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Littleton — The upcoming UN climate summit comes at a time of unprecedented high-level support for reducing global use of fossil fuels, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snarled global flows of gas, coal and fuel and sent power prices soaring.

But as climate bigwigs gather to hash out how to reduce emissions across the planet, care must be taken to ensure every major region is properly equipped with both the funding and the know-how to tackle the enormous challenge of rapidly reducing emissions while sustaining vital economic momentum.

The COP27 meetings in Egypt will be the fifth COP (Conference of the Parties) in Africa. At the tip of the world’s fastest-growing continent, its location acts as a reminder for policymakers — all countries must be able to come along for the decarbonisation ride without being burdened by constraints that may drain government budgets, thwart industry and halt job creation.

Primed for growth

So far this century, Africa has produced the lowest amount of cumulative carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of any region, accounting for just 3.6% of total global CO2 discharge during the 2000-2021 period, according to data from the 2022 edition of the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Africa’s 24 billion tonnes of accumulated CO2 compares to Asia’s 298 billion tonnes, North America’s 139 billion tonnes and Europe’s 100 billion tonnes during the same span.

After decades of emissions-heavy economic growth, industrial heavyweights like China, Germany and the US are now keen to reduce their energy intensity by phasing out outdated smokestack plants and deploying government-subsidised green energy that will help meet emissions-reduction targets.

In contrast, many African nations are in need of a decades-long labour-intensive growth phase to make full use of surging populations, expected to swell by more than 1 billion across the continent to nearly 2.5 billion by 2050, according to UN forecasts.

Ambition mismatch

Latin America, South Asia and elsewhere are also on course for growth in both workforces and economies in the coming decades. But Africa is expected to see the largest gain in working age population of any region by mid-century.

In addition, Africa is on course to be the only continent to see its population expand by the end of the century. Every other region is expected to see its numbers shrink by 2100, according to a study by The Lancet.

This makes African businesses and governments especially hungry for opportunities to grow manufacturing and service sectors that are large employers and can help develop and cater to a wealthier populace.

Africa will require substantial international support if it is to reach its potential as a thriving, low-carbon economy.

To sustain the accompanying buildout in businesses, factories and supply chains, the continent must rapidly expand power and electricity to where it is needed.

But with 90% of primary energy now coming from fossil fuels, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Africa must simultaneously retool its entire energy system to align with the goals of the COP27 crowd.

The dual challenge of decarbonising its energy sector while fostering the emergence of a constellation of job-creating industries would be a major challenge for any continent. For debt-laden African nations, some of which bear some of the highest public debt burdens in the world, according to The World Bank, it’s especially tough.

The region is also among the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and this year encountered severe droughts and floods that killed thousands and impoverished millions more.

Buy-ins or bailouts?

With little surplus finance available to fund both its energy transition and manufacturing-sector expansion, Africa as a continent will require substantial international support on both fronts if it is to reach its potential as a thriving, low-carbon economy.

Yet the international community has also had its coffers drained by the one-two punch of Covid-19 followed by the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war. Moscow calls its actions “a special operation”.

This lack of funding may result in Africa being short-changed by its international peers as countries prioritise their own energy-transition plans, while trying to rein in inflation that has decimated government budgets the world over.

Leaders in Asia, Europe and North America need the vision to look beyond those near-term challenges and see that it is in their own interest to help Africa emerge as an affluent market and future global economy driver. Only then can countries in Africa secure the support they need to fulfil their potential to emerge as the global leaders for the second half of the 21st century.


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