ensuring access to modern energy services is arguably one of the major challenges the region faces today.  With over 580 million people in the Africa lacking access to electricity, mostly living in rural areas but increasingly found in the fringes of rapidly growing cities, the region lags behind in several key social and economic indicators.  Given the clear link between development prospects and adequate energy services, Africans must be actively involved to integrate energy concerns into wider development goals that include sustainable wealth creation, empowerment of vulnerable groups, and raising the productivity of their communities.

While the energy dilemma for Africa is a cause for concern, there are also reasons to be optimistic.  Here are some of the reasons.

  • Africa is well endowed with a variety of non-renewable and renewable energy resources. These include crude oil, natural gas, coal, hydro-electricity, geothermal, biomass, solar and wind.
  • Energy sector reforms at the country level: A number of countries in Africa have undertaken a range of reforms in the energy sector, the most significant being the formulation of more comprehensive energy policies and the incorporation of the private sector’s role in the national development agenda. However, implementation of these reforms has faced some serious challenges due to inappropriate design, lack of implementation capacity and financial resources.
  • Enhanced regional and continent-level coordination in energy-related initiatives: African countries have shown interest in jointly developing infrastructure, especially for electricity generation to meet the medium-term energy demand in the region.
  • New climate-related financing opportunities for the energy sector: Africa has been struggling to secure its fair share of climate finance, as new facilities are being established to help developing countries adapt to and mitigate the effect of climate change.
  • New players in the energy sector: Capital flows to Africa from emerging financiers such as Brazil, China, the Gulf States and India have increased substantially in the last few years, amounting to over USD 1 billion annually for sub-Saharan Africa. These flows tend to focus on large-scale power generation, including hydropower.

The roundtable will provide a platform to identify key issues concerning low-carbon development for countries across Africa.  It will also offer a focused discussion on energy access and poverty alleviation, energy sources and technologies, as well as region-specific sectoral challenges (such as transport and agriculture).

Key questions:

  • What are the main challenges for planning a low-carbon development strategy?
  • What are the key research issues (areas) associated with low-carbon development in Africa?
  • To achieve low carbon development, what balance is required between low carbon energy sources, other energy sources and the conservation of carbon in forests and land cover, soils and coastal zones?
  • What are the key barriers to widening energy access in Africa?  Why have most previous energy access programmes failed to achieve their stated goals?
  • What are affordable and reliable energy options for Africa’s rural and urban populations?
  • What is the role of national targets with regard to universal energy access, especially in the context of the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action plans that countries are working on?
  • What role can private sector entrepreneurs and financiers play in increasing access, and how can they be encouraged to invest?
  • What are the technical and financial incentives required to shift to a low-carbon pathway whilst increasing access?


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