Writing in the Foresight Africa 2020 Report on the priorities for the forgotten continent in the year ahead, Ms Jeanine Mabunda Lioko, Member of Parliament, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and former President of the country’s National Assembly, put it pithily as she discussed expanding access to electricity and transitioning to renewable energy models in Africa given climate change concerns.
“Our prosperity and peace are incumbent on powering our economic development and creating enough gainful employment opportunities for our growing population. That is not something that can be done in the dark.” This, of course, applies to countries across the global South and there are lessons to be learnt, especially for smaller countries in Asia and South America, from the approach of progressive African leaders.
While the world agreed last year at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow that Africa would be wracked by drought, rising sea levels, conflicts over water access, and frequent severe weather events among other natural disasters as an impact of climate change, the historical emissions context was largely elided.
For example, emerging powers such as India succeeded to a significant extent in underlining China’s, Europe’s, and the United States of America’s leading role in greenhouse gas emissions to extract key concessions. Not much was made of the fact, however, that not only does Africa bear the least responsibility for emissions, but the forests of the Congo Basin are, second only to the Amazon, vital to absorbing the CO2 emitted from other continents.
Maintaining these natural resources is essential to combating global climate change but the external support required to incentivise their preservation is missing. It is in this context that African leaders are grappling with possibly the biggest challenge for the continent today, the lack of access to electricity. Nearly 600 million of the 1.2 billion residents of Africa do not have access to power. So, the 12 million new entrants to the workforce each year in just sub-Saharan Africa are vulnerable to underdevelopment, high unemployment rates, a migration crisis, and social instability from which the developed world cannot stay insulated.
Achieving universal access to electricity utilising a variety of power sources is the top priority for Africa, and there is a political dividend to be had too in ensuring power to the people, as it were. The global transition to renewable energy will mean exponentially scaling up the production of batteries, electric vehicles, and other renewable energy systems, which depend in large part on Africa’s natural resources.
The DRC, points out Ms Lioko, accounts for 70 per cent of the world’s cobalt, the mineral vital to battery production. With the demand for cobalt expected to at least double by 2030 as the world’s developed and emerging economies attempt to meet their COP26 commitments, it is unacceptable that the cobalt miners who provide the world with the material essential to the energy transition return to homes without electricity. Democratically elected governments across the continent must show the way.