As the hottest year ever recorded draws to a close, climate change is passing from theory to reality and gaining ever-increasing urgency in statehouses around the world. The goal of achieving net zero CO2 emissions worldwide by 2050 is widely agreed upon by climate experts as necessary to avoid irreversible changes in Earth’s weather patterns that could cause centuries of harm for everyone. The big question, of course, is how do we get there? Who bears what burdens, and how?
For the developed world, the answer is strikingly simple: cut, cut, and cut some more. The countries that generate and consume the most energy have brought us to this point, and it’s their responsibility to become more efficient and find new and cleaner ways to maintain their current, comfortable lifestyle. While the cutting part has left much to be desired so far, the new and cleaner part looks promising. The cost of renewable energy (RE) sources such as wind and solar have been drastically reduced over the last decade to become some of the cheapest options available.
This is where the question gets thorny: What about the developing world, which has barely even begun to emit carbon, yet desperately wants (and deserves) to catch up to the developed world’s standard of living? How do places like Africa get what they want without erasing progress toward net zero? For many, the answer is leapfrogging.
What is Leapfrogging?
In short, leapfrogging is the idea that developing nations can bypass the last century and a half of carbon-heavy energy technology and jump straight to 100% renewable energy with no middle stage. It’s easy to see why this idea is tempting, and why so much talk of it is focused on Africa. Cheap technology is appealing to poor countries, and our equatorial continent between two oceans has some of the greatest potential for solar and wind power to be found anywhere on the planet. Currently, more than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity, and the total population is expected to double in the next three decades, so the demand is already enormous and accelerating by the day. By 2050, one in four people on Earth will be African.
Western attendees at climate conferences such as the 2021 and 2022 United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26 and COP27) have opined that the world “cannot afford” for developing countries to follow the same trajectory as Europe, the U.S., and China to reach abundant, reliable energy supply. Mohamed Adow, director of the energy and climate think-tank Power Shift Africa, states that “Africa stands on the cusp of sweeping economic development. Whether this development is powered by clean renewables, or dirty fossil fuels, will go a long way to determining if the world meets the Paris Agreement goal…” Greenpeace urges African leaders “to avoid falling into the fossil fuel trap and lead the continent towards a clean, renewable, affordable and sustainable energy future.”
By NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman, African Energy Chamber