/ 19 October 2023

Future of energy in Africa roundtable

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The role of the energy geoscience industry and alternative solutions

Good Governance Africa (GGA), sponsored by EnerGeo Alliance, presented an inclusive and dynamic discussion on the future of energy in Africa, in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. The webinar brought together key stakeholders, including policymakers, academics, industry leaders and civil society representatives, to engage in an open and constructive dialogue on solving the energy deficits across Africa. 

Questions that emerged included: can the transition to renewable energy, in a continent with largely unskilled labour, really be a just transition? Is there sufficient capital for Africa to make the transition, and is political will really there? Can the ideological stance of renewable energy being “better” be backed up by scientific facts? And … How can we ensure that including small scale fishing communities in discussions about energy extraction from South Africa’s oceans is not mere tokenism?

Dr Ross Harvey, GGA Director of Research and Programmes, opened proceedings by setting the context, before introducing the panellists. He said that burning biomass is still the primary source of energy for many Africans, but this has an adverse environmental and health impact (indoor air pollution is still a major source of mortality), as do coal-fired power stations. Mass electrification is therefore a critical priority, especially given that 600 million Africans (60% of the entire population) still do not have access to reliable energy. 

“African countries need to be nimble to ensure an energy mix that is as clean and reliable as possible,” he said. Renewable energy costs are plummeting, and energy grids are becoming less centralised, but policies must be developed with a deep understanding of the trade-offs involved in transitioning to green energy; it is not an either-or situation, but one that involves many nuances. 

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Energy for Africans

Professor Lwazi Ngubevana, Director of the African Energy Leadership Centre at Wits Business School, said that when we speak of the future of energy in Africa, it must be led by Africans, for Africans. The continent has unique circumstances, including widespread poverty, which needs to be urgently addressed. The concept and institution of green energy should not come from an ideological perspective, but from science, he stressed. A big issue is the lack of financing for renewable energy: it “does not compute” that we are pushing for Africa to go green, but there is not enough money to do so. Africa must demand a seat at the table when it comes to the terms of financing renewable energy. 

The continent cannot continue to be exploited; it holds many of the minerals needed for the green transition. It cannot just keep exporting minerals in exchange for technology, but must be involved in all the steps of the transition. Ngubevana pointed out that nuclear energy is not popular with environmentalists, but if we let science do the talking, it is indisputable that it has the smallest carbon footprint. Natural gas will also play a big part in the transition to clean energy. This is because the mines required to extract “critical minerals” for the transition will take a long time to build.

Balancing act

Professor Ken Findlay, marine mammal biologist and Specialist Consultant  with Global Ocean Accounts Partnership , said we need an informed balance between energy security and ocean protection. A “full-cost” model must be found that balances comprehensive ocean wealth and health with capital, sustainability and inclusivity. Too many projects do not sufficiently account for negative externalities — the hidden social and environmental costs of profit-making that are often offloaded onto marginalised communities who can least afford them.

We require adaptive ocean governance; historically and currently, trade-off decisions between sectors and the environment are often based on the contribution of these sectors to GDP metrics, but in fact, there are many other externalities that need to be considered. 

Our oceans are changing and so is the way we use them. Across the globe, countries are turning to exclusive economic zones to advance their blue economies, such as Go Blue in Kenya and the EU’s Blue Growth, which are long-term strategies to support sustainable growth in the marine and maritime sectors. This is in response to the increase in ocean pressures such as pollution and unsustainable extraction. The way in which ocean monitoring takes place has changed massively in the past 20 years with the advent of new technologies such as big data, said Findlay.

Sustainable ocean planning requires the integration of social, economic and the environment aspects, which must be well informed, scientifically researched and adequately financed. Balance is required between what is produced and consumed and what the ocean can handle. The ocean has a porous nature, so what occurs in one place then occurs in others; it is far harder to manage pollution in the ocean, for instance, than it is on land. We must also update our laws: South Africa’s legislation around the acoustic pollution in the ocean from sonar and seismic testing is not far from adequate, he said.

Local communities fight back

Moenieba Isaacs, Professor at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of Western Cape focused her presentation on small-scale petitions and coastal communities on the subject of seismic surveys. The surveys proposed by Shell on the Wild Coast were successfully challenged by small-scale fishing communities and environmental groups, and there were other challenges made before these. The rights of local communities must be considered when it comes to exploiting our oceans via the blue economy. 

Local communities must have a seat at the table when it comes to exploration projects; many organisations claim to represent communities but do not do so in reality. The success of our communities in obtaining interdicts against large companies like Shell lies in knowing their legal and constitutional rights and in forming alliances with international environmental organisations; however, they may be used by them as tokens, and interdicts are not always sufficient to stop testing from proceeding in the long term. We need a new way of engaging that is more sustainable.

Consultations are not always made with the 200 million Africans who fish for a living, both inland and on the coast, and local and indigenous knowledge is often overlooked. Policies must be inclusive — not just in name — and local communities must benefit financially from decisions made by big energy companies.

Ideology versus science

Ngubevana said we must remember that there is an impact caused in harnessing solar and wind energy, but we often overlook the cost due to ideology. In Europe, it has been shown that the higher the penetration of renewables, the higher the cost has been for consumers. We need to be sensible and listen to the scientists: for instance, if you install wind turbines, how does this affect the communities nearby, and were they consulted? How will they benefit? 

Harvey agreed, and said we must incorporate local communities in such decisions, but often the conversations are very technical, and there may be the issue of how to ensure that everything communicated is fully understood.

Findlay said his background in working with the ocean has led him to take more and more into account the nexus of humans and the environment. Open accounting allows us to integrate the flows between economies and the environment, and we can then analyse the impact of various sectors and “underpin the serious questions with hard data”. He added that informal economies are not reflected in national accounts when it comes to, for instance, calculating GDP and tax, and we need to somehow measure them. 

Real inclusivity

Harvey asked how we can create real inclusivity, and avoid communities being used as mere pawns in other people’s games? Isaacs replied that we are not investing enough in research on how to interact with communities. She said her work with communities involves discovering from them what their issues are, and that she frames the conversation from there. There is a lot of messiness and politics, but successful research takes a lot of time; you have to work with and alongside the community, and to do so, you have to get out of your own comfort zone.

Questions from the floor

What damage does seismic testing cause on marine mammals? 

Findlay said there has been a lot of research done on this issue. The impact is not only on marine mammals, but also on plankton and fish. There is very clear evidence of marine mammal mortality from sonar, but this is ignored in environmental impact studies. There are also long-term impacts, for instance on fertility rates. We need more local research on, for instance, how sonar activity affects South African species such as snoek. At the moment the best we can do is to use global best practice. We often draw on dated information, and there is a need for adaptive processes.

How do you locate job creation in the transition to renewable energy in the African context?

Ngubevana replied that this is a very controversial point.  We need to build our manufacturing capability on the continent, which requires a lot of planning and coordination between countries. The key is to ensure that we do not simply export raw materials, but fully exploit global value chain opportunities, which will require more thorough regional coordination and coherent industrialisation policies

Isaacs said there is a lot of unskilled labour in Africa, which creates problems when it comes to the energy transition. This is why we shouldn’t talk about a “just” transition — it’s not clear what justice actually looks like when all these issues are in play — a major overarching point is that there are not a lot of jobs for unskilled workers being created, and this is a serious problem.

An audience member from a fishing community said that what is happening on the west coast is that bigger ships are using sonar to detect schools of fish, but the sonar is also chasing them away, leaving the locals with no fish to catch. Another problem is that people talk “about” small-scale fishing communities, but not “to” them. Consultations such as this roundtable must include the people from the start; not including them makes them feel disrespected. The communities don’t know what the “just transition” means, and don’t feel included in it. Harvey responded that this point was well appreciated, but it’s a “both/and” situation. Conferences are not always the most appropriate forums for community consultation. GGA conducts field research to ensure that legitimate community voices are heard.

A Kenyan farmer said that in his country, most people use very little electricity. He said Africans are being told to transition to solar and wind power, and leave their coal and gas in the ground, but if this is done, farming and other important industries will not function. “Africa will not develop without fossil fuel,” he said.

Another member of the audience responded and told the farmer that he perhaps shouldn’t see things in such black and white terms, though she understood the sentiment. She said she was part of a study in Senegal and Ghana that investigated potential job creation in renewable energy. One topic that had not been brought up at the roundtable was that of political will, and whether governments would commit to what they said they would in the transition to renewables.

Concluding remarks

Harvey asked the panellists what they thought the way forward was for Africa. Findlay said that there is not enough political will to create enabling environments in Africa for small businesses, such as converting plastics into fuels, to flourish. There must be more transdisciplinary thinking in order for us to arrive at creative solutions. Trying to get biologists to think like economists and vice versa is proving a challenge!

Ngubevana there are many opportunities in the energy transition, and a lot depends on the communities themselves seizing the opportunities that are available, and in holding those in power accountable. 

Isaacs said we are in a climate crisis, a food crisis — and in South Africa, an energy crisis — and these must be addressed together, not in silos.

Harvey closed proceedings by thanking everybody involved, especially Energeo for sponsoring the event and the M&G for hosting it online.