Much of Africa still lacks electricity. The carbon ethics are thorny.

Nick Roll
Aby Ndour poses for a photo in Kourty, Senegal, Oct. 9, 2021. The village doesn't have electricity, which residents say holds back its economic growth.

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Just as much of Africa skipped landlines and adopted cellular phone service, could it leapfrog fossil fuels and bring electricity to remote areas using solar microgrids and other green sources? It’s possible, but energy experts say it would hinge on a surge in new money for such projects. 

And for now, many African nations have fossil fuel reserves that can serve as a source of both domestic energy and export revenue. 

Why We Wrote This

The moral trade-offs involved in curbing climate change look very different in a Senegal village with no electricity. The view of climate justice from rural Africa.

This question cuts to the heart of climate justice, the idea that countries that industrialized first on the back of oil and coal owe a moral obligation to those that didn’t and are now being asked to abstain from doing the same. 

A priority at the global COP26 climate summit now underway in Scotland is to secure a long-awaited $100 billion a year in commitments for “climate finance” from rich nations to poorer ones.

In rural Bakakack, Senegal, students at the local school have a hard time studying once the sun goes down. “We don’t reject solar,” says Modou Gueye, the school director. “But we want electricity first.”

Aby Ndour starts most days the same way: She wakes up, gets dressed, and treks through bean and millet fields to collect firewood from the trees and shrubs scattered across the sandy countryside that surrounds her village. 

Inside the small hut in her family compound where she cooks is a wood-fired stove, which is hot and smoky. At night, fires are the main source of light in Kourty; the nearest town with reliable electricity to charge a phone is four miles away. 

As a result, life tends to grind to a halt when the sun goes down. Even within the village – and especially along the narrow, swerving roads to other settlements – darkness breeds wariness. “Nobody goes anywhere” after sundown, Ms. Ndour says. “We stop. It’s not safe.”

Why We Wrote This

The moral trade-offs involved in curbing climate change look very different in a Senegal village with no electricity. The view of climate justice from rural Africa.

Ms. Ndour’s situation isn’t unusual. According to World Bank figures, 30% of Senegal’s population lacks access to electricity – a proportion that rises to more than 50% in its rural hinterland. Of the estimated 770 million people worldwide living without electricity, three-quarters are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As world leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland for the COP26 United Nations climate change conference, the urgent need to switch from dirty to clean fuels will dominate the talks. But that’s a conversation largely geared toward countries where a national electrical grid is a given, and the debate is over how quickly to decarbonize energy systems so that fossil fuels are phased out. 

For lower-income countries that are still building out their grid and are late to the fossil fuel party, the debate feels very different. In Senegal, a country of 17 million in West Africa, the government is both promoting renewable energy and planning to drill more offshore natural gas. This way it hopes to power more homes and businesses and grow its modest economy. 

And if the gas it burns adds a smidgeon more carbon to the global commons, who are rich countries to deny Senegal’s right to pollute? This question cuts to the heart of climate justice, the idea that countries that industrialized first on the back of oil and coal owe a moral obligation to those that didn’t and are now being asked to abstain from doing the same. 

This is especially resonant when the rich world isn’t ponying up the necessary funds to pay for a green energy revolution in Africa, argues Henry Batchi Baldeh, director of power systems development at the African Development Bank. 

“Use the energy resources that God has given you,” he says, referring to oil and gas deposits. “Make your own contributions to achieve net zero – but develop your economy, improve the lives of your people using those resources.”

Progress in Glasgow – will it reach Global South?

At the COP26 summit, one of the urgent questions is whether rich nations will boost their pledges – and follow through – to aid the rise of clean energy in places like Senegal.

On Wednesday, leaders at the summit reported being close to pulling together a $100 billion commitment from advanced nations – a target set in 2009 and seen by developing nations and many policy experts as an annual minimum to address the need. In addition, firms representing 40% of the world’s private capital pledged to make climate change a central priority in their lending and investment. Energy experts say a key test will be whether such commitments are felt in developing nations any time soon.

The dilemma over fossil fuel extraction in countries like Senegal goes beyond laying power lines in rural areas. Oil and gas exports are a source of finance for other national goals, says Zaheer Fakir, a senior adviser to South Africa’s environment ministry. 

“Many of the developing countries are finding at this time gas or oil or other resources, which for them, they see as potential revenue streams to finance development – which developed countries have already exploited to get where they are now. The challenge now is that they’re being told to keep that in the ground,” he says. 

One possible solution lies in the rapid buildout of renewables like solar and wind in off-grid regions that aren’t served by conventional energy sources. Just as much of Africa skipped landlines and adopted cellular phone service, so the logic goes, it could leapfrog fossil fuels and go green. But that, in turn, hinges on a surge in new money for such projects. 

“There’s not a lack of money out there, but a lack of finance that would flow to developing countries” for renewables, says Mr. Fakir, who is working with counterparts from other developing countries to lobby for significant increases in climate financing at COP26. 

Among those pledging more so far: U.S. President Joe Biden said in September that the U.S. would double its contribution. 

Many countries have adopted net-zero targets by midcentury. And fossil fuel investment is falling. China has pledged to stop funding new overseas coal plants. University endowments and big banks are under pressure to divest fossil fuel assets. 

But the renewables market hasn’t yet caught up with demand, and shortages of natural gas have been roiling energy markets in Europe and Asia this year, raising fresh concern over the bumpiness of a transition to green energy systems. 

“A very unequal world”

For now, the transition has become a game of who gets to use up the remaining carbon budget that scientists say humanity must not exceed in order to prevent catastrophic changes to the earth’s climate. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels at current rates of emissions, this budget could be used up in the next decade, analysts say. 

Africa is responsible for roughly 3% of current global emissions and even less of historical emissions. That discrepancy, says Janos Pasztor, a former U.N. assistant secretary-general for climate change, makes it hard for the U.S. and other major emitters to block developing countries from receiving a proportionate share of the remaining carbon budget. 

“We live in a very unequal world. Let’s not forget that. There are countries that are more equal than others. This is reality,” he says. 

What would this look like in Senegal? It would mean an expansion in natural gas, which has lower carbon emissions than coal and oil and has been promoted as a bridge fuel toward a low-carbon economy. BP and other oil majors are expected to begin tapping Senegal’s offshore gas, with support from the World Bank, and build onshore liquefaction facilities. 

“The first impact of this [oil and gas] discovery will be to have energy everywhere, for the whole population,” said Fatou Thiam Sow, an official at Senegal’s Ministry of Oil and Energies told a conference in September. “The resources that we have should permit us to improve the living conditions of our population and accelerate our economy.”

The risk for Senegal and other latecomers to hydrocarbon exports is that demand could falter if renewables grow at exponential rates over the next few decades. Still, even the most ebullient forecasts for technologies like electric cars have room for gas-fired vehicles, particularly in Africa where charging stations are likely to be limited to major population centers. And the International Energy Agency projects a near-term increase in global demand for natural gas.  

A leapfrog opportunity

For decades, landline phones failed to take off in much of Africa because of a lack of infrastructure. In the past two decades, though, mobile phone use has exploded through the spread of cell towers and cheap handsets.

In some countries, the same leapfrogging is happening in the energy sector. In Senegal, a few solar farms dot the interior, and a wind farm lies on the northern coast. The World Bank estimates that 32% of energy consumed in Senegal comes from renewable sources. 

In Kenya, that share is over 70%, though it includes biomass, which would count the wood Ms. Ndour collects each morning. Still, even as it has scoped out offshore oil deposits, Kenya has expanded its generation of electricity from hydro, wind, and solar. Renewables already serve millions of rural and urban residents in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. 

PEG Africa, a solar energy company in West Africa, began by providing basic electricity to households that otherwise wouldn’t likely be hooked up to the grid anytime soon. This mostly meant powering lights in villages, but advances in solar power have now made refrigerators, fans, and televisions viable in off-grid villages, says PEG co-founder Nate Heller. While the company has tapped into West Africa’s rural, middle-class market, to hook up less affluent households would require government subsidies, he adds. 

“The dream is that the government sees this as a way that they don’t have to expand the fossil fuel grid to rural households, many of whom it’s not economical [to extend to] because they’re too far out, and the population of the village is too small.”

A village without access

In Bakakack, a stone’s throw away from Ms. Ndour’s residence in Kourty, a solar panel is visible adorning a nearby roof. It’s one of the expensive, finicky, private home set-up panels that are for sale in markets across the country, residents say – and it’s too weak to power much more than a cell phone or lightbulb, and not nearly enough to be a long-term solution.

Nick Roll
Modou Gueye stands in front of the local public school, where he is the director, in Bakakack, Senegal, Oct. 9, 2021. Teachers are often late because they would rather commute than live in Bakakack, which doesn't have electricity.

Students at the local school have a hard time studying once the sun goes down. The director, Modou Gueye, has to go into town to make photocopies of exams. Farmers in Bakakack and Kourty have to travel into town to use electric-powered machines to grind their millet and other crops. The local health facility has a hard time attracting workers. 

Then there are the daily indignities, residents say – not being able to have a cool glass of water after a hot day in the fields, or sleep under the breeze of a fan.

“If there was electricity, we’d prepare madeleines, we’d prepare our coffee – at a big, nice spot, cooking and selling all night,” says Ms. Ndour. 

Residents here are well aware of climate change. “Everything that we know is bad for the environment, I don’t want to continue with that,” says Sada Gueye, a farmer. 

Like other residents, he’s open to renewables – but more important than where the village’s future electricity comes from is that it exists at all.

“We don’t reject solar,” says Modou Gueye, the school director. “But we want electricity first.”

Staff writer Simon Montlake contributed to this article from Boston.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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