African energy leaders and global investors attended African Energy Week in Cape Town last week to find ways of “making energy poverty history by 2030 and reshaping the continent’s energy development”.

Although these aims are critical for building healthy and prosperous African societies, there remains fierce debate about how to achieve these goals. As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) approaches, set to take place in Dubai later this year, these complex issues will move to the fore of global policy debates.

The drought-stricken region around Mabwematema dam, 20km north of Zvishavane in Zimbabwe, on December 25, 2019. Photo by ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP

The global push to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources creates a complex set of decisions for African states. As economic historian Daniel Yergin points out, previous energy transitions—from oil to coal, for example—occurred over the course of a century and were driven primarily by technological innovation and market forces.

The green energy transition, in contrast, is supposed to roll out over 25 years and is driven, in large part, by policy imperatives and the existential threat posed by climate change. No matter which way one views it, this will be difficult to achieve, given that 80% of the world’s energy is still hydrocarbon-based and global infrastructure is essentially oriented around that system. Nonetheless, the search for cleaner energy in the context of a climate crisis could not be more urgent or important.

Africa is bearing the brunt of a climate crisis it did not create, contributing less than 4% of global carbon emissions annually. Unlike the developed world, Africa must also navigate this transition amid a host of other critical and sometimes competing development issues. About 600 million Africans still do not have electricity, and about 70% of households in Southern Africa depend on wood for energy, the burning of which has many adverse health effects. Africa’s population is set to roughly double from 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion over the next 25 years. At the continent’s current growth rate, the number of jobs created will be insufficient to absorb a fast-growing labour force. Africa is experiencing more conflict and political violence than at any time since the end of the Cold War and accounts for more than half of the global conflict burden. The effects of this conflict can be seen in record levels of food insecurity and displacement.

Given this context, it is understandable that African states may look to rapidly exploit any and all fuel sources available to them and leave the reduction of carbon emissions to developed nations. This can be seen, for example, in the liquid natural gas (LNG) boom in Southern Africa. However, this approach contains inherent risks for sustainable long-run development in the region. For instance, one of the burning questions is whether sufficient governance mechanisms exist to use natural gas for widespread electrification instead of perpetuating a “resource curse”.

In 2022, Good Governance Africa and the Southern Africa Trust studied the current and potential effects of liquid natural gas projects on development outcomes. Case studies included LNG exploration and mining projects in Cabo Delgado, MozambiqueCahora Bassa, Zimbabwe; and the Eastern Cape, South Africa, led by TotalEnergies, Invictus Energy, and Shell Global respectively. Although each case study presented unique findings, there were lessons learned that are regionally applicable and should serve as an impetus to transform key aspects of Africa’s mining sector.

Substantive consultation matters

In all three case studies, local people were inadequately consulted prior to or during exploration and mining activities. This led to raised or unmet expectations, as well as perceptions among people that the interests of mining companies and government elites superseded their own. Cabo Delgado was a worst-case scenario where these perceptions have been instrumental in driving violent conflict in the province. Grievance and perceived exclusion are fertile soil for protest activities, organised crime and terrorism. Meaningful consultation is difficult, but clearly a necessary condition for ensuring a sustainable business.

The need to rethink environmental assessment models

Current assessment methods often fall short of adequately accounting for the negative long-term ecological and social consequences of fossil fuel mining projects. Consider the following: LNG is a transitional energy source. It will be required while mines extract minerals for the energy transition to be built; untouched wild landscapes (both marine and terrestrial) will offer increasing value in terms of compensation for biodiversity protection given the ecosystem services they provide to mitigate climate change; and ecotourism, itself dependent on biodiversity protection, will play an increasingly vital economic role in the Southern Africa region. In light of these factors, more comprehensive environmental assessments are required to account for the complexities and trade-offs involved in energy choices. Countries should avoid becoming locked into energy pathways that undermine their ability to maximise biodiversity preservation.

Strengthening public participation and transparency

Governments need to strengthen environmental and mining legislation to better promote public participation in natural resource governance and energy policy discussions. This includes promoting access to information, participation in decision-making and access to justice. In Zimbabwe, for example, production-sharing agreements and environmental impact reviews typically remain classified, while in Mozambique, people displaced by mining operations or who experience human rights abuses at the hands of security forces sent to guard mining interests often have little recourse or access to justice. In South Africa, local residents were able to access justice through the courts, but attaining interdicts is not a sustainable solution. In all three cases, legal frameworks for ensuring maximal participation and minimal elite capture are critical and should be urgently developed.

Rebuilding institutions

It should be a given that the strength of institutions is viewed as critical to ensuring natural resource wealth contributes to broad-based development or energy security. This is, for example, central to scholarly work on the “resource curse”, which posits that institutions are the only guard against natural resource discoveries creating opportunities for rent-seeking, which disincentives political elites to create the conditions for broad-based economic growth. This factor is too often left out of debates about energy security in the region, despite Africa’s biggest oil-producing countries remaining energy insecure. Part of the problem with the rhetoric of “drill baby drill” to maximise LNG production is that it ignores history. Countries that have had extensive opportunities to use gas have not done so. Until institutional mechanisms are in place to credibly reverse the historic resource curse, drilling should proceed with extreme caution.

The imperatives of improving energy security and delivering economic growth in the context of climate change pose difficult policy decisions for African states. But what seems clear is that positive outcomes can only be achieved if the pillars of transparent, accountable, and effective governance institutions are in place.

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian.

Head of Programme: Human Security & Climate Change | + posts

Stephen Buchanan-Clarke is a security analyst with several years' experience working in both conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa, primarily on issues of peace and security; transitional justice and reconciliation; democratisation and governance; and preventing and countering violent extremism. He currently serves as head of the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa and is a co-editor of the Extremisms in Africa anthology series.

Senior Researcher: Human Security & Climate Change | Website | + posts

Sikhululekile Mashingaidze entered the governance field in Zimbabwe while she was a part-time enumerator for the Mass Public Opinion Institute’s diversity of research projects during her undergraduate years. She has worked with the Habakkuk Trust, Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR-Kenya), Mercy Corps Zimbabwe and Action Aid International Zimbabwe, respectively.