How Could Paris Climate Talks Change Africa’s Future?

The UN meeting will focus on developed countries’ plans to curb global warming, but it could give Africa money to embrace clean energy.

PILANESBERG NATIONAL PARK, South Africa—On a hot morning in mid-November, giraffes and zebras mingled near a watering hole. Yet elsewhere in this parched game reserve, home to lions and leopards, the scene is far from placid.

In what’s normally the summer “wet” season, a severe drought has dried up several dams. So territorial males are fighting, literally, for the little water that’s left.

“It’s never been like this before,” said senior park ranger Solomzi Radebe, who’s been giving tours here for 15 years. Unless a lot of rain falls soon, he said, the lethal clashes could cause herds to disappear.

The drought, South Africa’s worst in decades, has prompted farmers to pray for the heavens to open up and for Johannesburg to impose water restrictions such as three-minute showers. It could get worse. A landmark UN report says rising temperatures will “amplify existing stress on water availability” in Africa—a continent that’s contributed little to climate change but is reeling from its impacts.

A new round of climate talks, slated to begin November 30 in Paris, aims to address this. Countries have pledged to cut their planet-warming emissions of greenhouse gases. Richer nations have also pledged $100 billion a year to help poorer ones adapt to climate change and adopt clean sources of energy.

“Africa could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of COP21,” UN’s Vincent Kitio said at National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge forum this month in Johannesburg on sub-Saharan Africa’s future. Kitio was referring to the Paris talks, known as COP21 because they’re the 21st meeting of the Conference of the Parties—nations that make up the UN Framework on Climate Change.

Below, Wendy Koch talks with Brent Wanner of the International Energy Agency about Africa's energy prospects.

Other forum participants agreed. “It’s a huge opportunity for Africa,” said Joanne Yawitch, CEO of National Business Initiative, a group of companies seeking sustainable growth. She said the climate funds could enable the region to “leapfrog” development, skipping dirtier fossil fuels in favor of zero-carbon power sources such as solar and wind and a diverse energy mix.

A Withering Challenge

The shift won’t come easy. Almost half of sub-Saharan Africans live in extreme poverty with daily incomes of less than $1.25, and two of every three people—a whopping 620 million—live without electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. Only in a handful of countries such as South Africa, which relies mostly on coal, do at least half of the people have access to the grid.

“The scale of the problem is so huge that it’s difficult to get across the finish line,” said David Bowers, vice president of Africa Finance Corporation, adding that both small and large projects are needed.

Consider this: Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population but only 4 percent of global energy demand and resulting carbon emissions. “African countries have contributed the least to carbon climate change,” David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative, said in an interview.

Still, they’re suffering the consequences. In recent decades, drought has repeatedly decimated crops and caused massive starvation as well as upheaval. In a May speech, President Barack Obama linked the dryness to violence: “Severe drought helped to create the instability in Nigeria that was exploited by the terrorist group Boko Haram.”

The challenges could intensify. “You have a perfect storm,” said Chris Funk,  research director of the Climate Hazards Group at the University of California, Santa Barbara, referring to the potent mix of rising temperatures, increasing dryness, and a fast-growing population.

Climate scientists don’t blame all drought on global warming, but they do find a nexus in certain regions. Columbia University researchers reported in October that the Horn of Africa, which includes Ethiopia and Somalia, is drying at an unusually fast pace and will continue to do so with rising carbon emissions.

Similarly, in a study released earlier this month, Funk’s team found that climate change helped cause the severe drought in East Africa last year. Looking at current weather data, Funk said it’s now doing the same in South Africa.

Climate impacts are exacerbating other obstacles to prosperity in Africa, including corruption, political instability, and a lack of transparency, said several of the forum’s two dozen participants.

A Continent of Possibilities

Yet Africa could be the envy of California. It’s vast—the size of the United States, China, India, and Europe combined—and sunny. In fact, it averages at least 320 days of bright sunlight each year. That exceeds averages for the Golden State, which now gets five percent of its electricity from solar power.

The continent is “rich in resources,” including other largely untapped renewables such as wind and hydropower, said Brent Wanner, senior analyst at the International Energy Agency and co-author of its 2014 Africa Energy Outlook.

Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 30 percent of the world’s oil and gas discoveries in the last five years. Yet bioenergy, mainly fuelwood and charcoal, is still its dominant energy source. (Take our quiz to learn more.)

“It’s going to be a showdown between solar [photovoltaics] and other technologies,” said Yusuf Coovadia, transaction advisor for NEPAD, an economic development program of the African Union.

The price of solar has fallen so much that it’s now cheaper, in some cases, than coal in South Africa, said Chris Haw, cofounder of Aurora Power, a renewable energy company. He said batteries for energy storage could boost usage of solar and wind, which produce intermittent power.

Noting the storage capacity that Elon Musk is creating with his Tesla Gigafactory in Nevada, Haw said batteries will be the “next wave of manufacturing” and Africa should build them.

The Paris Factor

How much money’s available? A new Paris accord may help decide. Six years ago at the last landmark climate conference in Copenhagen, developing countries were told they would receive $100 billion a year in climate finance by 2020.

Now, they’re seeking assurances for at least that amount, mostly from public funds. That could be a sticking point. Developed countries are reluctant to commit to a scale-up and emphasize the need to include private capital.

So far, funding has fallen short. Developed countries mobilized $62 billion in public and private financing last year, up from $52 billion in 2013, according to the Organization for European Co-Operation and Development. Most of the money went to projects that cut greenhouse gas emissions rather than help communities adapt to climate change.

“Our estimates paint an encouraging picture of progress,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria said in the July announcement. Previous estimates of “climate finance” were lower.

Governments, development banks and other groups will need to be completely transparent in how they spend the climate funds, said Roger Bounds, a Shell* executive in charge of liquefied natural gas. Bounds said companies will invest in Africa, but since they have concerns about the risks, climate money could help by financing last-resort power capacity.

Other forum participants said the climate money could be spent on energy-efficient cookstoves or better renewable energy data such as digital wind and solar irradiation maps. Wanner said it could eventually spur additional financing and pay for physical projects.

“Africa is the next frontier of investment,” said Phumzile Tshelane, CEO of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation. “We need to be ready.”

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative, which explores energy issues. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Wendy Koch and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoEnergy.

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