Africa’s 900 million people use less energy than Spain’s 47 million. In sub-Saharan Africa, 621 million people have no electricity whatsoever. Each year, 600,000 Africans – half of them children – die from household air pollution, caused by fuelwood and charcoal used for cooking.
Africa’s lack of access to clean, affordable energy is a scandal. The poorest households in Africa are spending the equivalent US$10 per kilowatt-hour on lighting. The average cost of that same kilowatt-hour of electricity is US$0.12 in the United States and US$0.15 in the United Kingdom.
For too long, governments in Africa have subsidised inefficient and often corrupt energy utilities, following the outdated, high-carbon pathway the rich world has followed. This has kept costs high and failed to extend the benefits of electrification much beyond urban centres.
But Africa’s energy deficit is not only a scandal. It also presents an enormous opportunity, and one that offers a triple dividend – reducing poverty in Africa, promoting economic prosperity and safeguarding the sustainability of our planet.
Africa has an opportunity to lead the world, and leap to a totally renewable energy base, in the same way as the continent has leapfrogged from fixed-line telephony straight to mobile communications.
What does that opportunity look like? The Africa Progress Panel, of which we are both panel members, sets out the vision in its latest report, Power, People, Planet: Seizing Africa’s Energy and Climate Opportunities.
For example, in a continent bathed in sunlight, if families bought new, highly efficient home solar kits, they could tap into clean, sustainable electricity to power LED light bulbs, fans and TVs, and to charge mobile phones.
Today the initial $200 cost of a solar kit is a barrier for the very poor. But here, too, lies an opportunity. Costs are falling rapidly and families currently could pay off the solar kit at 25 cents a day, through a credit structure that collects money through mobile payments.
Access to clean energy is the route out of poverty for hundreds of millions of Africans. It opens up economic opportunity, enables access to education, and reduces the pollution that causes ill-health – generating the first dividend: a quicker path to making poverty history.
Already, millions of disconnected, energy-poor Africans constitute an annual market worth $10 billion. Imagine the opportunity that expanding and democratizing that market presents. Electrification boosts economic development, meaning that investment is rapidly repaid. This represents the second dividend: attractive returns for both public and private investors.
African governments have a crucial role to play in increasing energy access while moving to renewables. They currently spend around US$21 billion a year subsidising energy utilities and fossil fuel-based products. By redirecting that money towards low-carbon investments, they could begin to bridge Africa’s energy financing gap, which we estimate at US$55 billion a year.
The international community also has an important role to play in closing that gap. In Paris in December, the world’s leaders will come together to commit to a global deal to stave off profound and dangerous climate chaos.
Africa has a huge stake in a deal that limits global warming to less than 2˚C above pre-industrial levels. Without such a deal, it will prove impossible to meet many of the Sustainable Development Goals, agreed by the UN General Assembly in September.
The region is already suffering the worst effects of climate change. Droughts, floods, storms, disease and declining crop yields are threatening to wipe out decades of development gains. And yet Africa has done the least to contribute to climate change.
Climate finance will be central to reaching agreement in Paris. When G20 leaders meet in Turkey in November they must set a clear timetable to raise the US$100 billion per year in climate finance already agreed. We also call on the B20 – which brings together business leaders from the G20 economies – to set out how the private sector can contribute to, and benefit from, the provision of climate finance. Part of this money should be used to close Africa’s energy financing gap, and help power up an entire continent with clean and sustainable energy.
Governments and development partners should invest and help private and public investors channel an additional US$35 billion into creating reliable utilities, increasing electricity generation 10-fold, boosting transmission networks and connecting families and business. In turn, this will expand the customer base for future growth and tax revenues.
This investment will help the continent’s rapidly growing economies grow even faster. But, most crucially, it does so in a way that protects the climate. By leading the world in using clean energy sources and driving a low-carbon revolution, Africa can help support a sustainable global economy that grows within our planetary boundaries and limitations. This is the third dividend offered by clean energy in Africa: an environmentally friendly path to development, where prosperity is in concert with, not in opposition to nature.
This is Africa’s “light bulb” moment – and that bulb must be powered by renewable clean energy and financed through smart investments and policies that yield a triple dividend not only for Africans, but the whole planet.
Published in The Huffington Post.