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The end of fossil fuels a fresh start for continent

Solar panels

Solar panels

Published May 18, 2017


Does Africa hold the keys to the future? We are the continent at once most threatened by climate change and most likely to benefit from the potential new era of renewable energy. Climate change is real. It’s largely fuelled by our use of coal, oil and gas, and it’s incredibly dangerous.

Despite all the promises made at grand summits like the Paris climate talks in 2015, we are presently heading for a close-to-4°C future (just for starters) and we may get there as soon as 2050.

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According to climate scientist Kevin Anderson: “A 4°C future is incompatible with an organised global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable.”

How might this future unfold? Africa warms faster than the global average, so 4°C globally means 6°C in large parts of Africa. It would be impossible to grow maize in much of southern Africa, sea level rise would threaten coastal communities, and extreme droughts and flooding would become normal.

The subsistence agriculture on which millions still depend would become close to impossible, and millions would either die or flee to cities and more prosperous countries like South Africa as climate refugees.

The whole world would be experiencing these sorts of impact to varying degrees. Global society as we know it would probably break down. It’s not a world you want to live in.

But Africa has one great advantage: our so-called under-development means that we are perhaps also the continent least-invested in fossil fuel infrastructure. Many Africans are now skipping from having no access to electricity straight to renewable energy sources, just as some have skipped from having no telecommunications to cellphones.

Although climate change is the biggest threat caused by fossil fuels, getting rid of them offers multiple benefits. Because when we get rid of fossil fuels, we will also get rid of much corruption and conflict, resource and economic instability, air and water pollution, noise pollution, occupational health and safety risks and major threats to arable land.

When we get rid of fossil fuels, we will build decentralised electricity generation from renewable sources and - especially if we apply community energy models of development, as has Germany - we can increase employment in remote and rural areas that have been neglected by over-centralised economies.

Renewable energy is now by far the cheapest option for electricity in Africa. In South Africa, bids for solar photovoltaic power fell to R0.62/kWh in round four of our globally celebrated renewable energy programme (the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme or REIPPP).

That cost is half the projected cost of new coal and nuclear energy in South Africa, and eight times cheaper than the price paid for diesel-generated electricity by consumers in West Africa.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) tells us the REIPPP has already saved the country billions of rand we would otherwise have had to spend on gas and diesel generation.

But the benefits continue. If we switch our continent’s electricity sector to renewable energy, we will win again when new technology like electric cars makes it possible to decarbonise our transport sector, multiplying the benefits of switching away from fossil fuels that are often very expensive in a continent with many landlocked countries.

Renewable energy technology gives us a decent shot at a decent future: one where we could achieve more economically equal societies, restraining our wilder consumerist impulses in favour of caring for each other and for our environment; a future where we could spend on public transport, education, health care and reforestation rather than on oversized cars, wars and this bling.

We could trade the misery, insecurity and crime of societies that exploit both people and planet for a gentler world of richer hearts.

Many countries, including African countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia and Kenya, have already committed to this transition. Even oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia are rapidly investing in solar energy. In China, coal use is now dropping, 20 years ahead of International Energy Agency projections.

No one need lose out in the transition. If we opt for renewable energy, just a small portion of the massive savings can easily fund a plan for people losing jobs in the fossil fuel sector.

Many unions around the world recognise that there will be “no jobs on a dead planet”, and are arguing for a “just transition” through retraining and social support for fossil fuel workers.

The era of fossil fuel energy is close to passing. The question for us now is only whether we - and the managers of our savings, pensions, and investments - will recognise and embrace the alternatives quickly enough to avoid being left behind.

Le Page is a human rights journalist and co-ordinator of Fossil Free South Africa, writing for the African Climate Reality Project.

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