Workers walk through a wellhead plant at the Olkaria Geothermal Complex, operated by Kenya Electricity Generating Company, in Hells Gate National Park in Naivasha, Kenya. File photo: BLOOMBERG/PATRICK MEINHARDT
Workers walk through a wellhead plant at the Olkaria Geothermal Complex, operated by Kenya Electricity Generating Company, in Hells Gate National Park in Naivasha, Kenya. File photo: BLOOMBERG/PATRICK MEINHARDT

The impact of Covid-19 has been colossal in Africa and across the world. Economies are being stunted and health systems severely strained as governments continue to crisis manage a dynamic and profoundly complicated pandemic. Many fear global recovery will not be equitable.

Against this unprecedented backdrop, you could be forgiven for assuming that the green revolution has slid down the agenda. Yet the world’s pre-pandemic challenges have not disappeared — our collective vulnerability as a planet, and our exposure to nature, have been revealed again. How we survive sustainably as a species, everywhere, must be ingrained into everything we do as corporations, institutions, governments and communities.

At Rolls-Royce, the pandemic has galvanised our vision and sense of urgency. We already knew that the power that mattered was sustainable power; a Rolls-Royce mantra backed by years of R&D investment in net zero power solutions. We know Africa has huge potential and we have the technologies to help industries, entrepreneurs and communities flourish sustainably, and reduce the costs of climate change.

While addressing global leaders at the first Climate Change Adaptation Summit in Switzerland, African Development Bank president Akinwumi Adesina said climate change costs Africa as much as $15bn a year. Even though the continent contributes only about 2% of harmful global emissions, we stand at the front line of the crisis. Last year we saw deadly flooding and the worst locust outbreak for 70 years, events created by climate change that continues to displace hundreds of thousands of people across the Sahel and threaten the security of millions.

At Rolls-Royce we are issuing a call to arms by joining thousands of companies in the UN’s Race to Zero, aligning our entire business system and value chain with achieving net zero by 2050. By 2030 we want all our new products to be net-zero compliant; and by 2023 more than 75% of our R&D spend will be channelled into lower, net-zero and zero-carbon technologies.

Africa is a particular focus. Rolls-Royce has been operating here for more than seven decades. While we are best known for creating aircraft engines, our engines also play a crucial role in industrial operations — from power generation, to maritime and mining — across the continent. These intensive industries and others such steel and cement, account for 30% of global emissions. In other sectors such as aviation, the physics of generating enough thrust to elevate and safely sustain 300-tonnes of metal in the air for 8,000 nautical miles (the longest A350 journey) has made fossil-based fuels difficult to dislodge.

However, in power generation change is happening at pace. The International Renewable Energy Agency announced in January that with the right policies, governance and access to finance, Sub-Saharan Africa could meet up to 67% of its energy needs via renewable power before 2030. However, critical baseload power requires a transitioning energy source that is as constant and reliable enough to replace fossil fuels. It is our belief that the renewable power mix should be supported by a network of standardised, state-of-the-art, affordable nuclear power stations, powered by small modular reactors (SMRs). Each with a capacity of 470MW, they take just four years to build and can also underpin the immense power needed for creating green hydrogen and synthetic fuels. Each plant can supply one-million homes for 60 years.

This is not to distract from Rolls-Royce’s commitment to Africa's aviation sector. Our progress here is another crucial component in the journey to net zero, and electric and hybrid aerospace propulsion give great cause for excitement. This, coupled with our research into 100% sustainable aviation fuel, is a major source of optimism for us.

To assist and accelerate industrialists on their net zero pathway, five things need to change:

  • We need global consistency between countries and regions to establish level playing fields that avoid the risk of carbon leakage.
  • We need to concurrently tackle the removal of carbon already in the atmosphere alongside drastic reductions.
  • Policymakers must incentivise circular economy business practices across the entire value chain.
  • Financing needs to become more accessible; as much as $100-trillion between now and 2050.
  • The entire transition process must be perceived as fair, and spur inclusive growth and job creation — without which, widespread support for net zero will be impossible.

If these five wheels are set in motion, net zero becomes eminently more attainable.

• Story is strategic marketing director for Rolls-Royce.

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